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Truth’s a dog that must to kennel
September 16, 2012 11:03 AM   Subscribe

It's been an Epileptic Trees theory since the 1890s: Given that in some reports (and subsequent productions) Cordelia and the fool in Shakespeare's King Lear are played by the same person, some theorists believe the Fool is either a stand-in for her, some sort of spiritual doppelganger, or literally just Cordelia pretending to be the Fool to be close to her Dad, and even to save him.

Perhaps the literal version of events is fraught with incongruity, but it does help explain why the Fool disappears without comment, and why Lear says he was hanged.
posted by Potomac Avenue (26 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't have Lear in front of me, but I do remember that The Fool and Cordelia played similar roles in that they were truth-tellers, or in Cordelia's case, an example of one who refuses to provide false testimony.

that's she's hanging with her dad sees like a really tortured interp of the text tho
posted by angrycat at 11:20 AM on September 16, 2012


i mean prior to France's invasion, her hanging with dad seems unlikely
posted by angrycat at 11:21 AM on September 16, 2012


The theory goes that she never left England.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:27 AM on September 16, 2012


My personal theory is that the characters are set up as parallels, so similar they may as well be played by the same actor, whether they are or not. Sometimes you wonder watching it if the Fool is real, or a vision speaking C's point of view slanted into a joke/poem so that the king can almost hear it. When Cordelia dies, finally Lear realizes the truth--that they are the same person, not necessarily in the reality of his world, but in the reality of the stage, and that his whole life, like the Fool's, has been merely a cruel farce performed for a vain king.

Conclusion: Shakespeare is a goddamn genius, and Lear is his best work.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:33 AM on September 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


This makes so much sense to me.
posted by jamjam at 11:54 AM on September 16, 2012


Everybody plays the fool sometimes.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:31 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


all this cleverness aside, it was very common for one or more actors to play two or more parts. What you thus need to do is to see if Cordelia and the Fool ever appear together ...they do not and thus a good chance the two roles by one actor.
posted by Postroad at 12:43 PM on September 16, 2012


all this cleverness aside, it was very common for one or more actors to play two or more parts. What you thus need to do is to see if Cordelia and the Fool ever appear together ...they do not and thus a good chance the two roles by one actor.

There's a difference between "Hey, we don't need to pay another actor" and "Let's make this character a disguised version of this other character." Dr. Strangelove is clearly not supposed to be President Muffley in disguise, nor is the Austin Powers series intended to delve into the hero/villain duality of a 1960s British photographer.
posted by Etrigan at 12:50 PM on September 16, 2012


May I pop in to recommend the Manga Shakespeare KING LEAR, adapted by Richard Appignanesi and illustrated by Ilya - that is, a comic book? This uses this conceit very well.

I have generally found comic-book versions of Shakespeare to be simply "the whole play with static pictures and people declaiming". This one, however, changes the setting and uses comic book conventions brilliantly. I thought it was great.
posted by alasdair at 12:56 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Regardless of what Shakespeare intended for Cordelia and the Fool, they almost certainly wouldn't have been played by the same actor. Robert Armin was the actor in the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later the King's Men) who specialized in fools, and he's generally credited with the wittier fools found in late Shakespeare--Twelfth Night's Feste, for instance. While in terms of pure stagecraft he could have doubled the Fool and Cordelia, by the time of King Lear, he was in his forties, and would have a hard time convincing an audience that he was the youngest of Lear's daughters.

(Slight tangent here: Robert Armin replaced Will Kemp, who left the company around 1599. Kemp's style was much less intellectual, and you can see Shakespeare's writing changing to accommodate Armin's different approach; he goes from Much Ado About Nothing's Dogberry to As You Like It's Touchstone within a year or two.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:33 PM on September 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


I saw Lear performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1977, and I am thisclose to swearing that Cordelia and the Fool were played by the same actor, but it was a long time ago and my Google is weak.
posted by trip and a half at 1:59 PM on September 16, 2012


(I do remember that Judi Dench was in that production. Swoon.)
posted by trip and a half at 2:01 PM on September 16, 2012


nor is the Austin Powers series intended to delve into the hero/villain duality of a 1960s British photographer.

