Monday, April 25, 2011
Finding Cordelia in King Lear’s Fool
Since the late 1980s children have pawed over the colourful pages of a number of picture books looking for Wally, a little character dressed in his red-and-white striped shirt with cap and blue pants. He is hidden among crowds of people doing a variety of amusing things in various locations around the world.
Four hundred years ago Shakespeare gave the world his take on the already age old story of King Lear, legendary king of Britain. Its scenes have been pawed over by students and teachers alike trying to make some sense of it. Frustrated students daily curse the play and Shakespeare, and scholars like AC Bradley have alleged that the play contains "improbabilities" that "far surpass those of the great tragedies in number and in grossness."
This allegation, though understandable, is bold when it is made against one of the greatest of all English playwrights! But the reason that the play has not been understood, the reason that there appears to be so many improbabilities, is that we haven't been asking the right questions and we haven't been pawing over the pages looking for answers to the right questions.
When we look at what Cordelia says she will do, which her first words in the play draw our attention to and invite us to think about, and when we look at France's words which introduce an element of uncertainty in "where" they will go after they leave Lear's presence, in the same way as Kent's last words introduce uncertainty as to where he will be found, we have to consider that maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare hides France and Cordelia under disguises in the middle of the play!
I mean, when France says to her "Thou losest here a better where to find" original audiences could have immediately suspected that it might not be France because that's where they went in every other presentation of the legend!
For thirty years I have been pawing over the words of the play looking for clues in the words of the Fool and the Servant/Knight and Gentleman that would confirm my suspicion that Cordelia and France never left England, but stayed behind to serve their father, Lear, in the tragic circumstances which they and which the audiences saw coming!
People have seen me as being obsessed! I even had a promotional Cordelia doll made dressed in motley and coxcomb! They've laughed at me or just ignored me, because most of them haven't got a handle, nor do they want to get a handle on the text, let alone the texts of earlier presentations of the Lear legend. And audiences these days are so taken by the mad speeches of Lear and the gouging of Gloucester's eyes, they haven't got time for anything else. Nahum Tate couldn't stand the play so he adapted it and gave it a happy ending. Today, King Lear has to be one of the most frequently played of all Shakespeare's works, but it is constantly being adapted.
But I have had as much delight in reading King Lear as I have had in reading As You Like It and seeing Rosalind's disguise, or The Merchant of Venice and seeing Portia's, and I do want other people to enjoy reading it and seeing Cordelia’s disguise. In fact, I am convinced that there are probably so many more clues that I haven't yet seen, which others will show me once they begin to look, and so our reading will be even more delightful.
"Oh, but," people have protested, "Lear is a Tragedy", and they are right in recognizing that there are tragic elements of the play that caused it to be classified as a Tragedy in the 1623 Folio edition.
But on the title page of the 1608 Quarto edition of the play it is styled as a History and it is very evidently a contrast with the anonymous 1605 History of Leir.
And there is something very beautiful in Shakespeare's play that made it such that while it might have been a tragedy for Lear, yet it was not a tragedy for Cordelia, as one of Shakespeare's sources explored the legend and styled it (Tragoedy of Cordila). I will come to that beautiful element in due course.
If you want to understand King Lear and discover what Shakespeare did with his source materials, you might need to become somewhat familiar with them and you can do so by following the links to them in the right-hand column of this blog.
WHAT DID CORDELIA SAY?
We don't very often see much treatment of what Cordelia says. Oh, there's a lot of focus on her "Nothing!" and Lear's response, "Nothing will come of nothing" which sets in motion the whole play, but Cordelia says a whole lot more than that! As I mentioned above, she even draws our attention to what she will do/say by asking, with her first words in the play, an aside, "What shall Cordelia do/speak? Love and be silent." and "Then poor Cordelia! And yet not so; since I am sure my love's More ponderous than my tongue."
She seems to be saying that she is going to act in such a way that her love would be demonstrated without her speaking about it, for indeed, if she were to try to express how much she loved her father, words would fail her.
