Thursday, June 11, 2009

In reference to an article by Knowles, Richard. “Cordelia’s Return.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1999), 33-50.

Knowles attempts an explanation of Cordelia’s return with armies of France to redeem her father, King Lear. Knowles studies the restraints of time and various techniques that Shakespeare may have used to overcome time. He also delves into the questions of how Kent and Cordelia informed each other of his/her intentions – letters not being read or sent before events occurred as an objection.

I first have to convey an annoyance in Knowles writing. After appropriate segues into quotations of other scholars, he pens, “Here is Virginia Gildersleeve in 1912” (44) and “Here is Granville-Barker again:” (45), and “Here is Alan Howard . . . “ (50). “Here is . . . “! Aaaaagh! Opening a quotation with that phrase is equivalent, in my mind, to “my paper is going to tell you . . .,” an essay opener that also grates on me. I stress to my freshman English students that good style builds credibility, and bad style kills credibility. When in a rush, I falter in writing in good style, but in a formal, published document, I hope that I and all good writers would strive for the best in style. (Okay, rant over).
I like Knowles approach to the dilemma of explaining Cordelia’s return. By breaking it down into one rationalization based upon time, a second on motive, and a third on method, he effectively covers all angles of the predicament. In one area of his essay, I thought that he fails to account for the compression of time in King Lear. I asked myself, “How many real days have passed before Kent was imprisoned?” and “How many real days is Kent in prison?” Thankfully, Knowles later discourses on “double time” and the amount of the story that occurs offstage.
Knowles notes that Cordelia has several possible motives for her return. He identifies several including: France’s “choler” brought on by the treatment of his wife, France’s retaliation for losing the dowry in his marriage to Cordelia, Cordelia’s intuition of her sisters’ radical treatment of her father, and (Cordelia learning of Lear’s downfall from spies) her true concern in restoring her father to his throne. I, as Knowles in his conclusion, feel that Shakespeare has left an ambiguous motive on purpose. If the motive were clearly depicted in the play, it would detract from the suspense and from the dominant plot. Cordelia’s motive is hinted in her discussion with Lear about returning to assist him, but scholars and critics argue the point (how could she have known?).
I feel the answer to Cordelia’s motive and her upheld virtue lies in the compression of time combined with the theory of “double time.” I do not think that either model independently fits King Lear, but I do think that somehow a combination of the two will work (wow – a thesis is born – I will need a combination of both in my own life in order to get this one worked out). Concisely, the suspense of Lear requires the compression of time, hinting at, or even alluding to, offstage events. The logic of the plot requires “double time” where the offstage events, which naturally would occur at a slower pace in reality, are compressed to simulate simultaneity with onstage events. A combination of both models allows the plot to dramaturgically flow naturally and retain the suspense. An audience member would “lose” a couple of hours because so much action is packed into a short amount of time. Mentally the audience viewed the compression of a few weeks into a few hours, but physically, because of so much action, a four-hour play feels like it only took two hours. When done well, this strategy would enable sitting through a Lord of the Rings movie. When done poorly, it would account for the loss of 3 ½ hours of your life wasted watching The Titanic. Unraveling the mystery of time allows for the multiple correspondences between Kent and Cordelia alluded to in the play. This also permits the reality of the spies traveling back and forth between Albany, Cornwall, Gloucester, Dover, and France. Logic then concludes that Cordelia is well informed of events, and she and France are honorable in their intentions of leading a French invasion.
Knowles mentions in following the events of Lear, the audience “must rely on only its own attentiveness” (43). Shakespeare must have thought so too. Leaving mysteries up to the audience’s interpretation creates a broader spectrum of meaning for the play – a sense of universality.

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