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?

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.

Unjust Affairs: Expulsion in King Lear

Relationships are an important aspect in people’s lives, and there are various types of them. Some relationships are built on long standing mutual trust while others could only exist due to circumstance. While they are part of the foundation of social interactions, relationships also can be fickle. In William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, we see how relationships can quickly change based on the actions of an individual and how such actions cause major consequences for other people. There are two major cases in the play in which relationships quickly change and the social standing of characters become swapped. The first major case is when King Lear divides his kingdom into several parts, and the second is when Edmond abuses the trust of his father and brother in order to gain more power.

The first example we have of this occurs near the very beginning of the play. In Act I, scene I, we have King Lear and his three daughters. King Lear decides that he has become too old to rule as king, and as such, gives away his land to the younger generation. However, the method he decides on for splitting up his kingdom is perhaps not the same as other kings; instead of choosing based on social status or even competency, King Lear decides that, out of his three daughters, she who can compliment him the best will receive the most. An important distinction to make is how each character reacts to this decision. The older daughters, Goneril and Reagan, secure their inheritance by showering their father in compliments and saying that they love nothing more than their father. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, goes in the opposite direction. She states that, while she loves her father for raising her and taking care of her, she cannot love him more than a child can love their father. Another important note to make here is that Cordelia does not actively choose to be different from her two sisters, instead we see she acts differently because she is unable to form the words in the same way her sisters can. We can see this from the multitude of asides from Cordelia during this scene such as, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” In this way, Cordelia is no different from her sisters, she wishes to make her father happy, however she completely lacks the ability to do so. And yet, for this small flaw, she pays a heavy price and becomes disowned by her father. Although she ends up marrying the prince of France, Cordelia is still banished from her home and left with no inheritance. This example is noteworthy because of King Lear’s decision to forsake Cordelia, it shows how a person can virtually do no wrong and still be punished.

Following this same theme, we have the Gloucester family. Edmond was born out of the passion of his mother and a random stranger who most certainly was not her husband. Despite this, Gloucester Senior decides he would raise the child as his own. Unfortunately for him, this child would ultimately lead to both he and his true son’s misfortune. We receive some information about how Edmond is treated prior to events within the play, which comes from his monologue in Act I, scene ii, where Edmond proclaims that he does not follow the laws of man, but rather the laws of nature. He also denounces his title of bastard by stating, “who in the lusty stealth of nature take more composition and fierce quality than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed…” Essentially, Edmond believes he possess advantages over his legitimate brother, Edgar, such as, being stronger, smarter, and conceived through passion. It is through these feelings that Edmond begins to organize his plan in which he ultimately betrays his family by turning them against each other. Edmond’s ultimate goal is to climb the social ranks and become recognized by royalty as someone with considerable wealth and power. He ultimately achieves this goal by becoming the general of Goneril and Reagan’s military forces. The choices made by Edmond effectively destroyed his family. Gloucester Senior was overly trusting of his adopted son and immediately believed that it was Edgar, not Edmond, who is seeking the family fortune. This started a chain of events where Gloucester Senior loses both his eyes and Edgar is forced to take both the appearance and mannerisms of a crazy peasant. Much like with Cordelia, these two members of the Gloucester family had their lives ruined through little fault of their own.

Entitled Exchanges: Financial Disorder in Kingdom, Community, And the Family Unit in King Lear

