It seems that forever, nations have honoured their heroes of war with Victoria Crosses, Purple Hearts and the like medals. These are often awarded posthumously, so they are not so much for the benefit of the soldier as they are for the comfort of the bereaved and the edification of the nation. Concern for the safety of their fellow soldiers or for the ultimate victory in the battle often leads men to act bravely in the face of grave danger. Stories of heroism and courage, of loyalty and self-sacrifice, and of ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances, are rightly celebrated for many years thereafter.
There have been perhaps many hundreds of soldiers in many battles who acted with valour equally deserving recognition and honour about which no one knew, or else those who knew of these acts of bravery never got around to reporting them.
Then too, there have been fictional characters who are recognized for their repeated bravery in the face of danger that saved the day for western towns, city streets or battle platoons. We love their stories just as if they were real, and their examples can be an inspiration to us! But what if there was an act of courage and self-sacrifice in a fictional work that had gone completely unnoticed? How would we feel about that?
In Shakespeare’s King Lear when Cordelia and Lear are taken as captives after the failure of the French forces to reinstate King Lear on his throne, Cordelia says to her father:
We are not the first,
Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst:
For thee oppressed King am I cast down
My selfe could else out-frowne false fortunes frowne.
Shall we not see these daughters, and these sisters?
Earlier in the play Edgar had reflected on what the “worst” would be when he said, “And worse I may be yet. The worst is not so long as I can say ‘This is the worst.’” In other words, the worst is when I have been defeated and am dead.
Cordelia’s “We are not the first, who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst” could then perhaps give us the feeling that worse might lie ahead for her and her father, which turns out to be the case. But, according to Cordelia, someone has already suffered the worst in death, and she says that it was “with best meaning”!
Who has died to this point in time in the play? Cornwall has at the hands of his servant and that servant was slain by Regan. Cordelia’s intelligence could have known of Cornwall’s death, but it is doubtful if she would have considered his action to have been “with best meaning”. If she knew of the death of the servant she might have regarded his death as stemming from his “best meaning”.
There was, however, someone else much closer to Cordelia who I believe has died in the battle between French and British forces, namely the King of France himself. Disguised as a Gentleman he had gone off to the bloody arbitrement between the British and the French and never came back.
To this point in time, so far as I know, no one has recognized the courageous service France rendered his fellow king, King Lear, which resulted in his death in battle, but it is there in Shakespeare’s play, as we will see.
For most readers of King Lear, France was last seen on stage at the end of the first scene when he promises Cordelia, “Thou losest here, a better where to find.” It is assumed that he returned to France with his new Queen and then some time later came back to Britain with his troops, only to make a hasty personal retreat home again because of “something he left imperfect in the state”. It has been assumed that he left his Queen Cordelia with her father and the French troops under the leadership of the Marshall of France, Monsieur La Far.
Considering his claim in the opening scene that “Love’s not love When it is mingled with regards that stand Aloof from th’entire point”, I find it hard to believe that he would bring Cordelia back to Britain and simply leave her alone with an inadequate defence no matter what imperfections there might have been back in France.
But going back to the words “Thou losest here, a better where to find”, the “where” is interesting because it suggests that it might be that he would not take her back to France. In the earlier story of Leir, Cordella is banished from her father’s sight and wanders around the British countryside until the King of France goes disguised as a pilgrim to Britain, finds her, and takes her back to France as his Queen. Some time later when the older daughters show their true colours toward their father, Leir and Kent’s equivalent, Perillus, go over to France to escape their evil. France and Cordella are out walking through the French countryside disguised “like a playne country couple” and come across her father and Perillus.
Leir is near death from starvation, which they relieve by feeding him without his realizing who they are. Leir then reveals himself to them and tells of his mistake in accepting his older daughters’ professions of love and rejecting his youngest daughter. Cordella and France then reveal themselves to Leir and there is a wonderful scene of reconciliation with each kneeling before the other asking a blessing. After a period of time during which Leir recuperates, France musters his troops, crosses over to Britain, routs the British forces and restores Leir to his kingdom.
So when in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play France says “Thou losest here, a better where to find” the audience could have been suspicious of their possibly not going to France. A few moments before Kent had spoken ambiguously of his determination to “shape his old course in a country new” and the next time we see him he is disguised and is reaccepted into the service of Lear as his servant.
Cordelia’s words to her sisters indicate that she is aware of what they are about to get up to, and so there would be an immediate need for Lear to be helped which could be achieved by France and Cordelia going into disguise and guiding him towards French troops at Dover.
In this blog I am contending that Cordelia puts on the Fool’s motley to be with her father and I am also saying that France goes into disguise as a Knight (in the Folio) /Servant (in the Quarto) and then as a Gentleman to accompany Cordelia, caring for her and helping her care for her father. Knights, Servants and Gentlemen and even Ladies are all acknowledged disguises for other characters in speech prefixes or tags, stage directions and speeches themselves in Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the Quarto and Folio editions of the play, individual characters can have multiple speech tags and designations in stage directions.