A little while later she says that "... what I well/will intend, I'll do't before I speak that you may/make known It is no vicious blot...." France will interpret her words as a "tardiness in nature Which often leaves the history unspoke That it intends to do". Cordelia's words "...what I well/will intend, I'll do't before I speak" could be taken to mean that she will do what she intends to do before she speaks again to Lear and to the audience. After this first scene, she will not appear again on stage until after the Fool has appeared and disappeared.
She does not say, "before I speak about it" but "before I speak"! She is going to "Love and be silent" and she's going to leave it to her father to know, "that you may know", what she has done (in the 1608 play) and "that you make known" (in the 1623 version). The difference between "may" and "make" in the two texts accounts for the different words of Lear at the end of the play after he says, "And my poor Fool is hang'd...." In the 1608 edition, Lear's "O, o, o, o" is his coming to the knowledge just before he dies of what she did serving him as his Fool, while in the 1623 edition, his last words "Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there!" is his attempt to "make it known" that her earlier refusal to flatter her father was "no vicious blot...."
It's evident that the people in Lear's world do not make the connection between Cordelia and Fool, but Shakespeare could have expected his audience to make it, if not before, certainly at the end of the play! The reason Lear's world did not make the connection will become evident later.
FINDING CORDELIA IN THE MOTLEY!
In my earlier posts to this blog I have explained how in the minds of the original audiences the "boy" who used to come at Lear's call for his Fool had forsaken him and followed Goneril as her young gentleman, leaving an opening for Cordelia to step into the motley. I have also explained how France appeared disguised as a Servant/Knight right after we learn of Kent's disguise as a servant. He is paving the way for Cordelia's entry as the Fool, giving out that she has gone to France which everyone in Lear’s world already believes! He is carrying half her "care and duty" towards her father.
When the Fool finally appears Lear says "How now, my pretty knave! How dost thou?" This description of the Fool as a "pretty knave" could immediately suggest a girl disguised as a boy! Shakespeare so uses the word in As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice both of which he had written and performed before King Lear.
The Fool chides Kent for his loyalty to Lear saying of Lear that "this fellow has banish'd two on's daughters, and did the third a blessing against his will". You will recall that Kent's last words before he went into disguise were "Freedom lies hence, and banishment is here" and "He'll shape his old course in a country new." As Kent turned his sentence of "banishment" around, so, we might see, has Cordelia in her disguise as the Fool. The Fool is saying that while Lear thought he’d banished Cordelia, he had in fact banished Goneril and Regan, and allowed Cordelia to stay behind too. Lear had told Kent, in Cordelia's hearing, "Hence, and avoid my sight!" which together with Kent's cryptic words might have suggested to Cordelia the possibility of simply doing the same thing. In the 1605 anonymous Leir there is that wonderful scene in France when the King of France and Cordella appear disguised before Kent's equivalent, Perillus, and Leir, and serve them all without Leir and Perillus knowing who they are until they reveal themselves. There they form a team and return with the French army to rout the British and reinstate Lear.
In Shakespeare's play there is a constant sense that some of the characters are familiar with the legend. Certainly the audience was! Thus Cordelia says, "That lord whose hand must take my plight". "Must" could suggest a sense that this is what happens in the folk legend and has to happen here, for there is nothing to suggest that either France or Burgundy are under any compulsion from Lear to take her plight. In fact, it was quite the opposite, Burgundy refused her and Lear tried to dissuade France from taking her! Later as she is leaving her sisters she says "I know you what you are; And like a sister am most loth to call Your faults as they are named." How does she know what they are and their faults? Was it not because she, and the audience, knew what the sisters were like in the legend? It was there that the sisters' faults were already "named", flattery, deception, attempted regicide and the like.
