“The love that can be reckoned”

“There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,” says Antony confidently in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra. It is, indeed, his opening line. This theme of the immeasurability of love echoes throughout Shakespeare’s work: love, true love, is not something that can be reckoned. Rosalind in As You Like It agrees:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom…

It cannot be reckoned, it cannot be sounded, for it is bottomless. At least, its bottom is unknown: as far as our human understanding goes, it is infinitely deep.

Juliet, naturally, is of the same mind:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Infinity is not a number like any other number. Take a number away from infinity, and it still remains infinite. A whole new set of mathematical rules must be developed if we are to encompass the concept of infinity.

Even Orsino, in Twelfth Night, who has little reason to praise love given how much he suffers for it, compares love to the incalculable infinity of the sea:

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute!

That which may be reckoned or sounded, no matter how large, becomes as nothing when it enters the sea, which can neither be reckoned nor sounded. The infinity of love is beyond reckoning, beyond understanding.

A very conspicuous example in Shakespeare of someone who does not understand the nature of love, who feels it can be reckoned, is Lear. In the very opening scene, he declares he will divide his kingdom to his daughters on the basis of how much they love him. Not only does he think love is something that can be measured, he plans to settle the future of the kingdom itself on the basis of this measurement:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Love, for Lear, is something that can be reckoned, can be sounded: it is a measurable parameter, weighting factors in a mathematical equation.

Later, he measures love in proportion to the number of personal attendants he is allowed:

I’ll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

Here is obviously a man who is spiritually blind, one of those who, as Gloucester later puts it, “will not see because he doth not feel”. But this is where this seeming dichotomy – between, on the one hand, whose who think love can be measured, and those to understand it to be unfathomable – becomes complicated. For Cordelia, the very epitome of selfless and self-sacrificing love, speaks the same language as her father:

I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Love here is most certainly reckoned, and by the terms of a legally binding bond: and once it is measured, she is prepared to give it precisely, neither more, nor less. A few lines later, she speaks of love as something that can mathematically be divided:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

What a far cry this is from Juliet’s contention that the more love she gives, the more she has, “for both are infinite”.

I must confess that I have a problem understanding Cordelia. It is no doubt true that she is irritated, insulted even, by her father’s antics, and is determined not to play his game. There is in her a sense of stubborn pride that actually marks her out to be indeed her father’s daughter. But need she express her disapproval so bluntly? And in open court? She has grown up in this court, after all, and knows the ropes: she knows that a king cannot be humiliated in his own court without severe repercussions. She knows that if she is disowned – as is the most likely outcome of crossing her father so publicly – her beloved father (for he is beloved) will be in the hands of her sisters, whom she knows well. So why does she speak in this manner? And why does she adopt Lear’s language?

Cordelia appears three more times in the rest of the play – that is, apart from her final appearance as a corpse. The first of these appearances is a brief scene in the French camp, and is mainly expository in nature. The next scene she appears in is the famous recognition scene, where Lear recognises his daughter, and, more importantly, recognises her inestimable worth, the inestimable worth of love itself. In this scene, Cordelia seems at first too diffident even to speak to her father (“He wakes; speak to him,” she says to the doctor); and when her father does awake, she speaks very few words (although these very few words include the almost unbearably moving “No cause, no cause”). She does weep, though (“Be your tears wet?” asks Lear.)

Similarly when Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. Once again, it is Lear who does almost all the talking, while Cordelia is silent. And once again, she weeps (“Wipe thine eyes,” Lear tells her). Cordelia had probably wept in the very first scene also: “With wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you,” she tells her sisters, although I suppose it can be argued that Cordelia means “with a clear sight” rather than “with tearful eyes”: I think she means both.

So a picture seems to emerge of Cordelia as someone who cannot, as she herself says, “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – who lacks the words when most she needs to speak, and who weeps instead. But yet, in that first scene, she isn’t inarticulate: she articulates very clearly indeed. And, strangely, what this paragon of selfless love articulates is articulated in Lear’s own language: she speaks of love as something that can be reckoned, measured, parcelled out, as if it were but a finite number. It’s all very puzzling.

6 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve often wondered about Cordelia myself: at what point does honesty become downright nastiness? Could she have not been somewhat more diplomatic with the answer, even if she despises the game?


