Lear's Math Skills

In the lunch room today two of the managers were joking about how they were late getting in their budgets. “The last guy to turn in his budget just gets what’s left,” I said. “That would be the greatest motivational tool ever.”
This brought to mind the opening scenes of King Lear, where Lear says that he will divide up his kingdom among his three daughters, and give the best piece to the one that loves him best.
And here, as I’m sure many of you have noticed, he then starts divvying up his land as each daughter speaks, fundamentally breaking his own game. By the time Cordelia speaks, the most she can hope to get, regardless of what she says, is “whatever’s left.” Mathematically, the correct way to play the game would be to let them all speak first, and then to decide who won, and divide up the kingdom accordingly.
So, since Lear clearly does not do that, here’s my question. Is this just a Shakespearean “mistake” (though perhaps “oversight” might be a better word)? Or, and here’s where I think it’s more interesting, did Lear already save the best portion for Cordelia, assuming that she would be the one to win his little game?
I like that idea. I like the idea that he knew Regan and Goneril were backstabbing little ingrates, and he gave them a bare minimum portion. He knew Cordelia loved him best, and the whole game was just an opportunity (albeit it a selfish one) to stick it to the annoying two and prove how much he loved his youngest – after she proved that she loves him, of course. If this was his plan, then her unexpected speech about exactly how much she does love him must have been absolutely heartwrenching to him. Which, in turn, caused his temper to go off the charts. And, well, we all know what happens next.
What think you all?

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8 thoughts on “Lear's Math Skills

  1. I think he definitely saved the best piece for Cordelia, not because he knew his other daughters were backstabbers who didn't really love him, but because HE loved HER the most.

    He is projecting his view of the world on to everyone else, which seems to be an occupational hazard of being the King.

    Lear asks what Cordelia can "say to draw a third more opulent than" her sisters. So clearly that's what's left. He had already decided how to divide the kingdom; the professions of love was just a piece of self-aggrandizing political theatre.

  2. I think it is typical Shakespearean carelessness. Or what Hitchcock called "refrigerator logic." Something that doesn't really make sense, but in the course of the action you don't notice it. When you get up later and go to the refrigerator, it suddenly dawns on you that it doesn't make sense and you say, "Hey, wait a minute!"

    If, Lear saved the best for last, Regan and Goneril would notice, and they would not be happy–they would know the game was rigged. No, the scene works best dramatically the way Shakespeare has set it out, it just doesn't work logically that way. I never noticed it until you pointed it out. Guess I hadn't been to the refrigerator yet.

  3. But, Bill and StrangeA, what's going on in Lear's head in your version? If he's clearly left the best piece for Ophelia, on purpose, then what exactly is his plan if she doesn't earn it? He doesn't say "Come claim your predetermined share", he says as you point out "what can you say to draw a portion more opulent." *A* portion, not the remaining portion. He's speaking like he's divided the kingdom up into 10 parts, and there's still a choice about whether Cordelia will get a good piece. In that sense, I'm with Carl – I don't think Shakespeare really thought it through that much.

    However, I do like the interpretation that Lear did rig the game, that he does like Cordelia best, and that the wicked sisters do likely know it. When there's only one cookie left and Daddy splits it between two children, neither child looks at their own piece – both look to see whether their sibling's piece is bigger.

    Or, alternately, we go with the interpretation that Lear's already fairly absent minded, that Cordelia's remaining slice is *not* the most opulent, and that he really has no idea that his game has a foregone conclusion for his youngest daughter no matter what she says.

  4. Not Fridge Logic, catkins, but Fridge Brilliance. The kingdom's already been divided up. That's certain from the line StrangeAttractor points out. The idea behind the contest is not who gets a bigger portion, but who gets the best portion. Lear has saved the this for Cordelia. The game is absolutely rigged. Lear doesn't make a secret of the fact he loves Cordelia most. You're right to point out Goneril and Regan aren't happy with this: why do you think they throw their father out in the storm? There's a whole lot of resentment that Lear's misses under his elder daughters over-eloquent protestations of love. One actor who played Lear told me he thought Cordelia's land was supposed to fit in between Goneril and Regan's, acting as a buffer zone between Cornwall and Albany's realms ("there is division betwixt the Duke's…"). Lear has everything all nicely planned out, which is why his wrath is so great when Cordelia dares to deviate from his script and point out the shallowness of the whole exercise. He then undoes his former wise decision by banishing Cordelia, starting his descent into destitution.

    When I saw the post title, I thought it would be about Lear's line "thy fifty yet does double five-and-twenty, and thou hast twice her love." I guess throughout the play Lear tries, vainly, to quantify love. Interesting, ain't it?

  5. Duane,

    I don't think Lear has a plan of what to do if she doesn't earn it. I think he is utterly surprised when she doesn't go along with his game. What he ends up doing is splitting her portion between her sisters.

    I think that Lear, by this point, for whatever reason, is not checking to see whether what he wants and hopes and thinks is true actually matches reality. And perhaps, as a king, there is little that would check that tendency. People would be telling him what he wanted to hear all the time. It's one of the things that I think is interesting about his encounters as the play goes on, that he starts noticing things he didn't before. Also, an interesting question is whether he has always been this way, or just recently as he got older and his health declined. Was he a good king or not? Kent for example seems loyal to him, did Lear earn that loyalty with earlier actions?

    The scene at the beginning isn't really straightforward or fair. Lear is manipulating the situation. I'm not sure why. I think he really does mean "Come claim your predetermined share" and he thinks her speech will be something of a formality. At the same time, his ego seems to be at stake, and his emotions involved. So maybe it isn't just a formality, maybe it's something he's looking forward to eagerly. Perhaps he's feeling insecure at giving up kingship, or at losing his health. But the setup is not entirely rational. It's a sign that even before the play begins, something is wrong.

  6. Sorry, but I don't buy it. The play is just not as forceful if the game is rigged from the beginning and everyone knows it. Part of the sting of Regan and Goneril's resentment is that it is not deserved. And giving someone a "third more opulent" is like taking the "larger half." Two halves are equal; three thirds are equivalent. You may interpret "third" to mean "one out of three [unequal] portions," but that's not what it says. So, at the very least, it is not "right in the text."
    I still say Duane's original assessment is correct: the intent is for Lear to be flattered in turn by each sister, and then for him to decide the portion each gets. But just imagine the scene that way. It is not nearly as effective.
    Shakespeare got it wrong logically, but right dramatically. It's the kind of writing that drove Ben Jonson crazy. But that's OK. If Shakespeare had written the way Ben Jonson wanted him to, there would not be as many Shakespeare geeks.

  7. "More opulent" does not equal "larger."

    Cordelia's third is simply the best of the three. We're supposed to assume they're relatively even in size.

    And catkins, saying "Shakespeare goofed," is often a valid point. But when there's an alternate explanation that's both readily apparent and makes sense with the characters, that's usually the best interpretation.

    It's interesting you think Goneril and Regan's resentment of Lear is undeserved. I tend to read them as people who've put up with an autocratic father until he's given them enough power to defy him. Lear at the beginning of the play is a bullying, emotionally-needy man. There's no excuse for what his daughters do to him, but you can see how they'd be bitter and eager to curb his authority. Lear displays volcanic wrath first when banishing Cordelia and then when cursing Goneril. I think we're supposed to be shocked both times, because although Goneril is a piece of work she hasn't done anything bad enough to deserve Lear's fury at that point.

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