Now that she is no longer appearing as their sister, in fact, now that she is appearing as the all licensed Fool, she begins to warn against her sisters intentions which have already been mooted to us at the end of Act I. Hardly a minute has transpired since the arrival of the Fool when the Fool offers to teach Lear a speech and Kent calls it "nothing." The Fool asks Lear, "Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?" and Lear reasserts, "Why no, boy; nothing can come out of nothing." This was what he had told Cordelia earlier, and Fool now points to one instance when Lear makes use of nothing, and seems to take exception to the use of "boy" throwing it back at Lear calling him "boy" inappropriately and asking him if he knows the difference between a sweet and a bitter Fool.
It won't be too long in the play's sub-plot before we will see the banished Edgar going into disguise as poor Tom saying, "That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am" and if the audience had thought they saw Cordelia in the Fool's motley here, they could have it confirmed by the sub-plot then.
Lear is to stand for the bitter Fool that counselled him to give away his land, which could have suggested, to an audience familiar with the very opening scene of Leir, Skalliger, who is Oswald's equivalent in that version of the legend. Oswald will be revealed as the bitter Fool and Cordelia will be found to be the sweet one in motley. But Lear doesn't remember Skalliger's counsel and so he takes it as a personal attack on himself alone!
Fool will then point to Lear's folly in cutting his crown in the middle and sharing it between his two daughters saying, "thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gav'st thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in this let him be whipp'd that first finds it so."
We might well ask what crown the Fool had given away? If Cordelia is the Fool, however, she has also given away her crown, two in fact, because she could be in France wearing the French Queen's crown, and rightfully owning a British one! And perhaps the audience could have seen this as Cordelia saying that if any other fool wants to point out her folly, he is to be whipped for speaking truth. In two more speeches the Fool will complain of being whipped for speaking truth.
The expression "if I speak like myself in this" is similar to Duke Vincentio's comment to Lucio in Measure for Measure when, disguised as a friar, he says, "I protest I love the Duke as I love myself." "Myself" is understood by Lucio to be a friar just as here "myself" would appear to be the Fool. But "myself" actually was the Duke as it looks very much like "myself" here in Lear is meant to be Cordelia.
Further, in the anonymous Leir, when the King of France meets Cordella in England after she has been expelled from her father's presence, she is contemplating a simpler lifestyle. France is disguised as a Palmer or pilgrim, and he is so taken by Cordella that he wants to know of her if she would entertain a proposal from a King to be his Queen. She doesn't want to be mocked by the pilgrim but assures him that she wouldn't even marry the Monarch of the earth unless she loved him.
France assures her that being a religious person, he wouldn't want to hurt her by offering her false hope, and then he tells her, "Therefore in witness of my true intent, Let heaven and earth bear record of my words: There is a young and lusty Gallian King, So like to me, as I am to myself, That earnestly doth crave to have thy love...." Cordella thought that France was talking about someone who was just like him, but we know that France is in fact talking about his own love for her! In approximately the same place in Shakespeare's story, we have this statement made by Fool which could be seen as Cordelia's obscure way of speaking about herself and her folly in giving up her chance of an English crown and a French one. If anyone else should want to point her folly out to her, let him be whipped for speaking the truth, in the same way as Lear had only moments before threatened the Fool with the whip for speaking the truth.
It might seem strange to us that Lear would not have noticed a difference in his Fool and that it was in fact Cordelia who was now wearing the motley. But Lear and nearly everyone else in Lear’s world does not recognize his faithful Kent who is now disguised in his presence, and this kind of disguise of children from parents and wives from husbands is found everywhere in Shakespeare's plays as well as in the works of other playwrights of that era.
But, in fact, Lear does notice something different about the Fool, asking, "When were you wont to so full of song, Sirrah?" and the Fool explains "I have used it, Nuncle, e'er since thou madest thy daughters thy mothers..." which was precisely when Cordelia would have had to go into disguise in order to remain at court.
The Fool then asks for a schoolmaster to "teach thy Fool to lie, I would fain learn to lie." This, of course, was Cordelia's problem in the beginning. She lacked that “glib and oily art to speak and purpose not" that her sisters had, and if she is the Fool she could be having difficulty keeping her mind in the role of the Fool, because that involved deception for her and she is used to speaking truth. Truth was her dowry.
