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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Watercolors of Shakespearean Characters 
~ Bastards, Frauds & Tellers of the Truth  ~

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by Hannah Tompkins

Cordelia & Kent Watercolor by Hannah Tompkins


From a psychological point of view, Cordelia's behavior might invite some dark speculations, but the general surface view is that she had no other motive than honesty when she refused to use flattery to coddle her father's ego,(at the same time deprecating her sisters), but her outspoken candor ignites the king:
Lear: "So young, and so untender?"
Cordelia: "So young, my lord, and true."
Lear: "Let it be so; thy truth then be thou dower."
He then disowns her with contempt and marries her off to the king of France without dowry; an action that detonates more explosions and invites disaster.
Cordelia, in a bristling, hostile farewell to her sisters says:
"I know you what you are.."
"Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides:
Who covers faults, at last shame them derides."
She takes her leave in Act I sc.i and does not re-appear till the last scene in Act iv where she is re-united with her father, and with Kent, still in disguise. He says to her:
"To be acknowledged, madam, is o'erpaid.
All my reports go with modest truth,
No more nor clipped, but so."

Cordelia: "Be better suited:
These weeds are memories of those worser hours:
I prithee, put them off."

Kent: "Pardon me, dear madam; Yet to be known shortens my made intent.
So it is, that truth must remain disguised till it can do the most good.
Cordelia's last words to her father, when she is taken to prison and hanged:
"We are not the first
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst."
She may be referring to the defeat of the resent invasion to rescue him, but the remark may also apply to her initial indiscretion of telling the right truth at the wrong time, an observation that fortifies Kent's strategy.

Kent is one in that rare minority of titled nobles endowed with genuine quality. An earl in Lear's court, he never wavers either in his devotion to the king or his dedication to truth. He speaks the first lines in the play and next to the last at the end. This is significant, for as a truth-teller, his presence is compatible with a theme on blindness and seeing.

He is the only one to defend Cordelia when the king disclaims her, and disregards the monarch's order to silence:
"..be Kent unmannerly'
When Lear is mad. What wouldst thou do, old man?
Thinkst thou that duty shall have a dread to speak, When power to flattery bows?
To plainess honour's bound, when majesty stoops to folly.'"
Lear makes a threatening gesture and thwarted by Kent's defiance barks "Out of my sight."
And Kent warns:
"See better, Lear and let me still remain
The `true blank of thine eye."
His authority challenged, the king's anger rises like a volcanic eruption but Kent is not intimidated and assures the king:
"...whilst I can vent clamour from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil."
That of course, is the signature for his doom and he is banished. Later, he returns to the king, in disguise:
"Now, banish'd Kent, If thou canst serve
Where thou dost stand condemned, so may it come..'"
A familiar predicament for truth: Lear asks "What art thou?"
Kent: "A very honest-hearted fellow,
I can keep counsel, ride, run, mar a curious tale in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly."
At the end, just before he dies, Lear recognizes him'"You are welcome hither." And Kent, the truth-teller replies ""Nor no man else.."
At the supreme moment of revelation and understanding, who else would be more welcome?
Kent, like the truth he represents is staunch and indestructible.


Before we leave King Lear, a few words about his Fool. "Fool" is all the name he has but his wisdom illuminates the text.
In olden times court fools enjoyed limited privileges of licence: limited in that they could make candid comments but if they offended the master, they were liable to punishment.

Lear's Fool makes his appearance in sc. iv Act I and wastes no time in chafing the king with some pointed truths. The short-tempered king responds:
"Take heed, sirrah, the whip."
It is probably not the first time he suffered the whip for being a truth-teller and his scoffing retort is:
"Truth's a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out,

when Lady the brach* may stand by the fire and stink."
Being beat upon is no fun, so he changes his tactics but not his intent and disguises his truths in foolery and jests wherein he names the king as a bitter fool.
Lear: "Dost thou call me fool?"
Fool: "All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with."
Kent: "This is not altogether fool, my lord."
Anybody can be a fool, but it takes some courage to face the consequences of truth telling. The Fool tells the king:
"Prithee, nuncle, keep a schoolmaster that can teach thy fool to lie: I would fain learn to lie."
And Lear, whose instant recourse is threats and punishments snaps:
"An you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipped."

Fool: "I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace.."
Like Kent he is not easily throttled, besides, he is possessed of the most vital fruit that clings to the vine of truth: loyalty. And so he accompanies the king in his frantic flight on the stormy moor, all the while trying to comfort him with chatter both idle and honest. The king, in his madness calls him "Thou sapient.."" for truly, he is no altogether fool. He is knowing and honest, and a true conscience. The attribute did not make him a coward.. he dies as a truth-teller.


Copyright © 1982 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.


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