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.
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 clichés: 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
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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).
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.