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In King Lear, this quote is a warning to be sneaky, not showy, to get what you want.
It is not coincidence that the Fool conveys this warning to King Lear in Act I, scene 4. Fool is a bit of an ironic title. The battle of the tongue Lear and the Fool engage in relates to the deeper theme of the story, that greed can destroy you.
Let me translate this for you:
Don’t show everyone how much money you have.
Don’t tell everyone everything you know.
Don’t lend money, borrow it!
Things are not going well with Lear at this point in the story. He is out of control, and is losing his grip on his kingdom. Lear's actions are contrary to what he should be doing, quietly calculating how to regain and keep control over his kingdom and family.
The quote "Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest" suggests that it is best to be judicious or sensible when it comes to dealing with others in life relationships. We will look at the three parts of this quote individually as relates to life in general, which is what King Lear is, an examination of a man’s life:
1. Have more than thou showest,
Sometimes it is wise not to reveal to others all that you have. You have to know who you are dealing with and what their motives are. In essence, you are protecting yourself and your family when you think this way. Everyone does not have to know all of your business and what you own.
Also, when we show all that we have, it is sometimes looked upon as being “showy” or flaunting our good fortune and abundant assets. This can invite the jealousy of others.
2. speak less than thou knowest,
It doesn’t have to be physical things either, as mentioned above. In speech, we can flaunt our great knowledge of and expertise in a subject. Sometimes it is better to withhold a bit of what we know so others are not intimidated by this. If they seek to draw more information out of us on a subject because of personal interest, that is fine. It’s just that sometimes it’s better to let them make the first move in this so we don’t appear to be exalting the self.
In addition, when we speak loosely, revealing all, we may lose an advantage that we may have in a touchy situation, or a business situation. This is especially true in negotiations between parties, whether business deals or labour negotiations. Sometimes it is wise to keep some of our thoughts close to the vest until we learn more of the real motives of others, or until we can gain more information before laying all of our cards on the table. If we say too much too soon, others may take advantage of the situation to our detriment.
3. lend less than thou owest.
Here, it is a financial principle being spoken of. It is saying to take money in in greater quantity, as opposed to giving significant sums out. This is open to debate, but it is part of the King Lear story here. Not all would subscribe to this principle in contemporary society.
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