Have I told you my theory that Mini Me is actually the brains of the operation, cleverly misdirecting Powers's attention while secretly pulling the strings?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:09 PM on September 16, 2012


trip and a half: looks like your memory may be right but this is missing the names of the characters.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:11 PM on September 16, 2012


Yes, Potomac Avenue. Alas, that was all that I could find. My memory is dim after all these years, but I seem to recall some buzz about the double-cast. Something in me wants to say that it was Judi herself in those roles, but that would be pure conjecture on top of fuzzy memory. Sigh.
posted by trip and a half at 2:27 PM on September 16, 2012


A similar "theory" holds that Claudius is Hamlet's real father (Old Hamlet had been away fighting Old Fortinbras on the day that Hammy Jr. was born). These are, in my opinion, interesting from the standpoint of performance possibilities, but, of course, they aren't "correct" because, well, they are fictional characters.
posted by Saxon Kane at 3:23 PM on September 16, 2012


all this cleverness aside, it was very common for one or more actors to play two or more parts. What you thus need to do is to see if Cordelia and the Fool ever appear together ...they do not and thus a good chance the two roles by one actor.

Wait a second! Does this mean the time honored method of super hero/secret identity detection is moot? Batman isn't Bruce Wayne, they're just played by the same actor!

/'twas hamburger
posted by Ghidorah at 3:59 PM on September 16, 2012


You'd need to play Lear as pretty damned gaga right from the start of the show for this to work. When we first see Lear talking to the Fool he (Lear) is, from any straightforward reading if the text, perfectly well in his right mind (although, certainly, there are productions that play him as pretty far gone from the get go--not, to my mind, a very dramatically effective choice). But the Fool is not a new employee. He's a very familiar person. It's a stretch to believe that Lear would just fail to notice that his own daughter has suddenly dressed herself up in the Fool's clothes and started calling herself his Fool.

I can think of plenty of occasions in Shakespeare where we're asked to believe that someone goes unrecognized by their nearest and dearest because they've donned a dramatically unusual costume (and, if course, it happens in Lear), but off the top of my head I can't think of a case where someone well known to a person dresses up as someone else also well known to that person and pulls that off. If it does happen, it would surely be in the context of a farce like Comedy of Errors, not Lear.
posted by yoink at 5:34 PM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Something in me wants to say that it was Judi herself in those roles, but that would be pure conjecture on top of fuzzy memory.

And, as all too often, that something in me would be wrong: Judi played Regan in that production, according to her Wikipedia entry.

I still think Cordelia/Fool was a double role for someone in that cast.

/Old man yells at memory.
posted by trip and a half at 6:12 PM on September 16, 2012


There is a similar theory that in Macbeth. In it, the title character hires two thugs to kill Banquo, but on the night of the deed, three thugs show up to kill him. The "theory" is that the third killer is Macbeth, making sure that Banquo is actually killed.
posted by Cataline at 8:47 PM on September 16, 2012


Yoink, there is the Edgar disguise plot in Lear, which is not exactly what you're saying but is precedence for a a plot device in this very play that asks the audience to believe a character pulls off a disguise (as mad Tom), yet is still very clear to the audience.

On the other hand, I've always loved thinking of this doubling, but not as something internal to the world of the play but rather as a metatheatrical commentary on it. Doesn't require epileptic trees.
posted by Mngo at 8:15 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yoink, there is the Edgar disguise plot in Lear, which is not exactly what you're saying but is precedence for a a plot device in this very play that asks the audience to believe a character pulls off a disguise (as mad Tom), yet is still very clear to the audience.

