Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0172. Tuesday, 4 February 1997.
(1) From: Thomas Larque <
Date: Tuesday, 04 Feb 1997 00:41:02 -0800
Subj: Re : Cordelia / Fool
(2) From: Paul Campbell <
Date: Tuesday, 4 Feb 1997 10:16:13 +0800
Subj: Cordelia and the Fool
From: Thomas Larque <
Date: Tuesday, 04 Feb 1997 00:41:02 -0800
Subject: Re : Cordelia / Fool
I have enjoyed our discussion on Cordelia and the Fool, and am grateful to Syd
Kasten for responding in such detail to my posting.
I have to say that I am still firmly convinced that Cordelia cannot possibly
have been meant to disguise herself as the Fool. There are still some major
problems which Kasten has not overcome.
In the first place Sid Kasten's arguments about Cordelia replacing the original
(never seen) Fool, just do not sound right. No other character that I can
think of in Shakespeare's plays disguises themselves as a real person (with the
exception of the occasional bed trick - conveniently obscured by the darkness
of the bed chamber). Shakespeare's characters cross-dress and take on false
identities, but they do not impersonate other people - as far as I can
It is just possible that Lear's court would fail to recognise Kent or Edgar
when smothered in mud or "Razed" (shaven?). It seems rather more likely that
they would notice if the Fool they had all known for some time had suddenly
shrunk, and turned into an entirely different person.
Besides, if Cordelia and the Fool were being played by one actor, it would be a
boy actor - so there is no reason to believe that the Fool (always referred to
as boy) would have shrunk in any case. In the cross-dressing plays the woman
in boy's disguise is often told how young and feminine she looks - the deceived
viewer confusing feminine beauty with boyish youthfulness. The Fool must have
been a boy if Cordelia is able to impersonate him successfully, so a change of
stature would be unecessary.
Even if we can interpret Cordelia's "I'll do't before I speak" as her
announcement that she will return disguised, I fail to see how any audience
(watching a live production of the play, and not already knowing of the Fool's
later role) could possibly understand it as such. Most would have forgotten
the line long before the Fool returned.
Only when we have our texts open in front of us can we make textual analyses of
this kind, and this strongly suggests that they are incorrect. Syd Kasten
himself had to go "back to the text" to find this line, and in performance
(with an audience that lacks both a written text, and a foreknowledge of the
play) it would have been quite impossible to make this interpretation.
If a theatre audience could not understand the hidden meaning of this line, it
would be a very bad playwright who gave it such importance.
In addition, Edgar and Kent (as Poor Tom and Caius) do not stop after their
initial "I am disguising myself" speeches. Afterwards, they frequently step
out of their assumed roles to speak soliloquies and asides in their own
characters. These remind the audience that Poor Tom and Caius are Edgar and
Kent in disguise, and - more importantly - allow us to eavesdrop on the
genuine characters' thoughts and feelings. Which is surely the entire point of
If Shakespeare HAD intended Cordelia to disguise herself, she would be the
single most important disguised character within the play. A daughter's
loyalty is far more important (and intimate) than the loyalty of a subject; and
Cordelia is central to the MAIN plot, while Edgar is only central to the
Why do we not get any speeches from the disguised Cordelia about how painful it
is to watch her father suffering in this way? The Fool provides a running
commentary, but he often seems to mock and echo rather than openly sympathise
with Lear. Poor Tom behaves similarly, competing with Lear in madness, but
beneath his disguise (despite not even being related to the King) Edgar is
deeply moved - and turns aside to let the audience know this. "My tears begin
to take his part so much, / They mar my counterfeiting" (3.6.59-60). At the
end of the scene, Edgar turns to us again and gives us another (fairly long)
soliloquay about his disguised state.
If Cordelia were disguised and present, I would personally be much more
interested to hear what SHE had to say about her father's suffering. The fact
that we hear from Edgar instead seems to prove fairly conclusively that she
We also lack any sort of explanation for Cordelia's strange behaviour (dressing
up as the jester). Edgar explains (when disguised and fooling his father) "Why
I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it" (4.6.32-33), similarly
Kent at his first appearance explains the reasons for his disguise - "my good
intent / May carry through itself ... / thy master, whom thou lov'st, / Shall
find thee full of labours" (1.4.2-7). Even if the audience knew that Cordelia
had disguised herself as the Fool, they would want an explanation as to why she
had done it. Some might be able to guess, but many would have been left
puzzled (and therefore, probably discontented) throughout the rest of the play.
