The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity
The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound. (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.) The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar. He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten. (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.) The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head. We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).
Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil. The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity. How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning? The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).
The two questions are simple enough. What is it to be human? What is it to be evil? If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.
How did this come about? Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes. This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through. It happens in most families at Christmas lunch. (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?) These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth. Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.
I remarked elsewhere:
Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press. For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom. But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’. This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons. Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life. People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.
We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.
The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character. It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong. Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable. In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’
The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley. Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’ I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved. Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’. That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.
Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism. ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’ That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside. (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people. No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)
This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life. There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy. We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy. It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones. The ceremony of courtesy is drowned. Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson? Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them? It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall. They have no interest in any world without them. When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play. It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances. The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:
The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.
That is why King Lear is our Everest. Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. They lack discretion. They are low on judgement. (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)
Prometheus had the same problem – big time. I remarked elsewhere:
They do not get more elemental than this. Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik. Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind. Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus.
Lear loses all the props of mankind. Prometheus had sought to restore them. The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion. It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him. ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’ ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’ Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:
You are a colt new broken, with the bit
Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,
And bolting. You are far too strong and confident
In your weak cleverness. For obstinacy
Standing alone is the weakest of all things
In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.
‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.
This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with
Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.
Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power. (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).
Prometheus was chained upon a rock. King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire. One took on God. The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton. Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.
These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation. It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’ Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.