Tuesday 24 November 2020

Enter Cordelia, disguised as Fool


In William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, there are significant textual, logical and dramatic reasons to suspect that the role of the Fool was at one point in the play’s history written to be played in disguise by Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter.

Nevertheless, the surviving text of the play I will refer to does not state in directions or dialogue that Cordelia is the Fool, in disguise.


Shakespeare’s comedic daughters customarily disobey or try to circumvent their fathers, and this also applies to some of his tragic daughters, such as Desdemona and Juliet (Ophelia obeys, but shares their fate anyway, albeit diminished).

It is also common for Shakespeare’s dramatic daughters to don disguises, often male.

Therefore there is little reason to object to the possibility of Cordelia disguising herself as the Fool on the basis of the other plays. We can also discount the rather pompous patriarchal assertion that Cordelia would simply obey her father’s order of banishment because she is allegedly the model of a ‘good’ daughter: she may be, but obedience is not part of that package for Shakespeare.

Role Morality

This takes us onto to what seems to me the heart of King Lear. Lear is faced with a tragic dilemma of the conflicts raised by trying to be both a good ruler and a good parent. I say ruler rather than king as he abdicates rule but not the title; and parent rather than father since Mrs Lear is missing presumed dead (“thy mother’s tomb”).

And the play continues to examine the morality inherent in other roles, such as counsellor, overlord, wife, servant and especially offspring. The major dramatic contrast is between the characters of Cordelia and Lear’s other daughters, Regan and Goneril.

Do not assume that these role-players fall simply into social clich├ęs: at one point a loyal servant stabs a Duke, and great trials and reverses await some of our characters.

Overview of plot, with Cordelia disguised as Fool

Act 1

Old King Lear is faced with a major problem. He would like to retire, but two of his three daughters (Regan and Goneril, each married to a duke) would each try and seize the kingdom. A ruthless King might just have the two of them killed to spare his kingdom civil war, but as a father he cannot countenance that. Lear would prefer his beloved unmarried youngest daughter to inherit, but the other two would gang up on her first. Perhaps the only way he sees (possibly unconsciously, he has “slenderly ever known himself”) to guarantee her safety is to engineer a falling out then a love test with the two suitors to see where she may be safely bestowed while the other two daughters duke it out. The King of France graciously accepts dowerless, disinherited Cordelia for wife, and Lear contrives to banish loyal Kent, possibly in order that he accompanies Cordelia to the French court as protector.

Painted sketch of Britain with Goneril's Albany faction in the North, Regan's Cornwall faction in the Southwest, and Cordelia about to be driven away from Kent in the Southeast.
Lear's Britain, to be divided in three for his daughters

So, a fake love test of words followed by a real love test of deeds, all for Cordelia's benefit. Does anyone really believe Lear when he says his aim is that:

future strife
May be prevented now

We only have disowned Cordelia’s immediate reaction, and then she disappears from the play until the closing stages. Or does she? At any rate, we have to imagine an unplayed scene with Cordelia and the French King where she lays her plans and demands upon him to provide her with support that later appears in a French army landed at Dover to back her claim. She might as well have a more direct involvement in mind, and a much greater desire to stay with her father in his hour of greatest need than the King of France to which she shows no affection.

Kent ignores his King’s order of banishment and disguises himself as a rough servant we much later discover is named Caius, in order to reenlist in Lear’s service to look after him. There is a stage direction (Act 1 scene 4) “Enter KENT, disguised” and a short speech where Kent explains his disguise. The Fool first appears in the same scene.

In the text, the Fool is introduced as “Enter Fool“ not “Enter Cordelia, disguised as a Fool”. Neither does Cordelia give a speech explaining her disguise. However, these may have been removed from the text at some point, or Cordelia’s disguise may have been treated differently. Anyway, the Fool goes straight to Kent-Caius, which may indicate recognition, immediately penetrating Kent's disguise. From now on, I’ll refer to the character as Cordelia-Fool.

There is a telling introduction where Lear has missed the Fool since exactly the time of Cordelia’s departure, two days in which Cordelia-Fool has arranged for the real Fool to go into hiding, arranged her plots with her betrothed French King, and adopted and practised her new disguise in the same time period as Kent has. But Kent does not recognise Cordelia-Fool in return, who seems to immediately take the opportunity to test her disguise.

