Taking A Second Glance: The Flow of Corruption, Fraud, and Character Development in William Shakespeare’s King Lear

Many things in life often require a second, or even third glance. The definitions of terms that seemed fairly economic, and then relating those terms to William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, was something that required many second glances on my part. So many of these terms had various definitions and/or uses- corruption, fraud, liquid(ity), and swap(ping)- that they needed to be looked at in a different lighting, at various different angles. How could terms that seem so fiscal and modern have anything to do with a Shakespearean tragedy?

 Investopedia describes liquidity as the degree to which an asset (the most liquid asset being cold, hard cash) can be quickly bought or sold in the market at a price reflecting its intrinsic value.  Swap(ping) is defined by Investopedia as a contract through which two parties exchange liabilities from two different financial instruments. In addition, Investopedia describes fraud as an intentionally deceptive action designed to provide the fraudster with an unlawful gain.  Upon first glance I struggled with seeing these terms in relation to King Lear. Expulsion made sense to me very early on in the play. As did swap(ping) after a little more reading, but where did words like liquid(ity), corruption, or fraud fit in? Merriam-Webster has less financially rooted definitions of these terms. Liquid(ity) is defined as “moving freely like water” or as “easily seen through”. In a simpler sense, something that is liquid could be also described as transparent, and flowing. Merriam-Webster describes fraud as intentional distortion of truth in order to deceive another party. Again, to put into simpler terms, fraud could be withholding the truth (or some pieces of it), giving false information, or for lack of a better expression, a lie, all in trade for some form of personal gain. Corruption goes somewhat hand-in-hand with fraud. The word is described as dishonest behavior by someone (like a boss or a king), or many someones (like a company or government), in a position of power. After taking a deeper look into the definitions of these terms, and looking deeper into King Lear itself, everything started to flow together more sensibly. These terms can actually all be seen very early on in the play. They are carried throughout the entire text through the developments of most of the characters, as well as the interactions and relationships they have with one another. 

In Act 1 Scene 1, King Lear makes the decision to divide the land of his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. Lear decides the value of his land can easily be swapped for declarations of love and loyalty by his daughters. Essentially, he is asking (bribing) his daughters to verbally praise (or practically worship) him publicly, in front of many other nobles, and in trade, he will provide them with a share of his property. King Lear’s behavior can easily be compared to that of a corrupt power figure.

 By giving into their father’s demands for adoration, Goneril and Regan quickly recognize they will benefit from this, even if it means stretching the truth and exaggerating the love they have for their father. When looking at corruption as a verb (to corrupt), Regan and Goneril have been corrupted by their father’s bribery. Lying to gain ownership of a piece of the kingdom, thus increasing not only their financial wealth, but social status as well. Land-owners have been higher on the socioeconomic social hierarchy of our society for a very, very long time, even dating back to periods before Shakespeare. Later in the play, Regan and Goneril further their fraudulent and corrupt behaviors in their disloyalty to their husbands by, both, having an affair with Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester. Admittedly, I don’t know much about this, and this is probably mildly off topic, but I just feel like having 1.) an adulterous affair, with 2.) a bastard is probably not great for your social status. How and/or what they think that they are gaining, or going to gain from that, I am still uncertain no matter how many different ways I try and look at it. 

 Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, however, is very transparent in her response, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth: I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less”, telling her father that she does love him, but she is not going to lie to him for her own gain. Unlike her sisters, Goneril and Regan, she is not corrupted by her father’s bribery. Despite her honesty, her share of the kingdom is swapped for nothing (“Nothing will come of nothing.”). Nothing, except expulsion from her family and her kingdom (and later, her death). 

The idea of corruption, and its many definitions and uses, require a second look  when we put it next to Edmund. His character’s actions could easily be described as corrupt. Yet, his actions could be explained by how Edmund feels the society he was born into is the corrupt one in this situation. Being the illegitimate son of Gloucester, Edmund has been forced into the back seat in comparison to his brother, Edgar. Due to his status as a bastard child, he is not the heir to his father’s land, and fortune, and all that jazz, and he feels robbed by these unfair rules that the corrupt society he is living in has basically forced upon him. If nothing else, Edmund can most definitely be described as a fraudster, or a person who commits fraud (aka: a dirty liar). In hopes of swapping places with Edgar on the hierarchy of their (again, possibly corrupt) society, Edmund says “Edmund the base shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper: Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”. He then proceeds to convince their father, through a forged letter (lies on top of lies), that Edgar plans to kill Gloucester and take over the kingdom, when in reality they’re all his plans.  

One of the more famously quoted lines of King Lear is “Nothing will come of nothing”, said by King Lear himself to his daughter, Cordelia, when she tells the truth and refuses to comply with the corruptness of her father and sisters. If we do nothing, we cannot expect something. I do find some irony in this, as most of those who did “something” in this particular play all wound up dead in the end (Granted, these were also the people described as corrupt and/or frauds). All in all, this quote answers a question asked by many, myself included: How can Shakespeare still be relevant to our modern world?  It’s everywhere. If we do nothing, we get nothing. In political circles I have heard it said “if you didn’t vote, you can’t complain”. In laws of science– an object at rest tends to stay at rest. Even in contemporary musical theatre– if you stand for nothing, what will you fall for? My new question is not a how, but a when. As in, when will Shakespeare’s works not be relevant to our modern world and contemporary issues?

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