Next the Fool complains that Goneril and Regan will "have me whipt for speaking true," which can be compared with "Truth is a dog must to kennel; he must be whip't out, when Ladie oth'e brach may stand by the fire and stink." Cordelia, truth, is out, and Oswald, "dog" over and over in the play, stands by the fire inside. "Thou wilt have me whipt for lying," as here threatened, "and sometime I am whipt for holding my peace" as Cordelia was, in a sense, in the beginning when she said "Nothing" and like a sister refused to name her sister's faults.
The Fool, reflecting on the role of a Fool, then says, "I had rather be any kind of thing than a Fool," as if there were another option which Fool knew of and yet was deliberately not taking up. But the Fool would not be Lear who is now "nothing," "an 0 without a figure" in front of it, or a zero, precisely what Lear had made Cordelia. But if she has become the Fool she is "now" better than Lear who has rejected the title Fool and given away all his other titles leaving nothing!
Lear meets Goneril's accusation, that he is encouraging riots among his followers, with the question, "Are you our daughter?" But this follows immediately upon the Fool's words about the cuckoo. Lear, of course, is addressing Goneril, but the juxtaposition of the speeches could cause members of the audience to suspect that the Fool is Cordelia in disguise. Similarly, Goneril's response,
I would you would make use of your good wisdom,
Whereof I know you are fraught; and put away
These dispositions which of late transport you
From what you rightly are...
could be applied to Cordelia disguised as the Fool, except that the 1608 text begins the speech, with "Come sir...."
Lear then asks, "Does anyone here know me?" as if to say, Have I changed that much that I am not even recognized anymore?! Of course, the audience knows who Lear is, but the question that could have been in the audience's mind is, who is the Fool?
Lear next questions Goneril's identity with the words, "Your name fair gentlewoman?" But this question, like his earlier one "Are you our daughter?" is juxtaposed with a statement by the Fool - "Which they [Goneril and Regan] will make an obedient father" in the 1608 text, and "Lear's shadow" in the 1623. "Fair gentlewoman" is used sarcastically by Lear, but people might have seen the fair gentlewoman disguised in the Fool's motley at this time and be wondering at her name!
Following Goneril's further protest Lear determines to go to Regan with the words, "Yet have I left a daughter." Now the audience knows Regan’s heart already, both from Shakespeare's sources of the legend and Lear to this point, and they know Cordelia's intention also from the sources and from her earlier claims in this play, and could have been provoked to think of her and perhaps see her here in the Fool.
In the 1608 text Lear begins to speak of his folly in the way he treated Cordelia, and then a little later he says again, "yet have I left a daughter, whom I am sure is kind and comfortable". Think of the potential for dramatic irony here where Lear is thinking of Regan, but the audience knows Regan's heart and suspects that Cordelia is the kind and comforting Fool who is caring for Lear. Lear had hoped to set his rest "on her kind nursery."
In the 1623 text Goneril next calls for Oswald. She has to do this twice in the 1623 text, but only once in the 1608 text, before Oswald comes. In the 1623 text Oswald has already come on stage twice at the call for the Fool, once in the 1608 text. Could it be that these changes from the 1608 text to 1623 text reflect an attempt to show that Oswald is used to responding to the call for the Fool but not the call for Oswald, which is perhaps a name he has assumed now that he is no longer in Lear's service, his real name being Skalliger? Goneril accuses the Fool of being "more knave than fool" but the Fool will later reject the term "knave" and it will be well and truly plastered all over Oswald by Kent.
The Fool runs off stage after Lear, but not before saying:
A Fox, when one has caught her,
And such a Daughter,
Should sure to the Slaughter,
If my Cap would buy a Halter,
So the Fool follows after.
Robert Goldsmith tells us that occasionally the fool may have worn a fox tail behind. Antonio, the artificial fool in Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, 1653, is apparently wearing a fox-skin. Lollio, his keeper, tells him: "I shall not forebear the gentleman under the fool; if you do; alas, I saw through your fox-skin before now."