Cordelia-Fool plays constantly on the theme of daughters, and repeatedly utters the sentiments of Cordelia. When Cordelia-Fool says Lear has banished two of his daughters and given the third a blessing against his will, she is thankful. When Cordelia-Fool says:

“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are:
they'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt
have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am
whipped for holding my peace.”

this can only relate to the previous exchanges between Regan and Goneril and Cordelia; and between Lear and Cordelia. Cordelia is rebuked and punished (not literally whipped) for all these cases. Cordelia-Fool also echoes and throws back Lear’s nothing-can-come-from-nothing phrase. Lear notes the Fool’s behaviour has changed, more singing etc.

In his reactions to Kent-Caius and Cordelia-Fool, Lear demonstrates how he “acts on instinct” (as Falstaff feebly claimed in Henry IV), or rather operates partly on an unconscious level, treating these two as affectionately and trustingly as if he knew them. This is of a piece with his repression of fatherly instincts in order to rule as king.

The number of occasions where Lear says ‘daughter’ when Cordelia-Fool is present also allows acted reaction.

Act 2

When Lear starts to express his worries about going mad, we are left wondering if the appearance in his coterie of Kent-Caius and Cordelia-Fool is not helping his sanity. Indeed, while conversing with Cordelia-Fool he says suddenly “I did her wrong”. Small wonder the Fool reminds him of Cordelia. Lear addresses the Fool as ‘boy’ so it makes sense that Cordelia could pass more easily as a youth.

Anyway, the plot develops, and Kent-Caius has mysteriously come into possession of a letter addressed to him from Cordelia (Act 2 scene 2):

“I may
Peruse this letter! Nothing almost sees miracles
But misery: I know 'tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately been inform'd
Of my obscured course”

No mystery mate, that’s her in the Fool’s outfit, the only reasonable way she could have discovered his disguised presence in the King’s company and slipped the letter to him, with speed that strongly indicates she cannot be in France as her cover story implies.

Act 3

The plot drives onwards, and the Fool refuses to part with Lear when everyone else has.

Kent-Caius: “But who is with him?”
Gentleman: “None but the fool; who labours to out-jest
His heart-struck injuries.”

When Lear says:

“Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That's sorry yet for thee.”

this maps on to Lear's division of his kingdom into parts (then depriving Cordelia of hers).

When Lear’s remnants encounter poor Tom in a hovel during the storm, it is Cordelia-Fool who is disturbed by his near-nakedness, providing a comic moment in otherwise dire times:

“Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed.”

and is the one disturbed by (her father) Lear’s subsequent disrobing.

Again, Lear's address to the Fool:

“In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty,”

only really makes sense in relation to Lear's having made Cordelia houseless and poor.

The Fool's last speech is in answer to Lear's finally going to rest, talking about supper in the morning.

Cordelia-Fool: And I'll go to bed at noon.

which is to say, Cordelia-Fool plans to travel all night to Dover, where the litter arranged by her with the King's loyal knights is to convey Lear, which is immediately discovered by allies Gloster and Kent.

Act 4

Anyway, the Fool disappears sometime before Lear is united with Cordelia and Kent. Cordelia is mentioned receiving letters in the French camp in Act 4 scene 3, when the King of France deserts the campaign in Dover. We see her briefly in the next scene looking forward to a reunion with her father Lear.

Cordelia’s soldiers seem to be directed to Lear, which is unsurprising if Cordelia-Fool has recently left his company. It is not until Act 4 scene 7 that Cordelia and Kent (still apparently in disguise but openly recognised by Cordelia) are formally reunited with Lear. Cordelia seems very accurately informed of Lear’s ordeal in the storm, again unsurprising if she was present. When Lear says to Cordelia:

“Methinks I should know you, and know this man;”

this makes sense in the context that he last saw both in disguise.

Act 5

In the last scene, after Cordelia is hanged in prison and Lear carries her out, after various laments and Kent telling Lear he had posed as his servant Caius, Lear exclaims:

“And my poor fool is hang’d!”

which of course could be a plain and simple recognition of Cordelia-Fool.

Thematic Support

The play revolves around people not being as they seem. Regan and Goneril pretend to be loving daughters, Edmund pretends to be a loyal son and half-brother. Their fathers Lear and Gloucester appear to be deceived. Cordelia and Kent’s plain words anger Lear, but their actions are of love and loyalty even as they disobey, as are Edgar’s to his blind father even as his words deceive and he disobey’s his father’s instructions to assist his suicide. So there is a distinction between being literally honest and being true. Kent deceives and disobeys but truly serves his King. Cordelia could quite consistently do the same. The play’s heroes do not abandon their loved ones at time of greatest need, in spite of being disowned by them.