In Sigmund Freud’s, Civilization and its Discontents he argues that through gaining citizenship, certain instinctual responses are adopted to adapt to the cultural terrain of being part of a community. Interestingly, Freud goes on to explain that when these certain instinctual desires go unmet “if the loss is not compensated for economically, one can be certain that serious disorder will ensue” (Freud 75). Citizenship is the most basic fundamental status one has to go about the mundanities of life, which can be taken for granted. When individuals, or even groupings of persons are expelled, citizenships are invalidated, and any rights the expellees may have had previously, even if they were few, are revoked. Expulsion is the best solution to those who rebel against the hegemonic hierarchy, because those in power do not want society to change and if the rebel will not adapt themselves to the society, then they will be thrown out. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, disorder ensues when Lear is not treated with the loving reverence he expects from his daughter Cordelia, and this perceived loss is when the kingdom begins to disintegrate. The source of the tragic element in King Lear is the hopelessness of social class immobility, whether one is an illegitimate son or a woman, neither individual can rebel successfully without destroying the kingdom. As a matter of fact, the social hierarchy is intertwined with the economic operations of the society, thus making it inconceivable for such social class rebellions to succeed without subsequent changes in cultural prejudices preceding. The play does a remarkably well job of showing the double standard of acceptable behaviors between different social classes, specifically in terms of exchanges or contracts that are financially profitable.

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King Lear’s Warning

“King Lear”, by William Shakespeare, allows the audience to see swapping and liquidity throughout the play and can translate it into how it can stand as warning for future generations based off the actions of the characters.  The play is filled with swapping, which is the idea of a character changing roles as another along with the swapping of power.  According to investopedia.com a swap in terms of finance is, “a derivative contract through which two parties exchange the cash flows or liabilities from two different financial instruments.”  Liquidity on the other hand, still according to investopedia.com, is how fast an asset can be converted to cash.  This is evident throughout “King Lear” as many of the characters abuse assets that they have for power and wealth.  Connected to these two ideas of swapping and liquidity is expulsion.  Swapping and expulsion can be seen in the form of Edmunds plot to rid himself of Edgar and Gloucester and take his family name along with their wealth.  Liquidity and expulsion is evident in the characters of Goneril and Regan when they abuse their father’s instilment of power, and choose to expel him from his own home; one of their biggest assets thrown out after they receive their wealth.  Although King Lear is written in the early seventeenth century, there are lessons within that can be applied to the housing crisis in 2008. The biggest one being power needs regulation.  People in powerful positions can have a deceitful nature in which they hide that they are only out for themselves.

            Edmund makes it his goal to expel Edgar and Gloucester from their family so he can get all of the power.  He does this through swapping positions of power throughout the play.  Edmund is able to first convince his brother, Edgar, that his father, Gloucester, is mad at him and trying to kill him, while at the same time convinces his father that Edgar is attempting to kill him for his money.  This is evident when Edmund shows Gloucester a letter, he forged saying his brother Edgar is plotting to kill him; Gloucester reacts by saying, “Conspiracy? ‘Sleep till I wake him, you should enjoy half his revenue.’ My son Edgar, had he a hand to write to write this? A heart and brain to breed it in?” (Shakespeare 27).  Edmund is successfully able to deceive his father into thinking Edgar is attempting to kill him, and in doing so swaps positions of power with Edgar who was previously in line to inherit majority of his father’s fortune.  By setting these two characters against each other Edmund is successfully able to expel Edgar from his family, ensuring once Gloucester is gone, he will have all the power.  A second act of swapping comes when Edmund betrays Gloucester and gets him expelled as King Lear was.  Gloucester chooses to help his longtime companion, King Lear, who has previously marched out into a severe storm.  Gloucester puts his trust in Edmund when he tells him he is going after Lear, to which Edmund immediately sells him out and he is expelled as King Lear had been: “If I find him comforting the King, it will stuff his suspicion more fully.  I will preserve in my course of loyalty, though the conflict be sore between that and my blood” (117).  Edmund plots against Gloucester and plans to catch him helping Lear in order to expel him.  In this moment Edmunds goal has been completed showing the total swapping of power from his father’s power to himself. 

