Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0119. Friday, 24 January 1997.
Date: Thursday, 23 Jan 1997 23:41:06 +0200 (IST)
Subject: Cordelia and the Fool
Last week Bill Godshalk and Gabriel Egan took a break from their ideology
discussion for a brief look at doubling:
Bill Godshalk asked about virtuoso doubling,
>> For example, the actor who played Cordelia might double as the Fool.
and Gabriel Egan replied,
>Although they are unalike, this would be an example of thematic doubling if it
>used the two-in-oneness to suggest that the two characters share a similar
>relation to the father figure. .....
and goes on to point out that
>A. C. Sprague rejected the doubling of Fool and Cordelia because the
>Fool was an important comedian's role, not a boy's, and Armin was too old to
>play Cordelia (p33).
My understanding of their interchange is that while all have noticed that
Cordelia and the Fool are never on the stage together, none of the above have
drawn the ultimate conclusion that the Fool and Cordelia, like Clark Kent And
Superman, are one and the same: that the Fool as we see him is really Cordelia
in disguise. If this is one of those crank theories that periodically surfaces
accept my apologies and trash this letter now. Otherwise consider the evidence.
Act I scene 4, begins with the theme of disguise - the entrance of the Kent,
whose disguise is not penetrated by Lear. We are then primed to the Fool's
entrance with a flourish of 50 lines, in which Lear repeatedly couples a call
for his Fool with a call for his daughter. Whithin this section one hears a
gratuitous comment by the knight on the change in the Fool's appearance since
Cordelia's departure. Surely this is to prime us for a Fool that is other than
what he appears, and incidentally to make explicit retroactively an underlying
irony in Lear's call for his daughter/fool. Cordelia is not a stranger to the
jester's craft. Her answer to the king's request for flattery took the form of
a terse conundrum followed by a logical explanation. The Fool that appears on
the scene continues the attempt to straighten out the king's thinking in the
matter of his divestiture, the reverence of a daughter being replaced by the
irreverence of a fool.
Further on in the play the author has provided a superfluous scene iii, act 4
in which nothing much happens except for a description of Cordelia's emotional
expressiveness. This apparently does not appear in the Folio version. No
doubt this scene is an extender to be used in case the actor has gotten tangled
in his stays or whatever while redressing to his Cordelia role on her way to
Dover and needs more time?
Finally, Lear is allowed to die in a state of clarity which goes unperceived by
those who surround him. After recognizing Kent through a window in the clouds
of his psychosis, and Kent has recalled the period of exile by revealing
himself to be the faithful Caius as well, Lear, going back to that time, puts
two and two together to achieve a final appreciation of the depth of Cordelia's
devotion, a merging of fool and daughter: "And my poor fool is hang'd!"!
Kent and Edgar are not the only Shakespearian characters who handled banishment
by taking on a disguise. In this case Cordelia would be expressing her courage
and foresight by keeping close watch over her father. It would seem from this
reading that the C and F roles were conceived as one, but for various reasons
(e.g. "Armin was too old to play Cordelia") they were separated, and this
became the tradition.
Perhaps someone out there can tell me how I arrived at this idea? Have I seen
it done and forgotten? It may be that the thought was seeded by a (supply your
own superlative) Granada production for television (1983) with Sir Laurence
Olivier as Lear, supported by an outstanding cast, and directed by Michael
Elliot. Anna Calder-Marshal, playing Cordelia, and John Hurt, cast as the
Fool, in complexion and I don't know what other cues radiate to my eyes a
similarity greater than that to be found in most Viola and Sebastians I have
seen. I wonder if the director, in choosing these two, wasn't intentionally
giving us a subliminal nudge towards a concept that has remained over the years
a subliminal ambiguity.
Or maybe I've been watching too much "Lois and Clark".