It seems to me that if France and Cordelia do not serve Lear in disguise, then a truly wonderful element of the old story has been ditched from the main plot and, indeed, transferred to the sub-plot! What I am saying is that Shakespeare has France and Cordelia go into disguise without announcing it, as Kent and Edgar do, and introduces the Gloucester plot to mirror what the audience could have discovered in the main plot.
So, I am saying that when Lear calls for his Fool, it is in fact the disguised France who proffers: “Since my young Lady’s going into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away.” Everyone in Lear’s world, including Lear, obviously believed that the King of France and Cordelia had gone to France, but the way this Knight / Servant speaks to Lear is surprising to Lear who responds “Ha! Say’st thou so?”
Later in the play, Edgar will be disguised from his brother Edmund as a knight, and Edmund will speak of the breeding which his tongue breathes as being indicative of his courtliness. If we look closely at the words of this Knight / Servant in the beginning of the play we can appreciate the courtliness of the language and that the concerns are those a king might have, not a servant!
When the Servant says “Since my young Lady’s going into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away” Shakespeare is employing the plot devise of the false report as he does in other parts of this play and other plays. We have already seen Edmund’s deception of his father over the contents of the “letter” that Gloucester concludes was from Edgar, and Shakespeare employed it marvelously in Measure for Measure.
The Fool, Cordelia so disguised, then enters and begins to serve her father in that capacity and she is accompanied from time to time by France in disguise. France wanders off gathering intelligence and perhaps looking for news of his army’s progress towards Britain. I believe he sent back to France for his army to come in at Dover in much the same way that Caius Lucius sent back to Gallia for his Roman army to come in at Milford Haven in Shakespeare’s version of Cymbeline.
No one notices the disguises of France and Cordelia, but strange things happen, like Kent getting a letter from Cordelia who in such a short space of time has heard about Kent’s “obscured course” and would “find time from this enormous state, seeking to give losses their remedies.” It is a “miracle” to Kent, and to the reader, that not only has Cordelia learned of Kent’s disguise and care for her father, but she has managed to get a note to him from France! Kent is so full of himself and looking for his reward in Shakespeare’s play, but he’s not as boastful as Perillus was in Leir. If there is any doubt in your mind about Kent’s boastfulness, just consider Edgar’s report of Kent’s report to him of his service of Lear.
There is also wonderful irony in Act 3 when Kent meets the Gentleman, who was with him earlier. Kent says he knows him, but the Gentleman does not tell him his name when asked, referring to himself simply as “one minded like the weather, most unquietly.” I believe that this is France, and Kent proceeds to tell him that France has spies who have seen into the Dukes’ activities and have secret feet ready to show their open banner! Kent reveals that he himself is much more than his disguised outfit would suggest and gives this Gentleman a purse containing letters, and a ring to pass on the Cordelia, assuring him that he would see her! He tells the Gentleman that by doing this he could improve his rank in society. The giving of purses and rings was often a sign of irony associated with disguise in Shakespeare. France extends his hand to Kent and questions whether he has no more to say to Cordelia than to reveal himself and his service to her. Kent has become dislocated from his master, Lear, whom he was supposed to be escorting to Dover, and he and France go off in opposite directions to try to find him.
In the Quarto’s Act 4 Scene 3 Kent meets up with this Gentleman again and asks him why the King of France had gone back home so suddenly. His words “know you no reason?” were calculated to be ironic not unlike the irony of Lear’s earlier words, “Ha! Say’st thou so?”
After the disappearance of the Fool and the reappearance of Cordelia, there is concern because Lear has wandered off and is lost. It is the Gentleman with some attendants who find him and the Gentleman says “O! Here he is; lay hand upon him. Sir, Your most dear daughter--”. These words and the accompanying words of respect and care, could remind one familiar with the old play of The King of France’s words to Leir “she is your loving daughter, and honours you with as respective duty as if you were the Monarch of the world.”
And so we return to where we started this post with Cordelia’s “We are not the first, Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst...” which I am saying is Cordelia’s lamenting the sacrifice which France has made in dying for his fellow king. The “best meaning” picks up a theme that runs right through the play which we can find expressed in King James I own work, Basilikon Doron, in which he give his son instruction about how to be a good Christian king.
Use all other Princes, as your brethren, honestly and kindly: Keep precisely your promise unto them, although to your hurt. Strive with every one of them in courtesy and thankfulness: and as with all men, so especially with them, be plain and truthful, keeping ever that Christian rule, "to do as ye would be done to:" especially in counting rebellion against any other Prince, a crime against your own self, because of the preparative. Supply not therefore, nor trust not other Princes’ rebels, but pity and succour all lawful Princes in their troubles.
France's attempt to put down the rebellion against Lear and reinstate him in his kingdom was to France's hurt and I have suggested that it is France's death that Cordelia is mourning when she says at “We are not the first, Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst...”