            Goneril and Regan’s relationship with their father, King Lear, shows the abuse of liquidity.  King Lear was one of Goneril and Regan’s assets but once he handed them power, they showed that the asset that was allowing them to live was no longer needed and decided to expel their father from their homes.  This is first evident when King Lear decides that his hundred men and himself will stay with Goneril.  After a short amount of time Goneril gets upset with her father and servant’s rowdy behavior and demands Lear expels fifty of his men.  Lear’s reaction is to go to his other daughter, Regan’s house: “I have another daughter, / Who I am sure is kind and comfortable” (51).  In this moment Lear shows he will be going to Regan’s, but they all convene at Gloucester’s castle.  Goneril used the liquidity she gained from her father’s power to expel him.  Regan receives a letter from Goneril before Lear arrives describing their father’s behavior which immediately makes Regan know that she will be expelling Lear as well; Goneril also travels to Gloucester’s castle.  When Lear arrives, he proves Goneril’s letter to be true and Regan asks him to give up his men saying, “I dare avouch it, sir.  What, fifty followers?  Is it not well?  What should you need of more?” (91).  In this moment Regan uses the liquidity her father gave her and puts a cap on the amount of men he is allowed to have.  This liquidly comes in the form of power over her father and eventually leads to his follower’s expulsion.  He then begins to ask to stay with Goneril again to which she says he must give up all his men.  Lear quickly turns back to Regan’s offer, but she now also says he is to have no men if he stays.  In a fit of rage, he leaves Regan’s castle entering a storm.  They choose to expel Lear’s followers with their power along with anyone who attempts to help him.  Regan shows this when she says, “For his particular, I’ll receive him gladly but not one follower” (94).  She uses asset she gains from the liquidity her father gave her to expel his followers.  This shows how there can be corruption within people in power positions in thinking about their personal gain.

            The two ideas of swapping and liquidity in “King Lear” could have very well served as a warning in the housing crisis in 2008.  People with power need regulation or they are prone to use it for personal gain when they are supposed to be helping others.  In the housing crisis this was the case with companies, while the people they were supposed to be helping struggled they gave out millions of dollars in bonuses to themselves; they were living lavish and letting the people who needed help after Hurricane Katrina.  In the show, The Old Man and the Storm, it documents Mr. Herbert Gettridge, an 82-year-old man who fixed his house after Katrina struck New Orleans.  He recalls at one point the abundant amount of paperwork he was forced to fill out, to which he still had to wait to get his insurance money to continue building.  While this was occurring to Mr. Gettridge and countless more, the corporations that were supposed to be helping them were using the money for themselves.  This is apparent in the movie Inside Job when describing the lifestyles and paychecks of corporation heads.  While Mr. Gettridge struggles, they abuse the power they have without any regulation.  Money is the liquidity, and the corporations were taking their assets and turning them into their bonuses, when it wasn’t meant for them.  Once Katrina struck, people in the position of Mr. Gettridge weren’t able to get money for months because it was being given out as bonuses.  Swapping is less evident in, Inside Job.  What should have been happening between the big corporations and the people in Mr. Gettridge’s position is giving back money instead of being deceitful.  They should have been reimbursed after losing their house, a financial security.

            “King Lear” could have served as a warning for the housing crisis in 2008.  It is shown through Edmund that people have a deceitful nature.  His scheme is to gain more power and wealth for himself, this is evident in the housing crisis in the actions of corporate workers.  These types of actions lead to expulsion, Edmund when he is killed, and the employees of corporations like Lehman Brothers losing all their jobs all their jobs when it went bankrupt.  Both Edmund and the employees seek personal gain at another’s expense.  The actions of Goneril and Regan could also serve warning that power without having regulation can be abused.  Though Lear’s request was unreasonable to have his daughters house himself and a hundred of his men, it allowed Regan and Goneril to abuse their power and take all of them away from him.  Without regulation in the housing crisis it allowed for corporate owners in power to deceive the public for their own personal gain.

            The play, “King Lear” addresses ideas that still occur in today’s age.  Edmunds deceitful nature is evident in the cooperate owner who committed fraud only to better off themselves.  If Goneril and Regan’s abuse of power was regulated, then they would not be able to expel Lear.  When there was no regulation in the housing crisis people used their power for personal gain to get what they want, like Goneril and Regan.  Edmund’s successful attempt to swap power ultimately lead to his brother’s expulsion.  Goneril and Regan used the liquidity they gained from their father to expel him and his men.  Both swapping and liquidity led to the expulsion of characters and families in they play and could have been used as a warning to prevent corporate deception in 2008.