The fox in the Fool's verse is a fool, the fool is a female, and a daughter! This could be viewed as the Fool speaking about the possible end of Goneril, but it is Cordelia in some sources, as well as in Lear, who is hanged, and not Goneril. In the hovel when Lear thinks he sees Goneril and Regan and wants to arraign them he protests saying "No, you she foxes." Lear will ask Cordelia, after she has given up the coxcomb, if he has "caught" her, and refer to himself and Cordelia as "foxes". After this Cordelia will go "sure to the slaughter". This verse is prophetic of the future of the Fool, Cordelia, who will be hanged by a halter because she stayed behind wearing the Fool's coxcomb or cap in an attempt to rescue her father.
In the last scene of Act I we see Lear, Kent and Fool, as they prepare to remove to Regan's place. We hear the Fool warn Lear that Regan will use him as kindly as Goneril has. The Fool claims, "I can tell what I can tell" which would perhaps remind the audience of Cordelia's words, "I know you what you are". The Fool then speaks of spying into what one cannot smell out, which is very much like the disguised Autolycus' words to the Shepherd, in The Winter's Tale, "receives not thy nose court-odour from me?" Lear again speaks of having done Cordelia wrong. The Fool then reverses normal procedure, testing Lear in the manner that real lack wits were questioned, and then suggests that Lear would make a good Fool!
The Servant, who I am maintaining is France in disguise, enters and confirms that the horses are ready for the trip to Regan's. Later when disguised as a Gentleman he will identify himself to Kent as "one minded like the weather most unquietly." It could be that here he has been out gathering intelligence and waiting for news of the arrival of his forces from France. We will learn a little later from Gloucester's report of the letter he has received that there is only "part of a power already footed" or landed in Britain from France. From a worried look on France's face, Cordelia could surmise that there has been a delay in the mustering and transportation of his troops.
Lear continues to call the Fool "boy" which leads to the Fool's couplet, asserting her femininity with "she" and maybe voicing the worry that she is reading on France's face, that the French forces need to get to Britain faster or else they will die.
She that's a maid now, and laughs at my departure,
Shall not be a maid long, except things be cut shorter.
These days the maid in this couplet is usually thought to be a reference to any young virgin in the audience, who doesn't appreciate how dangerous the situation is, who would lose her virginity unless men's penises are cut off. But from Leir we learn that the celebration of Cordella's marriage to France would not be until they got back to France, and so Cordelia is still a maid.
The maid in this couplet could be Cordelia. The words "laughs at my departure" could be a reference to Oswald's giving up the motley, leaving an opening for her to fill, or it could be a reference to the Fool's departure from the play after saying, "And I'll go to bed at noon." If the latter, it would not sadden the Fool, Cordelia, that the motley Fool is gone because, since she has been the Fool, she can then take up her role as Queen of France. There was usually laughter when a Fool appeared on the scene and disappointment when he departed not to return. However, Cordelia won't be a maid for long after her departure from the stage as Fool, "except things be cut shorter", that is, unless the time taken for additional forces to get to Britain is shortened, because only a portion of the French troops needed has landed.
I used to think that the words "except things be cut shorter" were referring to a passage in the Bible with which King James I would have been familiar, but I'm not so sure of that at the moment.
Let me thank you for bearing with me in having read this far. As I said at the end of my last post, there are not a few clues that Shakespeare gives us that lead us to identify Cordelia in the motley. So far we have only dealt with the possible clues in Act 1.
In my next post I hope to detail the clues that I see in the next two Acts. To express an interest in receiving notice of the next posting please either follow my Twitter tweets @auusa or follow this blog. If you have any comments you wish to make, please do not hesitate to do so either below or via Twitter. I am more than willing to receive your critiques. Again, I am sorry if there is a bit of repetition in my posts, but I find it hard to make it understandable without repetition.
To see my basic justification for understanding the disguises of Cordelia and France see my previous postings below.
Posted by Bob's Down Under Blog at 2:34 PM