The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0719. Friday, 27 June 1997.
Date: Thursday, 26 Jun 1997 15:29:57 +0000
I'm on Cordelia's side.
It's the older sisters who are misusing the word "love." The idea that
a person's love can spread all over the universe is romantic, as in
Wordsworth, and its time has not yet come.
Cordelia is not "calculating" in any selfish sense of the word. When
she wonders how she can give her husband all her love and still give it
all to her father, she is simply telling him the plain truth.
The early modern definition of "love" has a much stronger element of
"obligation" in it than ours does. Thanking Kent for tripping Oswald,
Lear says he will "love" him for the deed. What he means is simply that
he's much obliged and owes Kent a favor. When Antonio (MV) tells
Bassanio to give Portia's ring to the lawyer, he says (approx), "Let my
love be your reason." He's simply reminding Bassanio that here's a good
chance to pay back the huge favor he owes the man who has just finished
risking his life for him.
There is a calculus, of course, but it's not selfish. Antonio wants to
give the ring to the lawyer, not salt it away. And he is actually
helping Bassanio get rid of a monster debt. That's why Bassanio
instantly complies with Antonio's request. Antonio's request also lets
Bassanio off the hook for giving the ring away (note that later Antonio
freely takes the blame.) It's a calculus of balancing out favors with
favors returned. See Seneca's De Beneficiis for a full discussion of
Going back to Cordelia: she is just telling her father the plain
truth. When a father "gives" a bride away, he gives away her whole
obligation to him and transfers it to her husband. Having once given
away Goneril and Regan, how can Lear now ask to have them back? It's
beyond belief. But apparently abstract love was already current in
early modern times. Lear thought that love was just an attitude, and so
did Goneril and Regan. They thought of themselves as truly caring
persons really concerned for the old man's welfare, living so
dangerously with his riotous knights. There's abstract love for you.