Again, this would be a bad move for any experienced playwright.
If Cordelia's love and duty to her father was such that she was willing to
undergo such a degradation (changing from female princess to a hireling boy)
Shakespeare would have been missing a chance for some wonderful lines about it.
Besides, this would have become one of the most important aspects of the
entire play - and it is extremely unlikely that Shakespeare would simply ignore
it within his text.
There are still many problems with the marriage to France, also. Theoretically
there is no reason (from a modern point of view) that France should not allow
his bride to wander unaccompanied disguised as a boy around a violent and
increasingly dangerous country. However, I suspect that a Renaissance audience
would have expected him to make sure that his wife was accompanied by at least
one servant / bodyguard. In the earlier (anonymous) play version of the Lear
story KING LEIR, the King of France (the Gallian King) is himself disguised as
a pilgrim when he meets Cordelia (Cordella), but is of course accompanied by
one of his courtiers (Mumford - also in disguise) as befits his Royal rank.
From a Renaissance perspective, it would be a poor husband (let alone a King)
who let his wife wander into danger without company or protection.
Also a Renaissance marriage was no marriage unless it was consummated. It is
possible that France (who apparently left "in choler" the next day) could
consummate his marriage in that one night, but would he then leave his wife
(perhaps pregnant) to play the part of a young boy? She would risk not only
the dangers of unsupervised childbirth, but - after a few months - fairly rapid
If Syd Kasten is right, of course, France's "choler" suggests that he was not
quite as happy at leaving his wife behind in England as Kasten suggests he
This may all seem to stray towards the "How many children did Lady Macbeth
have?" school of criticism, but this sort of speculation is only an addition to
the firmer text and performance based arguments we have already discussed.
Kasten compares Cordelia's actions to those of Rosalind, Viola etc. These other
examples of women disguised as boys certainly show that Shakespeare would have
been very happy to use a cross-dressing Cordelia / Fool if he had wanted to -
but all these women make very clear that they are putting on disguises, discuss
their feelings about their disguised state ("disguise, thou art a wickedness" -
Viola, quoted from memory) and make continual asides and comments in their own
characters. Cordelia, if she was one of their number, should have done the
Like Syd Kasten, I disagree with Derek Wood's suggestion that Cordelia would
not be allowed to make dirty jokes. Rosalind and Portia crack enough of them,
and I don't think we can question either of their reputations for maidenly
virtue. (Or perhaps we can. Any comments anybody?) However Kasten's
response, suggesting that Cordelia's pre-Roman heritage might explain such
earthiness, is a little far fetched. Whenever Shakespeare set his plays, they
were all written for Renaissance audiences who interpreted them on the basis of
their own time's morality and social expectations. In the same way that many
of Shakespeare's foreign characters seem suspiciously English in their
behaviour, Cordelia is (I feel) very much a Renaissance woman.
From: Paul Campbell <
Date: Tuesday, 4 Feb 1997 10:16:13 +0800
Subject: Cordelia and the Fool
>First of all, in commenting that Cordelia was not a stranger to the jester's
craft I didn't mean to imply that she was previously the court jester in
>It seems to me that the concept 'Cordelia as the Fool' gives meaning to the
Without necessarily getting into the issue of theatrical doubling, it seems to
me that the fool and Cordelia do have much in common. Or to be more precise,
that Cordelia's refusal to flatter and her blunt truth-telling early in the
play are true to the traditional 'office' of the fool.
Ben Jonson provides an apt description of 'the fool' in Volpone: "Fools, they
are the only nation/ Worth men's envy, or admiration;/...All they speak or do
is sterling./ ...And he speaks truth, free from slaughter"(I.ii.66-75) Thus the
role of the fool, apart from playing the entertainer, is to speak the truth
(supposedly free repercussions (slaughter)).
I wonder whether we might simply read the Knight's comments: "Since my young
Lady's going into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away" (I.iv.72) as
suggesting that since Cordelia's banishment there is less 'truth' being spoken
in Lear's court?