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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: April ::
Re: Lear; Cordelia
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.0475.  Friday, 18 April 1997.

[1]     From:   Framji Minwalla <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Apr 1997 17:40:43 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0472  Distressed by *Lear*

[2]     From:   Ben Schneider <
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        Date:   Thursday, 17 Apr 1997 17:39:56 -0500 (CDT)
        Subj:   Cordelia


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Framji Minwalla <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Apr 1997 17:40:43 -0400
Subject: 8.0472  Distressed by *Lear*
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0472  Distressed by *Lear*


To Harry Hill:

Your student is exactly right, I think, that Lear subsumes the Fool's
role, rather than the other way around.  And even more right about the
apocalyptic revelations Lear supposedly has during the storm (these, I
think, come much later (on the heath with Gloucester)).  What he's
missing, though, is Lear's suffering.  Here's a short quote taken from a
talk I recently gave:

"Do we pity Lear?  Possibly, yes.  We see him, at the end of the play,
as 'more sinned against than sinning', as Caroline Spurgeon puts it
[Shakespeare's Iterative Imagery], 'a human body in anguished
movement-tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated,
flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured, and finally broken on the rack.'

"Once Lear's wits turn, he finally begins to lay his insides out, to
inspect more honestly than ever before the world he helped make.  But
it's not that Lear changes or grows wise;  rather, he becomes more
aware.  Barbara Everett ("The New King Lear") captures this nicely:
'Lear commands attention continually by the degree to which the simplest
discoveries become, through him, a matter of immediate physical
experience, felt both intensely and comprehensively.'

"King Lear is a play about power and property, but also about love and
healing.  Lear's tragedy lies in his inability to see how his political
being subsumes and corrupts his personal relations, both with his
daughters and his subjects.  The play does not, finally, justify or
condemn his behavior, even though we might, but rather examines the ways
in which individuals respond to, and behave with, each other.  We have
shifted far from the rationales of [Nahum]Tate and [Samuel]Johnson here,
but far also, I think, from critical readings which take as their text
Gloucester's cynicism.  Humans are not puppets manipulated by
omnipresent gods, but rather free individuals whose cruelties and
kindnesses bear human fruit.  If Lear learns anything, it is this:
'They told me I was everything; `tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.'"

The apocalyptic Lear is a fabrication we've inherited from Romantic
imaginations which, like Keats's, conjure a Lear far beyond the
character Shakespeare wrote, and who prefer to reread the play rather
than see it performed.

     Framji Minwalla
     
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[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ben Schneider <
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Date:           Thursday, 17 Apr 1997 17:39:56 -0500 (CDT)
Subject:        Cordelia

Cordelia's "reticence in the early play to declare her love completely"
strikes Greg McSweeney (7 Apr) as "standing on principle at the expense
of the filial relationship."  According to him, she deliberately
"showcased her own superior morality over that of her siblings. . . .
In other words, her opinion of herself must be preserved and published,
that her innate nobility may be known to all and sundry - and domestic
and political stability be damned."  In other contexts Greg speaks of
Cordelia's "judgmentalism" and "her pretentious silence."

Derek Woods agrees but, thinking of France's high opinion of Cordelia,
wonders (14 Apr), "Is there a case for Cordelia?"  I agree with his
second opinion:  France is right.  But what did he see in her?
Apparently something that neither Greg nor Derek did, though Derek tried
to.

We too readily try to explain Shakespeare's characters as if we were
they.  What would I do, we say, if I were in that situation?  In the
first place, as Derek Woods suspects, the character is defined by the
play, and we should let the play finish before interrupting with our
precious opinions.  Beside France's vote of confidence for Cordelia, we
have Kent's; as soon as Goneril wants Lear to "disquantity his train,"
we have his recognition that her fault was too small to trigger such a
large reaction; at the end, we have him asking Cordelia for
forgiveness.  The whole play falls apart if we think he is asking
forgiveness of a judgmental prig.  Those who think that "humoring the
old fool" would have ended the trouble must consider how formidably evil
these bad sisters are.  That's probably what Cordelia was trying to get
across in the first place.

As Terence Hawkes has so well reminded us, "The past is another
country.  They do things differently there."  In the light of that past,
Cordelia appears to have been a Plain Dealer, an archetypal character
who began with Socrates, was picked up and carried through the middle
ages by Cicero and Seneca and dumped on Shakespeare's England through
scores of conduct books, dozens of translations, and the public
schools.  These schools were founded in the 16th century on Cicero's
premise that man is rational, therefore educable and civilizable.  His
De Officiis was the core of the curriculum.  Shakespeare's England,
let's face it, was Stoic, and Stoicism, which fostered the needs of
society, is a foreign country to us, who prioritize the needs of the
individual.

Kent is a Plain Dealer, too, and so is  Lear, temporarily misled by
flatterers.  Edmund is a Plain-Dealing Villain, and Goneril and Regan
are Double-Dealing Villains.


In De Beneficiis, translated in 1548, Seneca gives us a perfect scenario
for King Lear.  He asks, what can we give a person who has everything?
and answers his own question: "I will show you what the highest in the
land stand in need of, what the man who possesses everything lacks:
someone, assuredly who will tell him the truth, who will deliver him
from the constant cant and falsehood that so bewilder him with lies that
the very habit of listening to flatteries instead of facts has brought
him to the point of not knowing what truth really is.  Do you not see
how such persons are driven to destruction by the absence of frankness
and the substitution of cringing obsequiousness for loyalty?  No one is
sincere in expressing approval or disapproval, but one person vies with
another in flattery, and, while all the man's friends have only one
object, a common aim to see who can deceive him most charmingly, he
himself remains ignorant of his own powers, and, believing himself to be
as great as he hears he is, he brings on wars that are useless and will
imperil the world, breaks up a useful and necessary peace, and, led on
by a madness that no one checks, sheds the blood of numerous persons,
destined at last to spill his own.  While without investigation such men
claim the undetermined as assured and think that it is as disgraceful to
be diverted from their purpose as to be defeated and believe that what
has already reached its highest development and is even then tottering,
will last for ever, they cause vast kingdoms to come crashing down upon
themselves and their followers."

The culture of absolutism is a foreign country to us, but Seneca, who
was Nero's tutor, lived his whole life there.  At a time when cultural
studies are the rage, I find it incredible that we have totally ignored
the moral milieu in which Shakespeare was raised, schooled, and s
elf-educated.  Maybe it's because it's in plain sight.
                                 * * *

SHAKSPERians who want further documentation of these allegations should
consult my articles on Lear, published in Early Modern Literary Studies,
vol 1, no 1 at the website http://purl.oclc.org/emls/emlshome.html ; on
Merchant, by sending a message to 
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 , skipping
"Subject" with the Enter key, and writing no more than GET SHAKSPER
GRANVILL JEW_OF_V ; and on Tempest, in Shakespeare Studies for 1995.  I
have also written drafts on why Shakespeare was a Stoic, on Henry IV
1&2, and on Henry V.  If you would like to have hard copies of the
electronic texts or any or all of these drafts, email your request and
your regular mail address to me at  
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   .

The article on Granville's Jew of Venice was published in Restoration,
Fall 1993.

Yours to command,
BEN SCHNEIDER
 

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