Essay #1

In William Shakespeare’s classic work King Lear, there are a multitude of ways you can connect modern day ideas with the concepts Shakespeare incorporates into his stories. Nearly all of his are works littered with analogies and metaphors that could be picked apart and analyzed to death, but the real evidence of his genius is in the fact that you can relate relevant terms in things such as business and finance to a theatre drama. Two of the most prevalent terms that can be traced back into King Lear is “liquid” and “swap”; both of which will be discussed and expanded on in this essay in relation to the engagement of expulsion, a key concept, that Shakespeare expresses in the work.

            The idea of liquidity in the play is abundant throughout most, if not all, of the characters. In terms of finance, it is officially defined as “The availability of liquid assets to a market or company”. However, in a more general sense, it is used to describe something free-flowing, easily manipulated, and for lack of a better word, not solid; in substance, principle, or anything else. In King Lear, we see evidence of liquidity in many of the characters, but one of the easiest to spot is in King Lear himself. When Lear tries to test is daughters to see which one loves him the most, he tries to decide which one would offer him the most in terms of servants by flip flopping his loyalty to whoever offered him the most men to stay with them. This ends up backfiring on him severely, ending with them allowing him no men and expelling him from their respective castles, but it goes to show how easily his favor was manipulated between daughters by who would offer him the best deal. Lear’s identity is also very liquid, because its touched upon time and time again in the play that he doesn’t “know himself” and that his sense of self is ever changing. One quote that stuck out to me concerning this is “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”. Lear is literally asking someone to tell him who he is because he has no semblance of himself or his identity.

Another example is seen in Gloucester, whose gullibility in what Edmund tells him about his brother Edgar is planning is also very liquid. He believes, without question, that his son Edgar is planning to kill him just because Edmund told him so and set him up to make it seem as if he were telling the truth. The fact that he could be so easily swayed means that his belief in things is very liquid and he doesn’t need much to be proven before he can be convinced of something. Expulsion in its general sense in this play can also be very liquid, since characters can be expelled but then redeemed later on in the work fairly easily, such as King Lear’s favor for his daughter Cordelia after he had originally expelled her from his home for not lying to him and saying she loved him the most. His original anger when casting out his daughter was expressed in his statement of, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is To have a thankless child!”, which is to say that he feels betrayed by Cordelia’s lack of gratitude after providing her with many things throughout her life.

“Swap” can be defined as “an act of exchanging one thing for another”. One of the most abundant ways we see this throughout King Lear is a swap of power between characters. One of the biggest one is the swap of power between Lear and his daughters. In the beginning, we see that Lear has power by expelling Cordelia out of his castle; however, later on it is his daughters Regan and Goneril that are doing the expelling of their father after he seeks refuge with them but gets too greedy about having more men and servants than he needs. When asked why he needs them, his response is “O, reason not the need!”, meaning that he doesn’t need them, but he wants them; which is what separates humans from beasts. Because of this expulsion, however, it allows Lear to gain perspective about necessity vs want when he is forced to brave the storm and see how it is those who aren’t as fortunate as him are forced to live. One quote that sticks out to me about his self-reflection is “The art of our necessities is strange, That can make vile things precious”. By this he means that when you have an abundance of something without a need for it, you don’t appreciate it. However, when you need something and don’t have it, it can make you appreciate the things you DO have and consider them precious, even if in reality they’re “vile”.

Another prime example of swapping in King Lear is the swap of the positions of Edmund and Edgar. Edmund is the bastard child of Gloucester while Edgar is legitimate, so he’s always been viewed (and felt) like a second-class citizen compared to Edgar. However, when Edmund convinces Gloucester that Edgar is planning to kill him, his trust shifts over to favor Edmund for warning him and to distrust his legitimate son since he thinks he has ill intentions. When Gloucester believes that Edgar is sneaking around and trying to plot against him, the quote “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides” comes to mind, because though he believes that Edgar is trying to be cunning and that time will reveal his sinister plans, it is really Edmund’s ill intent that is revealed in the end and for which he is killed. Another important thing to consider about the term “swap” is that it usually implies consent of both parties to trade something, however in this context it is achieved through expulsion and is only wanted by one person while the other is left with nothing.

