Monday, August 20, 2007


Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle and low, an excellent thing in a woman.
King Lear V.iii. 271-72.

Portia (Merchant of Venice) seems to have been the Victorians' favorite Shakespearean heroine, but Cordelia was popular too. The quotation above was cited frequently to praise or correct women and girls. The Cordelia character showed aspects of a Patient Griselda, accepting mutely horrific punishment yet still loving the punisher, and domestic angel, coming to Lear's aid when he is naked and homeless, providing him shelter, food, clothing and medical aid.

Her role as a truth-teller is undercut in the Tate version, as her parallel character, The Fool, was omitted completely, and not restored in any important American production till 1875.* What remains is a lovely, loving maiden, who is rewarded for her virtue by a handsome and brave young prince and the throne of the country, a typical fairy tale princess. She wields no power, but feminine influence. Given Victorian faith in this bulwark of the home, it is no wonder the text with Cordelia's death was so little played.**

It's surprising, then, that I could find so few illustrations of Victorian Cordelias. The images I have here is a pre-Shakespearean one (Cordelia on steroids -- I imagine the printer just prettied up some spare cut of a soldier to save time), one Blake painting from the beginning of the 19C and a Rackham print from the end, similar in tone, despite the hundred years between them. Lear was much more popular, especially in cartes de visites and prints. Cordelia, etymologically the "heart" of the story, is important primarily to illuminate Lear's character.

*Upon Cordelia's death in Shakespeare's text, Lear says "And my poor fool is hanged," tying the two together even more dramatically. The two never appear on stage at the same time, and some scholars theorize one boy actor originally played both roles.

**Click here for a contemporary diary entry concerning British actor Macready's restoration of the original text in London in 1838.

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