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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: February ::
Cordelia: Loss of Insolence (Studies in the
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0439  Monday, 16 February 2004

From:           L. Swilley <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Feb 2004 08:31:44 -0600
Subject: 15.0416 Cordelia: Loss of Insolence (Studies in the
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0416 Cordelia: Loss of Insolence (Studies in the
Humanities)

Martin Steward wrote,

 >They [Goneril and Regan] treat him with remarkable gentleness, as far as I
 >can see - as long as that is in keeping with their more important
 >responsibility to run a
 >well-financed tight ship of state. It's hardly their fault that Lear
 >makes a fuss when he realises he's given up his power! Whether that was
 >wise or not - and his madness in ensuing scenes suggests it was wise
 >indeed - the Fool makes it clear that this is how we are supposed to see
 >the situation.

In one of several of his very short one-acters, Maurice Baring displays
with amusement and sympathy the plight of these two sisters who must
deal with a retired king and his rowdy knights. But so far as
Shakespeare's work is concerned, it is difficult to establish that these
two sisters are concerned with the public issue of  ship of state - are
they not considerably more concerned with which of them beds Edmund?
Like their father, they have ignored the public good and use their power
to further private, personal interests.

And David Crosby wrote,

 >I'm not sure whether L. Swilley is agreeing or disagreeing with me about
 >the benefits of comparing the opening scene of Lear with similar
 >examination scenes in other of Shakespeare's plays. Clearly the "issues
 >and outcomes of the several plays are quite different," as he says.
 >
 >What I sought to point out, is that whenever Shakespeare assembles a
 >group of characters on stage to examine one of them about their
 >infringement of a stringent law or refusal of an outrageous demand, he
 >follows certain conventions and uses certain tropes that are
 >predictable. And always, the figure who demands obedience will find
 >himself facing a comic comeuppance or a tragic ending.
 >The fact that many of these figures are fathers who demand the right to
 >dispose of their daughters absolutely according to their will is beyond
 >dispute. Egeus tells Theseus, etc.
 >These and other precedents would seem to give the lie to Swilley's
 >contention that it "would be very silly of [Cordelia's] suitors to
 >suppose that a child's love of a parent is anything other than assurance
 >of her love for the suitor." We have, at this point, no assurance
 >whatever that Lear's love for Cordelia is not incestuous: it certainly
 >is demanding and possessive, and quickly reveals itself to be
 >irrational, obsessive, and vengeful. At least one modern novelist
 >thought the notion worth exploring.

First, the likeness of pattern in two works by the same author may well
be a guide, but it is not a determinant - only the interrelated facts of
each can establish the unique organism of each.  Second, 1) are we to
abandon common sense and suppose that real love is *not* ever expansive
(a case I tried to make in one of my previous posts on this subject), 2)
that anyone who supposes that a woman's normal love and care of a father
is *not* the best assurance of her devotion to a husband, and 3) that
whoever sees this play does *not* apply common sense in judgement of its
points?  The appearance of a domineering father in several other plays
rightly calls our attention to that point in "Lear," but must we
conclude that because other plays by the same author make that point,
the use of it in *this* play having  the same force in *this* whole
argument?  On that issue of incest:  I guess, after Freud has burdened
us with knowledge of the sexual groundings of *every* relationship, the
possibility of it in the psychological relationship of Lear to Cordelia
cannot be disallowed; but if it is meant here that the relationship
between them is also *physical*, I find that quite impossible because of
the presentation of Cordelia's character throughout the play.  (Imagine
Cordelia carrying on with Lear as Olivier's Hamlet conducted himself
with the Gertrude of that production!)

 >Swilley seems to suggest that Shakespeare is somehow providing us with
 >moral instruction about the nature of love, that it is "indivisible,"
 >and perhaps that is part of his belief. But to do it he is constructing
 >a play, and in the first place, a scene. His skills are poetry and
 >stagecraft. I would like to see this piece of scenemaking placed in a
 >context of similar constructions in other plays before it is offered as
 >evidence of how Shakespeare feels about love.

I would not presume to say how Shakespeare feels about love; but I *do*
say that *every* play makes a moral statement - it cannot avoid it - and
that *this* play, however instructive the intention, presents moral
problems, and with its ellipses  defines their possible solutions.

And Bob Marks wrote,

 >I guess that there is some difficulty in our differing understandings of
 >love being "divisible." It seems to me that there are lots of other ways
 >in which love is divisible. A mother should have love for all little
 >children, but if her child is in danger along with a whole lot of other
 >children, which child is she going to rescue first? Her love is divided
 >between children.