    • Yes, it is very odd, isn’t it? But it is what Shakespeare wanted. It is no accident that she, who later embodies the ideal of selfless, self-sacrificing love, should speak in such terms. It is impossible to imagine Juliet, say, or Rosalind, speaking like this.

      I tend to think of Cordelia as someone incapable of expressing her true feelings – as someone unaware of the impact her words will make, or of the social context. Almost, perhaps, autistic. But I realise that doesn’t quite solve the Enigma either.


  2. Posted by Joydeck on September 5, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    I see Act 1, Scene 1 of KIng Lear as the finest, in large part for the character of Cordelia. Cordelia’s love is that vaunted by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard when he talks, not of emotion, but of “Works of Love”. Her love is LOVE IN ACTION.

    For Cordelia, love of father is duty, no more no less, and this in no way demeans it. Quite to the contrary. I much doubt your questioning of her unalloyed humility is shared either by the Duke of Kent who so stoutly defends her, or by the King of France who so willingly takes her. And I am with them because Cordelia is magnificent, both in Act 1 and, weeping, in the final act.

    I am reminded of Scripture, Luke 17 v 7-10. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”

    And again, Luke 7 v 36-50. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment… Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

    There is no hint of narcissism here!


    • Posted by alan on September 13, 2017 at 8:50 pm

      I agree that this is entirely explicable if Cordelia’s conception of love is duty, with a clear division of that duty between husband and father.
      Lear’s concept of love is purely transactional and he is deluded in thinking that those who pander to his notion of love will honour such a transaction.
      I don’t agree that love and duty are the same, however. The Christian concept of love is not so narrowly divisible, requires regular self-examination about ones own motives and whether one is doing enough, and is far too demanding for most people – hence your unprofitable servants. Duty is a lot easier for people intellectually, because if they believe in duty then they know what is expected of them and try to act accordingly even if they resent it. Duty doesn’t require love, liking, introspection and can be entirely guilt free.
      The danger of such an unexamined commitment to duty should be evident however, since warring countries are full of people just doing their duty.


      • I agree. Love and duty are not the same, and the relationship between the two is so complex that either may exist without the other. I take your point also that duty is “easier” than love, as it is contractual in nature, and is thus more easily understood. The concept of love is far more nebulous and mysterious. I suppose that’s why we try to tame it, as it were, into more easily digestible commodities. And something like King Lear remains troubling because it refuses to tame these vast concepts.

        As you say, duty unexamined can lead to us doing terrible things without feeling guilt. And I guess it may be said that love unexamined can also lead to similar ends.

    • First of all, I do apologise for being so late in replying. It has been difficult finding a bit of spare time when I haven’t been too tired…

      I don’t think I am accusing Cordelia of narcissism. And I agree, she is an utterly admirable character, and there is no doubt that she shows her love in action.

      But while love can indeed be the father of duty, it is possible also for duty to be carried out without love. It is also possible for duty to come short of the love one feels: the spirit, though willing, can often make demands too great for the flesh that is weak. The relationship between love and duty is not always straightforward, and it is a theme that seems to crop up frequently in Shakespeare. Both Henry IV and the old King Hamlet expected filial love to be expressed in terms of duty. Prince Hal has to steel himself to live up to his father’s expectations, and, in the course of doing so, has to renounce an important part of himself; Hamlet, for most of the play, is unable to carry out the duty demanded by his dead father, despite loving him. I Twelfth Night, Olivia felt it her duty to the memory of her dead brother to live a life shielded from the rest of the world, but she misunderstood the natures both of love and of duty. The relationship between love and duty is never clear-cut.

      It is a theme that crops up frequently in Ibsen also. In The Master Builder, when Hilde arrives, Aline says that she will prepare her room as it is her “duty”, Hilde feels a it affronted by this. Why did Aline not say she will welcome her because she wants to? She finds something cold about this sense of “duty”. and we find this throughout Ibsen – an adherence to a sense of duty that is not accompanied by love.

      This is not, of course, the case with Cordelia, who so obviously seems almost to epitomise the concept of selfless love. And this, for me, makes it all the more puzzling that she should speak of love in almost mathematical terms, as something that can be measured, as something that can be divided into two with the sum of he two parts not exceeding the whole. This is the way Lear thinks of love, and he is wrong; so why does Cordelia speak in such terms also? Her actions are beyond praise, I quite agree; but her words, for me, remain puzzling. they seem as cold and those of Aline’s in Ibsen’s Master Builder.


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