Both “liquidity” and “swapping” have very apparent roles in Shakespeare’s work, and their interaction with the idea of expulsion makes them all the more interesting and effective. In regards to liquidity, expulsion itself in this play is very liquid since it happens to multiple characters but is also reversible for some. For swapping, it’s achieved through expulsion rather than through a consensual exchange of goods like it is normally implied to be. Lear’s famous quote “nothing will come of nothing” is proven untrue, as many things have stemmed from what started as nothing, such as the effects Shakespeare’s work has had on our world to this very day which started as mere ideas in his head. In any case, the concepts in King Lear are relevant to even the furthest stretch of modern-day terms, which is what makes many of Shakespeare’s works such timeless examples of literary genius.

A Deeper Understanding of King Lear

Looking at the terms “liquid(ity)” and “swap(ping)” under the context of King Lear certainly opens a large area of possibility for writing. That said, I knew I needed to begin my answer to the prompt with a close look at the definitions of these terms in various contexts. As per Investopedia and the context of finance, liquidity is a term used to describe assets one owns and their ability to be transformed into the most liquid asset, which is cash. As I apply this concept to King Lear, I will be thinkING (credit Dr. McCoy for that accurate term) about assets such as trust as abused by Edmund, and the stability of shelter for Lear. For swap, Investopedia describes a consensual agreement between two parties that likely benefits both parties in terms of short and long term. While the financial terms are not directly applied to King Lear, the idea of a swap happens many times with the primary difference for King Lear is that none of the swaps are consensual or mutually beneficial. This toxicity is what drives many characters into dangerous and frustrating situations. My attempt to bring these terms together in relation to expulsion includes a discussion on the relation of liquid assets as being used to initiate a swap, while illiquid assets, primarily honest speech, do not have enough time to fully manifest their potential before the demise of many of our characters. Lastly, in humble self-reflection on my tendencies in writing, I realize that I typically push word limits. While there is no set limit or minimum for these writing assignments, I will attempt to be conscious of my rambling potential while maintaining what I believe to be a sufficient exploration of an answer to this prompt.

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Exchanging Something for Nothing in King Lear

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear tells his daughter in one of the most famous lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. The idea Lear expresses is one that can be found in disciplines ranging from commerce to chemistry; the law of conservation of energy, for example, states that the total energy in a system remains constant and is only transferred from one thing onto another. However, does this idea of conservation—of exchanging one thing equally for another—always hold true? Especially in a play that ends so tragically, as Lear clings to the body of his murdered daughter, does one always get back what they give? To understand this question, two financial terms for exchanges become useful. According to Investopedia, swap can defined as “a derivative contract through which two parties exchange the cash flows or liabilities from two different financial instruments.” Similarly, liquidation can be defined as “the process of bringing a business to an end and distributing its assets to claimants.” The presumption of each of these exchanges is that both parties are willing and able to make such an exchange and therefore will receive something of equal value to what they give away. However, when Lear foolishly relinquishes his title and power for retirement or when Gloucester blindly swaps his loyal son for his disloyal son, nothing is left where there once was something. Thus, when we use terms like liquidation or swap as a lens through which we look at King Lear, we begin to notice unfair exchanges; this contributes to the theme of injustice in the play.

