April 13, 2011

Love and Property in King Lear

Shakespeare's King Lear is often moralized into a plea for the body as a measure of equivalence between sense and speech, matter and value. The thrust of Edgar’s closing imperative, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” has been modeled for us by Cordelia, but as the play’s first scene of property exchange among Lear's daughters demonstrates, even speech that is reconciled in the body can render the subject as property (V.iii.326). While Goneril describes her love as “beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” and Regan gestures toward a love that makes her “an enemy to all other joys” (I.i.63, 75), Cordelia articulates a love that is no more than the self-evident “bond” she has daily performed; and, against the extravagant returns of her sisters, Lear interprets Cordelia’s love as a “nothing” because she refuses to give it the illusion of totality. Rather, her pragmatism and honesty sees her dividing up her love as though it were property, like a parody of Lear’s division of his kingdom: “half my love with him, half my care and duty” (I.i.104). By articulating the status of her love (and her body) as property (rather than dealing in abstract valuations like her sisters), Cordelia shows how the resolution of speech and feeling in the body (or, in Lear’s eyes, into “nothing”) still produces a valued object for exchange. As France declares, “She is herself a dowry” (I.i.243). By her negative gesture Cordelia makes herself into a surplus value in Lear’s filial system of exchange. What was “unprized” has now been made “precious.” 
The play moves from Lear’s first mention of “nothing” (a sovereign annulment of filial bonds, which still governs the system of exchange) to a negative mode of  “incorporation.” To negate the body’s value only to reinstall it as a more “desireable” of property follows from an understanding of love that is predicated on possession; but as the play progresses we see articulated a love that simultaneously dispossesses the loving subject and recognizes its own surplus in the common. 
King Lear presents us with a handful of nobles who, as Edgar muses in Act 2 Scene 3, must become “nothing” in order to remain “something.” Before rushing to the play’s ambiguous conclusion and making that “something” into restored social capital, we might dwell on those scenes from the heath. Of course, we can read Edgar and Kent as figures that desire repatriation; figures that retain allegiance to a king who has provided them with wealth and friendship. But on the heath, Edgar recognizes the power of the negative as a kind of surplus common: “To be worst, / The lowest and most dejected thing of fortune, / Stands still in esperance, lives not in fear: / The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst turns to laughter” (IV.i.2-6). Here, Edgar expresses the surplus of his dejection: he has moved outside a debt economy and “owes nothing” to the hands that have shaped his fortune. In the same scene, the recently blinded Gloucester realizes something similar when he suggests, “Our means secure us, and our mere defects / Prove our commodities” (IV.i.20-21). Gloucester scorns the man “that will not see / Because he does not feel,” points to the “power” of the poor, and calls for “distribution to undo excess” (IV.i.70-73). Later as he prepares for suicide, Gloucester offers the rest of his “purse” to Edgar, unaware of the obvious irony that this small redistribution of wealth to the poor is, in fact, a transaction of filial obligation. 
          While “nothing” assists the exchange of property in Lear’s court and masquerades as “something” in Timon’s Athens, it takes on a different function on the heath. Here, Lear moves beyond the love-as-possession that animates his attitude towards his daughters and colours their “ingratitude” as a lost love-object (a loss that haunts the paternal bonds of love throughout the play). When Lear suggests that “Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest things superfluous” he points to a desire for surplus that is common to all.

1 comment:

  1. Lear does gets something out of nothing! Shakespeare’s King Lear properly understood http://cordeliakinglear.blogspot.com/