Dualistic Concept of Worth
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines worth (n.) as the position or standing of a person in respect of property. On the other hand, worth is also defined as the character or standing of a person in respect of moral or intellectual qualities; esp. high personal merits or attainments. Today, it is much more respectable to have moral worth or self worth than material worth. People are valued more in society for being upright and honest. However, in Shakespearian times, it seems that society placed material wealth over moral righteousness. This warped value system is prevalent especially in Shakespeare’s King Lear. It is clear that characters value their peers and themselves based on their property and riches rather than their personalities. Furthermore, it is the characters’ twisted perception of worth and devaluation of so called “worthlessness” or “nothingness” that drives the central plot and conflicts present in King Lear. Regan, Goneril, Edmund, and Lear himself all believe in the value of material wealth and are ultimately consumed by their superficiality. Contrastly, characters like the Fool are worthless in terms of wealth, but are in reality the wisest and most admirable.
The first instance “worth” is seen is in Lear’s failure to understand the concept of worth and how it relates to love. In the play’s opening scene, Regan, Goneril, and Lear are all seen equating love with land. They are all under the impression that the love should be rewarded and that more love is worth more wealth. In Act I Scene I, Regan says “I am made of that self mettle as my sister, and prize me at her worth” (lines 69-70). Here, Regan is insinuating that she is Goneril’s equal, thus, she should receive an equal amount of land. This idea that love should be rewarded with land is perhaps most prominent through Lear’s treatment towards Cornelia. Unlike her sisters, Cornelia fails to satisfy Lear’s ego and claims she loves everyone equally, replying with “nothing” when asked to describe her love for Lear (Act 1 Scene 1 lines 86-90). Heartbroken and embarrassed, Lear is quick to “disclaim all [his] paternal care, propinquity and property of blood” (Act I Scene I lines 114-115). Lear’s hostility towards Cornelia illustrates his woeful ignorance and misconception of worth as a means of rewarding flattery and deceit. Similarly, Regan and Goneril’s actions show that material wealth is valued higher than righteousness and virtue. When tempted by land and riches, Regan and Goneril are quick to relinquish their moral standards, succumbing to lying and brown-nosing. Lear’s rash decisions, caused by his distorted idea of worth, results in the relinquishing of his land to his two deceitful daughters and the ultimate demise of Cornelia.
Like Regan, Goneril, and Lear, Edmund is also consumed by the idea of superficial worth. Not only is Edmund the second son, but he is also the product of an illegitimate birth. Thus, Edmund is the butt of Gloucester’s jokes and does not have the chance to inherit any of Gloucester’s kingdom. In fact, Gloucester is so ashamed of Edmund that he does not even allow him the privilege of living in the kingdom. Edmund “hath been gone nine years, and away he shall again” (Act I scene I lines 31-32). Gloucester’s constant harassment coupled with Edmund’s realization of his worthlessness fuels the inner hatred Edmund feels towards his father, ultimately causing Edmund to act villainous and irrationally.
In contrast to Regan, Goneril, Lear, and Edmund, the Fool has no wealth and no family. Yet, it seems that he is the only character who understands the true meaning of worth and worthlessness. Throughout the play, the Fool brings up the idea of worthlessness or “nothing” multiple times. He is constantly making jokes about having nothing, however, at the core of his humor lies a wise message. Through the exchange between the Fool and Lear in Act 1 Scene 4, Shakespeare reveals to the reader the correct interpretation of worth. When asked to recite something for Lear, the Fool replies with
“Listen up, uncle.
Have more than you show,
Speak less than you know,
Lend less than you owe.
Ride more than you walk,
Don’t believe everything you hear,
Don’t bet everything on one throw of the dice,
Leave behind your booze and your whore,
And stay indoors,
And you’ll end up with more
Than two tens to a twenty.” (lines 104-114)
The Fool tells Lear that the key to being a worthy human being is to be humble, be careful with speech, money, trust, and to keep away from sinful desires such as alcohol and adultery. These qualities that the Fool demonstrates stand in stark contrast to those seen in Regan, Goneril, and Lear for they are neither humble nor honest, prudent nor virtuous. The Fool later goes on to say he“ had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool. And yet [he] would not be thee, nuncle. Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides and left nothing i’ th’ middle” (lines 168-173). The Fool tells Lear that being a fool comes with many hardships, nonetheless, he would rather be a fool than be Lear because though he may lack material wealth, the Fool is rich in morals and virtue. Through his portrayal of the fool, Shakespeare shows the reader that when stripped away from his material wealth, Lear is worthless as a person at the core, even more so than a fool who has nothing. Moreover, it is in this moment that Lear too realizes that the value of a person is not measured by wealth or land, rather a person’s worth is determined by their virtues and honesty.
Throughout King Lear, the concept of worth appears numerous times. The definition of worth can be separated into two distinct entities: one definition of worth centers around physical wealth while the other hinges on personal values and morals. Both these definitions are present King Lear and are the driving forces of central plot of the play. Characters such as Regan, Goneril, Lear and Edmund are all convinced that worth stems from one’s possessions of land and property. Ultimately, it is this twisted idea of what it means to be worthy that leads to their demise. In contrast, the Fool serves as an example of true worth in society. Though he is poor and homeless, he is rich in knowledge and honesty. Shakespeare’s choice to keep the Fool alive among the multitude of deaths at the end of the play serves as a reminder to the reader that worth is determined by one’s moral standards and personal qualities rather than superficial goods such as money or land.
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