Another other aspect is that Lear, caught in irreconcilable conflict between being a good King and a good father, fails at both, and this is a point that Shakespeare rams home as one of his searing indictments against the institution of hereditary monarchy. By repressing his parental/paternal care, it is left to work subconsciously, but he also neglects his own kingdom, as he belatedly recognises too. Lear’s anguish at his treatment from Regan and Goneril seems to stem from his repressed fatherly love that at some level he is shocked is not requited, although his eldest daughters may have been starved of the affection he seems in his later years to have bestowed on Cordelia. Lear’s close relationship with Cordelia-Fool therefore works off this subconscious recognition, as his regard for Kent does for Kent-Caius.

Also, Cordelia and Kent are aware that old Lear’s eyesight is not that sharp and he has begun to mistrust his senses. There is a constant theme of one’s senses being at odds: one’s nose may descry what eyes and ears are fooled by (and Cordelia-Fool’s close proximity to Lear seems to have an effect, and the sense of smell is closest to memory).

On Tragedy

If Cordelia is to rank alongside the other tragic figures in the play, she has to make a fateful choice, like Lear, Kent, Gloucester, Edmund, Albany, even Cornwall’s unnamed servant-executioner. The only space in the play for her to make such a choice is to refuse to accept banishment, and stay beside her father in the time of his greatest need, in the diguise forced by necessity. On the framing of the play, it is clear that Cordelia does rank with those others, her death is more significant than any other in the plot (if Cordelia survives, there is no tragedy). We do not see her making any such choice, unless it is as Cordelia-Fool.

On Comic Relief

Some people have historically seen King Lear as an unremittingly bleak play. Yet with Cordelia-Fool in play, there are a number of comic notes and touching elements that relate to Lear not being abandoned by his beloved daughter Cordelia, who charges the Fool’s lines with new pathos and meaning.


Or rather inconclusion. There are elements of the text and dramatic logic that strongly support the notion that Cordelia was at some point in the development of the play disguised as the Fool character. Historically, if the characters were doubled and the same actor played both in the early productions, there is at least no dramatic obstacle for the unity of the two characters, which are never on stage at the same time. However, Cordelia makes no direct acknowledgement of this role in the text, nor do the stage directions support the idea of Cordelia-Fool.

The play’s natural tripod cannot be sustained by Kent, Edmund and a missing leg of Cordelia.

A modern staging of the play could support the unity of the Cordelia-Fool character with dumbshow and the like without altering the text at all, and perhaps make better sense of the tragedy of King Lear. Which is that to be true in one’s role morality to another, may sometimes require subterfuge, and is not the same as plain honesty.

Painted sketch divided down middle between half-portait of Cordelia on the left, and half-portrait of Fool on the right.

Enter Cordelia, disguised as Fool by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Thursday 3 September 2020

The Lorax Amendment: Retro-fitting Green Authoritarianism to Parliaments


Thoughts on how to give the environment a decisive voice in currently human-dominated Parliamentary systems.


This is probably a bad idea. There are probably many better ways of achieving this goal. Implementing this could obstruct better solutions. Nevertheless…

In Dr Seuss' The Lorax, the environment is being chopped up and poisoned by a capitalist entrepreneur to make stuff nobody needs. I advise reading the book, not the rather redundant animated movie. Anyway, up pops a creature calling itself The Lorax, claiming to speak for the trees, and all the other living things that cannot protest at their mistreatment for themselves.

So the question is how can humans give non-humans an effective voice in the decisions humans make that affect all living things on the planet.

Simple Model of a Parliamentary System

Typically, a Parliamentary system has one or two Houses or Chambers where lawmakers debate and make laws and do related stuff. Let us take an example where the Lower House is filled with representatives of the People, and the Upper House is filled with representatives of Interests.

Lower House

Representatives in the Lower House might belong to political parties. Each party might have a more-or-less distinct programme of policies, usually slanted towards one or other groups of humans, or sometimes claim to serve a higher entity like God or The Economy. Even Green or Environmental parties tend to focus a lot on policies for humans, even if they claim to serve The Environment (who never seems to get invited to speak).

