Power Struggles in King Lear

This semester we’ve emphasized the multi-faceted function of words, how different definitions may subvert expectations and even how two seemingly different definitions for the same words can connect. Two words we’ve been focusing on are “liquid” and “swap”, and while both have common, everyday definitions, they also have very specific financial definitions. Liquid is both defined as, “flowing freely like water” and, “consisting of or capable of ready conversion into cash.” Both definitions emphasize a sort of ease of motion or transference which can be applied to many of the relationships in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Swap is both defined as, “to make an exchange” and, “a derivative contract through which two parties exchange the cash flows or liabilities from two different financial instruments.” The transactional nature evident in both definitions becomes very relevant in the ever-changing power dynamics present in King Lear. This play displays a classic power struggle that winds up with everyone dead, similar to Game of Thrones (sorry if you haven’t watched it yet but everyone dies in an insanely dramatic power struggle). So, while there is this liquidity and constant swapping of power, the ending begs the question of, was it worth it?

            Act 1 Scene 1 depicts Lear and his three daughters deciding the future divisions of the kingdom. In order to divvy up the land, Lear asks his daughters to express how much they love him, and then based off their answers, gives them their allotted land. This tactic is purely transactional and is a form of Lear liquifying his assets for perceived love. Goneril and Regan’s lengthy responses filled with niceties and frivolous language, are indicative of just how transactional this interaction is. In knowing that their land is at stake, Goneril and Regan are able to put any earnest emotions aside and swap them for pretty words that are sure to secure them wealth. Cordelia, decidedly refuses to partake in this extravagant talking up of Lear and in return for choosing honesty is disowned by her father, giving us one of our first examples of expulsion in the play. Because she doesn’t engage in her father’s transactional requests for verbal reassurance, she loses any chance of inheriting any of his liquid assets. This initial scene sets a precedent for the rest of the play that emphasizes money and wealth over honesty which is mirrored in so much of Game of Thrones where land and wealth is often acquired by shear force and brutality and people’s personal interests are often their driving force.

            Another early example of expulsion that we see is with Edmund and his father, Gloucester. Because Edmund is not Gloucester’s legitimate son like Edgar is, he’s not included in hiss will and consequently will get no land or power once Gloucester dies. Feeling wronged and kept out or expelled, Edmund plots to gain his father’s wealth by turning him against his brother. When his plot proves successful, you see a power swap between Edmund and Edgar, from illegitimate to legitimate and vice versa for Edgar. The ease of this swap also made me wonder at how close Gloucester and Edgar’s familial tires were in the first place and just how much monetary anxiety lead Gloucester’s decisions. Never did Gloucester question Edmund’s actions or motivations which somewhat speaks to the blinding power of money and wealth and how it can skew people’s faith when they feel that their wealth is threatened. I liken this power and money over family to one of the early introductions to Daenerys’ character. In order to regain power, her brother sells her to Khal Drogo as a wife, where she is taken away from the only home she’s known and faces many traumatic events, all for her brother to gain the upper hand which he (thankfully does not get) and is later killed by Daenerys’ orders, which serves as some great poetic justice. That kind of poetic justice is also mirrored in the ending of Edmund, Edgar and Gloucester’s story when Edgar (the Daenerys of this story) kills Edmund (Daeynery’ brother figure) after confronting him about his wrongdoings.

            Just as the acquisition of power shapes the characters in this play, the loss of power is just as transformative. We see this with King Lear’s expulsion from both Goneril and Regan’s castles, when he is left to fend for himself out in the thick of a horrible storm. I found this part to be particularly interesting because of the significance of the literal liquid in this scene. Water is often symbolic of rebirth and in this scene King Lear’s revelation of his shortcomings as a leader and father can be seen as a rebirth due to his new loss of power. In Act 3, Scene 4 Lear says, “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, your looped and windowed raggedness defend you from seasons such as these? O I have ta’en too little care of this.” This line indicates that now not blinded by power, he’s able to see his inadvertent cruelty towards his people which is very ironic partially because Lear does not really possess a liquidity of the mind in the sense that he is very rigid in his beliefs throughout the play, but this change in his position is able to change his mind in this case.

            At the end of Game of Thrones, Daeneyrs loses her mind and sets the capital alight with her dragons. Many who were fighting for power die and I was left feeling confused at angry about this ending which I believed to be hasty and callous- which is similar to how I felt about the ending of King Lear. Why have this grand build up only for everyone to die? However, after revisiting it and comparing the two stories, perhaps they’re both arguments about how power and wealth can corrupt people with even the firmest of values, and with this in mind these endings have started to grow on me just a bit.

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