If you reread my comment, you'll see that I note that Lear contains examples of a character disguising themselves so that they are not recognized by people who know them (Kent is another example). That is certainly a familiar trope in Shakespeare. I was, very specifically, suggesting that having one well-known person disguise themselves as some other specific and also well-known person requires an order of magnitude more suspension of disbelief and does not, so far as I can recall, occur anywhere in Shakespeare's plays.

That, say, your brother could disguise himself in such a way that you wouldn't recognize him seems like a stretch, but not a patently absurd one. That your brother could successfully disguise himself as your sister and have your buy the impersonation over many days seems harder to believe. That, essentially, is what we're required to believe if we have Cordelia impersonating the Fool. And, of course, even if we try to explain this by saying that Lear is a bit gaga, there's the problem that everyone else is equally taken in; not one of them recognizes that their familiar Fool has been replaced by the King's daughter in drag.
posted by yoink at 9:13 AM on September 17, 2012


Yup, totally agree with you, which is why I like this as a casting choice but not as a literal interpretation of the plot involving this kind of disguise.
posted by Mngo at 9:17 AM on September 17, 2012


I don't know if I buy the Macbeth-as-Third-Murderer theory. It doesn't really add much to the plot, for one thing, and I have a hard time accepting that a guy who could barely bring himself to kill Duncan (and was a nervous wreck immediately afterward) two acts ago would suddenly gear up to kill Banquo along with the two assassins. (Great. I'm now picturing Lady Macbeth as Roast Beef: "Like you really gonna go all pro ice all of a sudden")

Even if it was Macbeth, I find it odd that the assassins don't recognize him, even if by voice, and that Macbeth seems to have a wholly unfeigned bout of fear when told Fleance has escaped:
Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect,
Whole as the marble, founded as the rock,
As broad and general as the casing air:
But now I am cabin'd, cribb'd, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.
All this aside, it would be extremely impractical for the same actor to play the Third Murderer unless you put the intermission (which Jacobean theatre didn't have) between III.iii and III.iv; the Third Murderer has the fourth-from-last line of the former scene, and Macbeth the first line of the latter. There's a banquet set out at the beginning of III.iv, but even still, your Macbeth would have to be a ninja master of quick costume changes.

My pet theory is that one of the hired men of the company was tired of being in the background and asked for a few lines, and Shakespeare threw him a small speaking part to see how he'd do. We'll probably never know for sure, of course.

(There's another fun--but even less probable--theory of where the Third Murderer came from in a 1978 short story by Anne Lear called "The Adventure of the Global Traveller". I won't spoil it for you, though.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:35 AM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is a similar theory that in Macbeth. In it, the title character hires two thugs to kill Banquo, but on the night of the deed, three thugs show up to kill him. The "theory" is that the third killer is Macbeth, making sure that Banquo is actually killed.
posted by Cataline


I've never seen a performance, but Macbeth on paper is about the most disturbing horror story I've read as an adult.

Lady Macbeth's soliloquy alone gave me more of a turn than anything in Lovecraft, for example:
Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murthering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, "Hold, hold!"
I think the third murderer is one of the demonic spirits Lady Macbeth calls to herself (conceives and gestates, I'd say) and suckles in that passage-- one of "night's black agents" in other words:
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse;
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
I look at King Lear and Macbeth as fraternal twins, really, and just as Lear is a meditation on venereal disease and the madness it fosters as well as its blighted children, at some level, Macbeth explores monstrous births and monsters unborn (even Macduff "declares that he was 'from his mother's womb / Untimely ripp'd' (5.8.15–16), (i.e., born by Caesarean section) and was not "of woman born...")-- the subversion and perversion of women's generative powers, if you will.
posted by jamjam at 8:04 PM on September 17, 2012


I saw a version of Macbeth (Shotgun Players in Berkeley) where Lady Macbeth, ridden with guilt, disguised herself as the messenger who warned Lady Macduff of the approach of the murderers. Also, it was implied that Lady Macduff was having an affair with Ross, and that her children were really his.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:14 AM on September 21, 2012


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