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‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’ - The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear

One of the most intriguing theatrical debates over the staging of King Lear revolves around the speculation that the same actor performed the roles of both the Fool and Cordelia. This was first hypothesised in the late 1890s [1] and has attracted scholarly attention ever since.

Until concrete external evidence is found to prove this theory either right or wrong, one can only speculate on the possibility. However there are several factors which contribute to the case for the doubling of the parts. The traditional view is that Elizabethan acting companies only resorted to doubling roles when they were understaffed. However, Stephen Booth has indicated that those who filled a dual role could, ‘inform, comment on, and, perhaps augment the events enacted.’ [2] For example, once Cordelia has departed for France the audience becomes aware of a link between her and the Fool; as one of Lear’s Knights informs him. ‘Since my young lady’s going into France, sir, / the fool hath much pined away.’ (1. 4. 71-2). Therefore if the actor playing Cordelia returned as the Fool the audience would see that the bond is more than just emotional; there would also be a physical link.

This double role would also allow Shakespeare to make jokes which the audience would be able to appreciate, and which takes on a greater significance if one accepts the two parts to be played by one actor. Before he departs the stage at the end of Act I the Fool remarks: ‘She that’s a maid now, and laughs at my departure, / shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter.’ (1. 5. 49-50). On one had the fool makes a sexually explicit joke where he directly addresses the audience. On the other, there is a second layer to the joke whereby when ‘things are cut shorter’ the actor playing the Fool will cease to perform his male role in the play and will instead reassume the role of Cordelia.

There is a symbolic double role which those close to Lear perform if one accepts the dual Cordelia/Fool relationship. On the heath, Lear is surrounded by those still loyal to him; yet in disguise: Edgar as Poor Tom, and Kent as Caius. The doubling of Cordelia and the Fool would complete the disguise of the characters loyal to Lear, not of course, for those acting in the play, but it would be unmistakable for those watching in the audience.

This symbolism is used to great effect in the last lines of the play when Lear laments, ‘And my poor fool is hanged.’ (5. 3. 304) The reference is most likely to Cordelia, who we know by this stage has been hanged, but it may also be a reference to the fool who has been absent from the play since Act 3 scene 6. From a theatrical point of view, it makes Lear closer to the audience if he sees what they see. That is, if Cordelia has perished, then the Fool has also perished.

The main plank in the argument for accepting Cordelia and the Fool as a dual role is that the two characters never share the stage throughout the entire play. This role would most likely have been played by a boy actor, but the problem with this view is that the actor Robert Armin, a goldsmith turned professional, had played three fools in Shakespeare’s productions: Touchstone, Feste, and Lavanche, [3] and was therefore the most obvious candidate to play the Fool in King Lear. As he was in his late thirties when the play was performed on stage, this would have precluded him from playing Cordelia. William Ringler, Jr has suggested that Armin may have played the role of Edgar, but there is no hard evidence to reinforce his claim. [4]

Until such evidence does turn up the speculation on the double role of Cordelia and the Fool will continue. However, one thing is for certain, doubling of characters did take place in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, and it was used as a deliberate theatrical ploy in many cases, instead of the necessary solution to a problem caused by a shortage of personnel. Being aware of the potential of the dual role of characters can provide a deeper understanding of the play and it also allows the very words which those characters speak to take on a double meaning.

Ralph McLean

 

1. The first promoters of this doubling are: Alois Brandl in Shakspere (Berlin, 1894) and Wilfred Perrett, The Story of King Lear (Berlin, 1904) Return to text

2. Stephen Booth, ‘Speculations on Doubling’, in, Stephen Booth, King Lear, MacBeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy. (London, 1983), p. 134 Return to text

3.Kenneth Muir, William Shakespeare: King Lear (London, 1986), p. 9 Return to text

4. William A. Ringler. ‘Shakespeare and his actors: some remarks on King Lear’, in Wendell M. Aycock (ed.) Shakespeare’s Art from a Comparative Perspective (Texas, 1981), pp. 183-194 Return to text

 

 

General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
Hamlet
King Lear
Othello
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
Cyprus
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
Venice
The Wife as Property in Othello