There is something wrong here that I cannot quite express. I am reminded
of that ghastly scene in "Sophie's Choice" in which the mother saves her
son at the expense of the loss of her daughter - a scene so awful I try
to put it out of my mind as quickly as possible (but I had to mention it
here because of its application to this problem.)  I would say that in
abnormal situations like the one described here, a confusion of motives
is involved. But, ideally, loving is a training in love, a training for
greater love of ever more.

 >Love in "Lear" is almost equated with action, with
 >doing. Cordelia knew this, because she argues that her sisters can't
 >love their father "all" when they have husbands!  They would have to
 >divide the attention they give to Lear and their husbands because they
 >love both.

Yes, this is her error, as Lear has made his.

 >Jesus' command to love God with all our hearts, minds, etc., is
 >different, because one of the ways we are to love God is by loving the
 >things God love, and this includes our neighbours and even our enemies.
 >Earlier L. Swilley wrote: "Cordelia might justly have said that she
 >loves everything else because of Lear." But that would perhaps have been
 >seen as putting Lear in the place of God, which I don't think the
 >original audience would have countenanced.

This is an analogy.  It is certainly not the point here that Lear is
equated with God; had it been, the audience would certainly have been
properly horrified.  The point here is that within the context of
father-daughter relationship, the love of the daughter for the father is
*analogous* to the love of  a person for God.

 >Would there not have been an
 >element of flattery in that too?  And I can't see Lear accepting this as
 >a declaration of love for him that would top Goneril's and Regan's, and
 >this is what he is looking for.

No. It would not have been flattery; it is the truth. And it *would*
have topped the lies of the sisters who, as I said, have unwittingly
provided the formula for topping.

 >To my earlier statement, "Ironically, the way Cordelia is being derided
 >by some these days, does make Goneril's and Regan's responses worthy of
 >being "accounted piety in" them" L. Swilley has responded: "That cannot
 >be, since the selfish lying of the sisters is immediately exposed in
 >their first appearance in the play." Of course, I was taking the present
 >debate to an extreme. But there is no doubt that some have put Cordelia
 >in "the sin bin" as we say in Australian sport along with the sisters
 >and Lear as being responsible for the tragedy. "If only she had
 >said....." Well, I believe that what she said would have been considered
 >totally adequate and proper by the original audience despite the
 >outcome. It is "The Tragedie of King Lear" not of Cordelia!

A tragedy is the tragedy of all the characters - otherwise we would have
a melodrama in which both bad and good result.  The sense of the best
tragedy is that each of the characters might have done or avoided
something that would have ended the crisis - but no one of them does.

 >"The Mirror
 >For Magistrates" gave us "The Tragoedy of Cordila" which is markedly
 >different.

Very likely.  And a different work, too.

 >L. Swiley wrote: "... the "bond" of Cordelia's remark is given the cast
 >of Shylock's bond, when she measures out her love as Lear has parcelled
 >out his kingdom. That is exactly what this play is about."
 >It seems to me that Cordelia refuses to measure out her love in exchange
 >for a parcel of Lear's kingdom.

As she at present conceives love - i.e., wrongly - she *does* "measure
out her love."  That's the problem.

 >L. Swiley wrote: "Isn't it unwise to suppose that because an earlier
 >play of the same name and like characters is known to an audience, the
 >point of it is to be carried over to the next play of the same name?  If
 >this were applied to the two "Medeas" - Euripides' and Seneca's - we
 >would miss the point of the second entirely." While there may be many
 >versions of a story that have no connection with each other, the title
 >page of Q seems to show a definite comparison and contrast with the LEIR
 >version, let alone a detailed comparison of the two plays:
 >
 >THE True Chronicle History of King LEIR, and his three daughters,
 >Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella.
 >
 >M. William Shake-speare, HIS True Chronicle History of the life and
 >death of King Lear, and his three Daughters. With the vnfortunate life
 >of EDGAR, sonne and heire to the Earle of Glocester, and his sullen and
 >assumed humour of TOM of Bedlam.

Did I miss something?  This response does not seem to deal with the
difference of argument, as that in the two "Medea's" mentioned.  As it
is and must be an organism, each work, changing any of the words of the
other, has become an essentially different argument.

 >L. Swiley wrote: "I'm sure that is how she intends to act, and I am sure
 >of her love for her father, but - perhaps overreacting to the lies of
 >her sisters - she fails to notice and confess the true scope of her love
 >that might have saved them all." There she is, in the sin bin! Sure, she
 >might have just gone along with the flattery and played the game. But
 >this wouldn't have changed the sisters' attitudes unless Shakespeare had
 >intended to completely rewrite the folk story.

I maintain that she would NOT have been flattering had see completed the
pattern that her sisters have provided.  As far as Shakespeare's
re-writing the earlier play is concerned, he need only have changed one
speech - I presume he changed more than that - to change the whole
argument; an "explication de texte" of the original and of the changed
speech would make that point rather emphatically.

L. Swilley

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