Monday, April 18, 2011

Shakespeare’s Fairytale Princess found in a hovel!

It was during Christmas New Year break that I was enjoying the company of two of my grandchildren and they both wanted to ride with me to the mall in my two seater van. Only one could, of course, so I playfully asked which one loved me the most. I said, "Do either of you love me up to the sun and back again?" My nine year old grandson swept his arm up and down several times to indicate that he loved me as much as several trips to and from the sun, while my seven year old granddaughter, who has twice been to Brazil, protested that she loved me more than that, "I love you up to the sun and back and then over to Brazil and around and around Brazil lots of times, and then back to Australia and around Australia lots of times!" I don't think either of them knew which one had professed the greater love, but I sure enjoyed their excited competition! I assured them that I loved both of them very much also, but since there was only one spare seat in the van they would probably enjoy riding together in Nana's car, which they did!

Putting this question of love playfully to my little grandchildren brought again to my mind the story of King Lear, one that has often been on my mind for more than thirty years.

We do not come to Shakespeare’s King Lear today with the same expectations as the original audiences, King James I and perhaps his family or the public at The Globe. Most people today come with an expectation of a celebration of darkness, madness and the death of the man more sinned against than sinning.

Yet, I am persuaded that originally the focus was not so much on the aged king, as it was on his daughter Cordelia and the King of France who, I am maintaining in this blog, both went into disguise in order to attempt to rescue Lear from the evil daughters and sisters.

It’s highly likely that original audiences would have expected, in Cordelia, a beautiful princess who was highly sort after by the King of France. While Shakespeare doesn’t comment on her beauty in the opening scene, yet there will be a tender description of her beauty later in the play from the lips of the Gentleman who talks with Kent. He spoke of her “delicate cheek” with “happy smilets that played upon her ripe lip” and “the holy water from her heavenly eyes”.

Like Cordella, her counterpart in the earlier (1605) anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Leir, Shakespeare’s Cordelia would have come with a physical beauty that rivalled her older sisters’ looks. In Leir, Gonorill complains to Ragan of Cordella saying, “... she is so nice and so demure; So sober, courteous, modest, and precise, That all the Court hath work enough to do, To talk how she exceedeth me and you.” When the King of France first meets Cordella, before he knows her identity, he describes her as the “fairest creature ... that ever any mortal eye beheld.” According to another of Shakespeare’s sources, the 1574 edition of The Mirror for Magistrates, men judged Cordila “fairer by far” than her sisters who despised her grace and gifts and sought to assuage the praise men were giving her.

On reading these descriptions of Cordelia in the sources one is left with a strong reminder of the fairytale Cinderella and her two ugly sisters, and even though it is Cordelia’s virtue rather than her beauty that France seizes upon, yet there can be no doubt that Cordelia would have appeared in the minds of original audiences as a beautiful, fairytale princess who was to become the Queen of France. And this is the way she appears at the end of the play as well, after her supposed return to Britain from France as Queen of France, beautiful.

But there is an important aspect of the story of Cordella in Shakespeare’s source that we have not acknowledged in Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Leir there is that brief time of deprivation she feels after she is disinherited when she wanders out into the countryside still in her royal robes which she contemplates selling in exchange for garments more suited to her now meaner state. However, her meaner state does not get in the way of her contemplating the joy she will feel in her marriage to a Palmer or pilgrim, for so France is disguised when he finds her. France tells her that “There is a young and lusty Gallian King, So like to me, as I am to my selfe, That earnestly doth crave to have thy love”, and so from this lowly state he takes her to be his Queen.

Further, in coming to Britain in disguised as a pilgrim in pursuit of a bride, France takes with him his servant Mumford who persists in addressing him as “My Lord” which causes France to complain that they will be taken as spies if he persists.

Cordella does not have anything to do with her father Leir for several years until he comes to France with Perillus his servant to escape the wrath of the evil sisters. France and Cordella are out walking through the French countryside disguised “like a playne country couple” and come across her father and Perillus. France tells Cordella not to reveal herself to her father until they know the grounds of all the ill.

Leir is near to death from starvation, which Cordella and France relieve by feeding him all without his realizing who they are. Cordella wishes to reveal herself to her father but France suggests that she “Forbeare a while, untill his strength returne, Lest being over joyed with seeing thee, His poor weak sences should forsake their office, And so our cause of joy be turn’d to sorrow.”

As well as reminding us of the words the Gentleman will speak to Cordelia in Shakespeare’s play, the Gloucester sub-plot is also foreseen here. Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom is reluctant to reveal himself to his blind father until he was armed against the possibility of his father’s wrath, and then when he does so, the shock is too great for the aged Gloucester who has a heart attack and dies!

Also, the connection of the Gloucester-plot with Sir Phillip Sidney’s account of the “story of the Paphlagonian unkinde king” has been readily seen, but a connection with the Lear plot has not been acknowledged, even though Sidney’s account is the story of a king and not just an earl. Two princes, Pyrocles and Musidorus, hiding in a rock cave during a fowl storm, at the end of the storm see the blinded king of Paphlagonia passing by led by his son, Leonatus, and they hear the father telling the son to leave him to die and to get on with his own life. What interests me is the mention of the Princes stepping out of their shelter in such a way that they might “see unseen.” A little further in the story the bastard son, Plexirtus, who had put out his father’s eyes, came out to look for Leonatus to kill him. He wanted to make sure that the deed was done and so wasn’t prepared to just send someone to do it, but he came himself and story tells us that in doing this Plexirtus “therefore came him selfe to be actor, and spectator.”

This is the situation that France and Cordella found themselves in as they served Leir in the French countryside while disguised “like a playne country couple”. They were disguised from Leir when they heard his story and in this way they could “see” while their true identities were as yet “unseen”. They, like Plexirtus, were also in the situation of being “spectators”, in their case, of the misery of Leir, at the same time as they were “actors”, or having a part of the action, in their case, in providing sustenance for their starving father.

So Shakespeare’s hiding Cordelia in the Fool’s motley and disguising France as a Servant or Knight and a Gentleman, would allow them to “see unseen”, to be both “spectators” of the plight of Lear and “actors” in guiding him towards the troops France has arranged to come in at Dover.

And thus, the beautiful fairytale princess Cordelia disguised as the motley Fool, got to be with her father and Kent and Edgar in the hovel adjacent to Gloucester’s castle.

There are not a few clues that Shakespeare gives us that lead us to identify Cordelia in the motley. These are too numerous to be discussed in this posting, but will be dealt with in postings to follow. 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. 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 other postings.  You can follow this blog or follow my Twitter tweets.

1 comment:

  1. This is insane Bob! You are truly a Shakespearean! I get such a sense of accomplishment when I understand a full sentence in any of Billy's plays much less be able to look into each word and find clues...
    Keep it up. This really opened my eyes.