Although financial terms may seem inapplicable to King Lear, if one is paying attention, they will see exchanges—or swaps—from the very onset of the play. In both the main plot about Lear and his daughters and the mirroring subplot about Gloucester and his sons, the old men attempt to exchange one thing for something else that they believe to be of equal value. Lear, viewing his political power as a liability due to his old age, attempts to swap it out for retirement. He tells his daughters, “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent / To shake all the cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburthened crawl toward death.” He makes another exchange when he disinherits Cordelia: “With my two daughters’ dowers digest the third; / … / I do invest [Goneril and Regan] jointly with my power, / Pre-eminence, and the large effects / That troop with majesty.” The focus on property in these lines—dividing Cordelia’s inheritance and investing it in Goneril and Regan—demonstrates that Lear is swapping one daughter who he believes doesn’t love him for two who do. Finally, like Lear, Gloucester also swaps his children because he mistakenly believes Edgar has staged a plot against his life. “[O]f my land,” he says, “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable.” Here, he transfers the inheritance of his legitimate son onto his illegitimate one. Each of these events serve as inciting incidents to the rest of the narrative. Thus, we see how swapping initiates much of the conflict.

Paying attention to these exchangeswe begin to notice that many of them are unequal. Lear may gain retirement after trading away his title, but he also loses his power and himself. He realizes this when he berates Goneril for denying him one hundred knights: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?” He asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” And the Fool, knowing that Lear has lost himself in all he has given away, replies, “Lear’s shadow.” Lear has, unbeknownst to him, swapped his power for powerlessness. Likewise, Lear exchanges the love of Cordelia for the love of Goneril and Regan, yet their love turns to hate and is therefore not equal to what he lost. Similarly, Edmund betrays his father at the first opportunity, demonstrating that Gloucester too has swapped a good son for one unequal to him in character. In losing much and gaining little, something was swapped for nothing.

Thus, we begin to see how “nothing will come of nothing” and other assumptions of equivalent exchange are debunked by the tragedy. Sometimes something can come from nothing; this can be seen by Edmund gaining his brother’s inheritance through trickery or Goneril and Regan gaining power over their father. But more often in the play, something gets turned to nothing. Cordelia and Edgar both lose their inheritances through no fault of their own; Gloucester loses his eyes for blindly trusting Edmund. But the loss that draws the most attention is the loss Lear feels after his expulsion, as he wanders the heath, bemoaning the cruelty of his daughters. Here, we see the idea of liquidation become relevant. Once again, liquidation refers to the exchange of assets for their equal value in cash. However, if we use the literal definition of liquify—to turn something to liquid—Lear’s trek across the heath takes on new significance. The power the old king once has—his title, his knights, his property—is lost in exchange for the pelting rain. When Goneril and Regan bit by bit reduce Lear’s assets and eventually “[s]hut up [their] doors” to him, he becomes like the “[p]oor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, /  That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” He wonders, “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you / from seasons such as these?” Here, Lear is “naked” and “houseless,” which both imply lack. He lacks what he has unwittingly traded in; now, he must reckon with the storm, his possessions liquified and gone. 

Gloucester who has likewise been cast out of his home, blind and suicidal, muses, “As flies to wanton boys, we are to th’ gods, / they kill us for their sport.” Thus, we see the central theme of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the world is unjust. This theme becomes especially apparent when we look for instances of swaps and liquidation. Characters are not returned what they have given. In a denouncement of Lear’s belief early in the play, nothing came from something. It is worth noting that, through this analysis, one could almost read King Lear as a critique of capitalism. After all, if the swaps and liquidation of this narrative result in the expulsion of old men into a bitter storm, might unequal exchanges do something similar in real life? No one should be able to swap one child for another; no daughters should be able to liquidate their father’s assets until he is left with nothing. However, this play demonstrates that injustice will always exist no matter the circumstances. It is never guaranteed that everyone will get back what they have given. Sometimes, one can turn nothing into something. But other times, everything is lost for nothing.


Identity Intertwined with Liquidity

The concepts of identity and liquidity intertwine between the character’s relationships in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear conflates his daughter’s love with inheritance in the first act of the play, Edmund’s ambitious nature revolves around material assets. It seems when these characters lose their excess, they also lose a fundamental part of their character.

Continue reading “Identity Intertwined with Liquidity”