The calamity that befalls Lear, his family, and his society is famously triggered by Cordelia’s inability or unwillingness, in Act 1, to set her love to words:
“What shall Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.” (Ehn has “do,” not “speak”)
“My love’s more richer than my tongue.”
“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”
“Since what I well intend, I’ll do’t before I speak.”
The last of these lines especially strikes me, insofar as what Cordelia does do for love, later in King Lear and in Cordelia, is bring an army from France, sacrificing the lives of an indeterminate number of people:
“No blind ambition doth our arms incite, but love…” (Ehn omits “blind”)
This juxtaposition gives rise to a number of questions about why a person to whom it seems unnatural to express her love in words considers it acceptable, even honorable, to resort to violence. Thus, among the questions I suggested for the “Playing Cordelia” panel discussion was this one:
Do people and societies resort to violence and war because it is so much more difficult to work through problems in words?
Of course, Cordelia is no more successful with arms than with words. She loses the battle and is captured and killed. But, in making this statement, I have played a trick on readers who know Cordelia only from Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare did not invent the story of Cordelia and King Lear—the earliest extant telling is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s, and the story also appears in Holinshed and other adaptations prior to Shakespeare’s–but Cordelia’s defeat in the battle seems to be Shakespeare’s innovation. In other tellings, she wins the battle and eventually rules as queen. Here is another question from my list:
Do you think Shakespeare altered the outcome of the battle in his telling because of the dramatic possibilities implicit in Cordelia’s defeat, or for some political or philosophical purpose? What, if anything, are we to make of her failure?
And what of her regret? Shakespeare’s Cordelia deplores how her sisters treated their father, but King Lear has no scene comparable to the one in Homer’s Iliad in which Helen of Troy reviles herself for the grief she has caused. Even in our modern world, ensorcelled as we tend to be by the notion of good guys and bad ones, most people never question that Cordelia acted correctly. But did she really? Ehn’s Cordelia, at least in Jubilith Moore’s production, is not so sure.
A work of literature that receives less attention than it arguably should is Perceval, a late twelfth century poem that is the earliest account of the quest for the Holy Grail. Perceval is an Arthurian knight who, as a young man, interprets chivalry largely as a requirement to prove his mettle by doing battle for a noble cause, most often to protect the interests of King Arthur or of a beautiful maiden in distress. But one day he finds himself at the castle of the Fisher King, an elderly man who has obviously suffered a crippling wound. While staying at the castle, Perceval witnesses a strange procession in which servants move from room to room, carrying mysterious objects: a bleeding lance, a candelabrum, and finally the Grail, a gorgeous serving dish or chalice borne by a young woman. Perceval has been cautioned, in advance, that he might err by speaking too much, so he merely watches this extraordinary pageant. Like Cordelia, he chooses silence at what turns out to be a crucial moment.
That the moment was crucial, and the silence fateful, Perceval does not discover until morning, when he leaves the castle and comes upon a lady bewailing the death of her beloved. She chastises Perceval for having failed to take the one action that would have healed the king and saved the land. What Perceval should have done, he learns, was to ask questions: “What is the Grail, and who is served from it?” and “Why did the lance drip blood?” In other words, his overriding concern at that moment should have been not himself, but the story an ailing man needed to tell.
What if Cordelia had, in answer to Lear’s question and out of compassion for his age, replied that she loved him enough to want to care for him in her own household, as he admits (and she probably realized) was his hope? Then she would have had to endure his imperious nature and his hundred knights…
Almost a thousand years after Perceval, we still tend to forget to ask others why they are suffering and what might alleviate their sorrow. We forget that even asking what a person’s story is and listening to it can be a healing act. As we grant our attention to the shite in Noh, as we share that character’s experience, we enact the exorcism of a troubled soul and, in so doing, exercise our capacity to heal.