Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A female Fool? Cordelia?! But what became of the other Fool?

jessica said...

I just have some questions..

If Cordelia became King Lear's Fool what happened to the original Fool that Lear was used to coming into his presence when he called for him? And wasn't the Fool a boy? And wouldn't Lear have noticed that it was his daughter?


Thanks for your questions Jessica.

In the plays of Shakespeare's day two types of Fools were represented. Indeed, they were present in real life too!

There were what we might call simple people, people who were socially challenged, who needed the patronage of Kings, Dukes and the like to survive and who provided their patrons with entertainment, a reason to laugh, in return for their patronage! There's a very good example of this kind of "Flat Fool Natural" in Jack Oates whom Robert Armin wrote about in his Foole Upon Foole or Six Sortes of Sotes published in London in 1600. (Full text can be found via Google)

Like many people who are socially challenged today, these Fools could say the most embarrassing things to their patrons and others, speaking the truth about them as they saw it. Like Jack Oates, they got away with saying things to their masters that no one else would dare say.

Then there were what Armin called Artificial Fools who would dress up in the Fool's motley, "goe and attyre him in one of his coates and ... in all poyntes behaue himself naturally like" a natural Fool "making wry mouthes, dauncing and looking asquint". These were "licensed" or "allowed" Fools.

In the court of King James I, before whom King Lear was originally performed, there were knights who were in the habit of coming into the king's presence after supper dressed in motley to provide entertainment for the king, sometimes interacting with the King's natural Fools.

Some of these "licensed" or "allowed" Fools were known by name, as in the case of Feste in Twelfth Night, but sometimes there was an anonymity granted to these Fools which most of us would give to a clown today. And this seems to be the case in King Lear where the Fool doesn't have a name but is nevertheless a real person.

I believe that when Lear calls for him at supper time at Goneril's residence we do meet the Fool, but no one realizes who he was because he has gone out of his motley disguise. A standard theatrical procedure for introducing characters to audiences watching Shakespearean plays was to call them on stage. After Kent is readily accepted in his disguise by Lear, Goneril's gentleman/steward comes bounding in twice at the call for the Fool. This double entry of the Steward following Lear's call for his Fool could at least put the thought in the audience's mind that this is the Fool but that Lear does not recognise him, especially as the Steward is addressed as "sirrah" called a "clotpoll" then "sir" sarcastically, then "my Lords knaue", and is accused of bandying looks with the king, which perhaps was not unlike "the squand'ring glances of the fool" mentioned by Jaques in As You Like It. Kent trips him up, offers to teach him propriety and questions his wisdom. He has behaved in a very foolish manner before the King. He has been as familiar and almost as foolish with Lear as Jack Oates was with his patron in Armin's story. He has behaved in a manner that might be regarded as "all-licens'd", the term Goneril will use in several moments to describe the Fool who eventually appears.

It's important for us to understand what the original audiences of King Lear might have made of Goneril's unnamed (at this point of the play) steward/gentleman.

In the opening scene of the earlier anonymous play King Leir, with which Shakespeare was very familiar and which had been performed in London just prior to King Lear, there was a "licens'd" character named Skalliger who defects from King Leir to the service of Gonorill after he counsels Leir to divide the kingdom between his three daughters on the basis of their professed love. Skalliger hurries off to Gonorill and Ragan to give them the heads up, as we would say, and is eventually received into the service of Gonorill.

When the Fool does arrive at supper time in Shakespeare's story, there is talk of a sweet fool and a bitter fool. Lear has accused the Fool of being a bitter Fool and Fool asks him if he knows the difference between a sweet and bitter Fool. At Lear's invitation Fool says,

That lord that counsail'd thee to giue away thy land,

Come place him heere by mee, doe thou for him stand,

The sweet and bitter foole will presently appeare,

The one in motley here, the other found out there.

Lear can only think of himself as having determined to give away his land, but an audience familiar with the Leir play might make the connection with Gonorill's servant Skalliger. I believe that in Shakespeare's mind, Skalliger was a young knight, hence "boy", who had been in the habit of donning the motley and appearing before Leir disguised as his anonymous allowed Fool.

Thus, the original Fool in Shakespeare's play was the character we will eventually hear called "Oswald." Kent will later slam him as "glass-gazing" meaning vain or foppish always looking in the mirror, and accuses him of being a "barber-monger" or a constant patron of the barber's shop, an "unbolted villain" or "released villain" and could suggest to the audience that Oswald was once in Lear's service, though Kent does not know this. He calls him a "wagtail" which might suggest that he is wagging his tail from side to side as a jester might do. Then there is the telling line, "Smoile you my speeches, as I were a foole?" which might be meant to suggest a jester's smiling at a person who is behaving in a foolish manner, and could be somewhat akin to Oswald's earlier bandying looks with Lear. Kent's extended railing against Oswald ends with "None of these rogues and cowards, / But Ajax is their fool" which associates Oswald with talk of fools, and helps the audience to consider Oswald as the fool that ran away. Later we have Oswald's own report of how Albany has called him "sot", which means fool, and Goneril's talk of a fool usurping her bed / body is followed immediately by Oswald's warning that Albany is coming. It is not unusual for clowns to be the bungling messengers of Jacobean drama, and this is what Oswald proves to be. Sent off to Edmund with a letter from Goneril, he is intercepted by Regan, who persuades him to also carry her letter to Edmund. Just before he dies he directs these letters into Edgar's hands who then gives them to Albany for him to use against Goneril.

So, King Lear is used to having a boy come into his presence disguised as an artificial Fool which is why he calls him "boy." But when the motley Fool does eventually appear after Oswald is ejected, Lear says, "How now, my pretty knave!" In Shakespeare's plays "pretty" is often used of females who are disguised as males, and this Fool will toss the appellation "Boy" back at the aged Lear which is just as inappropriate for Lear.

The Fool will draw attention to the possible shame of the near nakedness of Poor Tom, and is described as singing with the voice of a nightingale. Concerning Cordelia's voice Lear will later say "Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman." The Fool had a sweet feminine singing voice like that of a nightingale, while Cordelia has a low speaking voice that is an excellent thing in a woman. The two voices meet in the middle. Like the disguised Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, which King James I had already seen twice, Cordelia speaks "between the change of man and boy with a reed voice."

It does seem surprising to us that Lear does not see Cordelia disguised as his Fool and it has been often suggested that it would have been impossible for him not to have noticed the change in Fools and that it was his daughter, Cordelia, who had now slipped into the motley and taken on the role of the Fool. However, Shakespeare's and his contemporaries' plays are full of such disguises. For instance, in Shakespeare's earlier work, The Merchant of Venice, a wife, Portia, disguised as a Doctor of Law, defends Antonio, her husband Bassanio's friend, against the pound of flesh hungry Shylock all without her husband or anyone realizing it. That Lear was capable of the same blindness as Bassanio and Antonio is seen in Lear's ready acceptance of his faithful Earl of Kent when he turns up in disguise, and the play's sub-plot reinforces this possibility of Lear's blind acceptance of his daughter in the motley with Gloucester's failure to perceive his son Edgar in his disguise as Poor Tom.

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