Red, yellow, blue blocs of a horseshoe, each with a cartoon argumentative person or two.
Coloured human political party blocks of seats in parliamentary chamber, divided three ways.
Upper House

The Upper House may be filled with similar party-people as the Lower, or just stocked with people who look like the Lorax but spend most of their time sleeping and are a lot less switched on. The Upper House may serve the interests of the Old Money in the country, perhaps landowners left over from feudal times, or church people who are there for reasons nobody can remember; or perhaps serve the interests of New Money, conventionally passed to them in brown envelopes with a traditional nod and wink.

Revised Model of a Parliamentary System with Lorax Amendment

So how do we change such a system to give the living world a decisive voice? I am glad you asked. And I will reverse the order of Houses to keep you awake.

Revised Upper House

Remember those Interests? Well let's make sure they don't outweigh the New Interests we will be adding, by a little judicious downsizing. Our New Interests will represent sections of the Environment, or Biosphere. Here is Atmosphere, here is Oceans, here is Land. Each can be broken into smaller interests, and joint committees can connect them, so there will be Shore Committee for Land and Oceans to talk to each other. Who is doing this talking? Well, just like humans were appointed to serve the previous Interests, our New Interests will need humans, or something better if available, to serve Atmosphere, Oceans, Land and whatever is decided would be a Good Thing To Do. Some countries without a seashore might not have a very big Oceans representation, but it should be there anyway, as we all know how plastics and other things end up in the sea.

Revised Lower House

A House that just represents humans, in this day and age? Not cool! We need representatives to speak for the Tree, the Tree of Life that is. And how much space on this Tree do humans take up? Very little! So squash up humans, here comes the rest of the family.

Red, yellow, blue and (bigger than these three put together) green blocs of a horseshoe, each with a cartoon argumentative person or two, except for the green which has cartoon shapes that might represent many different lifeforms, if you squinted.
Three human political parties shunted off and compacted down to make way for a majority of seats representing the non-human living environment

Who Will Speak for the Non-human World?

At the moment, we might as well appoint the people who have already been speaking out for Nature. These people (scientists, conservationists, environmentalists, ethicists and so on) do not necessarily agree, and sometimes have different priorities, but these can all be discussed in Parliament and its committees, and the public can follow and try to steer these debates and deliberations. Some will be expert in planet-sized problems, others will be expert in groups of living organisms, or ecosystems, or international law, and so on.

In the rest of this article, I will call this group of new representatives the Green Authority.

How Will it Work in Practice?

With the Green Authority's built-in majority for planetary care, and effective vetoes on government formation and policy, every decision affecting the environment will have to be passed (OK'd) by its representatives. Maybe the system won't work. But in some ways, the Civil Service already provide a kind of reality check, and this more transparent system might actually work better.

What Problems Might Arise from Fitting or Running Such a System?

There would be problems in acceptance, and in making the cultures of current party politics and planetary care work together. Lobbyists and agents for planet-damaging interests may try to control or sneak into the Green Authority side. The public might be unhappy about not getting a say (not that they do at the moment, really). Maybe politics will become boring, as Parliament starts to make all the obviously good decisions it somehow never managed to make before, amongst the scandals and mudslinging.


So, human Parliaments today mostly serve humans, and really only a few of those, and not particularly well, considering. This is pretty messed up, when you think about. Much damage is being done to the non-human world by humans. Therefore, one solution is to add majority-sized blocks of representatives for the non-human world, to make sure better decisions are made. For all of us.

And we need a new word for this combination of human democracy and green authority: call it, biocracy.

The Lorax Amendment: Retro-fitting Green Authoritarianism to Parliaments by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Thursday 27 February 2020

The Grasping Hand of Tightness

When out with lads a’drinking
And it comes to buy the round
You will look in vain for Alan
While Johnny can’t be found
Yet drop some piece of coinage
Be it penny or a pound
The Grasping Hand of Tightness strikes
Before it hits the ground.

When time comes round for voting
What changes might we see:
New governments of vision
And fair equality?
Or petty calculations
For gaining more than thee?
The Grasping Hand of Tightness marks
A cross against the Me.

When slaves make all our clothing
And plastic fills our sea
When all that’s green is burning
And there’s nowhere left to flee
When a banker’s biggest bonus
Is for axing our last tree
The Grasping Hands of Tightness clench
Their fists in Victory.