Sam Trainor. Emarginations.
S.A.M. Trainor. Emarginations.

 Ecrits bilingues    
 The Quean——

new website



The two essays currently online earn their reprieve from academic exile on the grounds of an association with The Birmingham Quean. The first is a transcript of its (reduntant) thesis defence, the second the conference paper mentioned on the second page of the 'Trainor diary' section.

For a list of essays published elsewhere, see my academic publications page.

Countering the Thesis: obliquities
Cocking up King Lear

Countering the Thesis: obliquities

© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2006

Allow me to begin by abusing a confidence… or, rather, a confidence trick. In perhaps the only thesis defence ever to have achieved notoriety beyond the confines of its viva, Jacques Derrida permitted himself to begin: ‘by whispering a confidence which I shall not abuse: never have I felt so young and at the same time so old… it is… as if two stories and two times, two rhythms were engaged in a kind of altercation…, a kind of anachrony of oneself…’ Speaking at a time when such logical laxity was all but de rigeur, he complained that this bout of ‘identity confusion’ was: ‘not far from leaving me bereft of speech’, then proceeded with such a lengthy account of a quarter of a century’s pointed failure to submit a thesis, or to submit to a thesis, that you imagine the jury of the soutenance could not have helped but feel they had shared, in a single afternoon, the twenty-five years of deliberate incapacity described.

If Derrida (eventuellement) concluded his presentation, it was only by embracing this confusion of beginning and ending, of overture and conclusion, as its defining characteristic. He cherished it as: ‘a joyous self-contradiction, a disarmed desire, that is to say something very old and very cunning, but which also has only just been born and which delights in being without defence.’

If I felt the need to make the genesis of my own project seem more coherent than it really was, or more mature, I might claim it began as an audacious (if desperate) attempt to kidnap Derrida’s enchanting little phrase ‘anachrony of oneself’ and take it for a road trip across the history of the English Midlands. I don’t feel the need for anything so advisable as a veneer of coherence or maturity, but I do think these ideas of anachrony and kidnapping might be allowed a little daytime exercise.

Whether he intended to or not, Derrida couched his description of identity confusion in terms which recall Nabokov’s Lolita. He whispered confidences. His prose was strange and self-conscious: fancy even. He described an altercation between a delightfully defenceless youth and a figure of cunning maturity. He would not abuse this confidence, he said, and yet… he’d never felt so young. (And, as we all know, you’re as young as the person you feel.) He wanted to be at once the wily professor and the not entirely naïve youngster, and therefore appeared to get his intellectual kicks from something even more primordial and dubious than Hegelian dialectic.

In order to push this correspondence beyond the realms of mere recollection, we need a reading of Lolita which approaches the same well of solipsism into which Derrida wanted both to plunge and not to plunge. Perhaps such a reading is justifiable; perhaps not. Whatever the case, I think it might prove a an attractive little detour. It goes like this:

Lolita is a novel about plagiarism. This is not merely some kind of subtextual stratum, it is literally true. In Latin legal parlance, the crime of abducting a person for reasons other than the demand of a ransom was called plagium. Principally this referred to the theft of slaves or to the kidnapping of young people for the purpose of enslaving them, but a modern understanding of ‘slavery’ tends to marginalise what in Roman society were commonplace sexual implications. Humbert’s overarching crime—the one he ‘dismisses’ even with his final entry—is therefore one that he (and he alone amongst the characters) might recognise as plagium.

The metaphoric use of this term, to mean literary theft, was introduced by Martial’s first book of epigrams. In the 52nd of these oblique snippets, Martial likens his poems to ‘freed slaves’ and calls the unnamed adversary who had previously claimed them a ‘plagiarius’: a kidnapper. If Humbert can dismiss the charge of plagium out of hand, it is perhaps precisely because Nabokov cannot give the same blithe treatment to the charge of plagiarism he lays at his own doorstep. This is not to be understood as a weakness, though. It is one of Lolita’s greatest strengths. Michael Marr might feel he’s giving Nabokov the benefit of the doubt by explaining away the echoes of Heinz Von Eschwege’s ‘Lolita’ as ‘cryptomnesia’ (Jung’s word for the unconscious reconstruction of a hidden memory) but I believe the only way to give Nabokov the benefit of the doubt is to assume the opposite. I’m convinced that the ‘reality’ (with those inverted commas he says are obligatory) is more likely to have been one of conscious plagium. ‘Did she have a precursor?’ asks Humbert on the first page of his memoir, ‘She did, indeed she did.’ (You can always rely on a plagiarius for a fancy prose style.)

What Nabokov is probably hinting at, however, is not Eschwege’s ‘Lolita’ directly, but Volshebnik ‘The Enchanter’: the short story he describes as ‘the first little throb of Lolita [that] went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris, at a time when I was laid up with a severe attack of intercostal neuralgia’ and which he burnt just after moving to America. Writers, in my experience, tend to store such rejects in shoeboxes or at the backs of filing cabinets more often than they throw them out. Burning a manuscript is certainly an odd thing to do, even for a writer living under political suspicion. At the very least it suggests an embarassment as acute as the neuralgia that was metonymically it’s ‘first throb’. Why not simply tear it up? or bin it when he moved house? or at the very least screw it into a ball and dunk it in his new American ‘trash can’? The prurient theme may be enough to explain this, or a violent aesthetic rejection of what seemed on rereading like a cheap little melodrama, but the least we can say is that ritual incineration would seem in keeping with a guilty desire to destroy evidence of a suspiciously derivative piece of work.

When the project reemerged from its English shell to ‘grow in secret the claws and wings of a novel’, it was under the same title as the original piece that was undoubtedly (whether as a conscious influence or not) the precursor of ‘The Enchanter’. Despite having been written at the age of 40, this previous short story might have felt to its author like a bit of shame-faced juvenilia, so when Nabokov kidnapped it and took it on a road trip across post-nuclear America and the English Language, he may have been offering the implicit confession (if that’s not too unbearable an oxymoron) of an unapologetic plagiarius: not just Humbert Humbert but Nabokov himself.

The salient point is that plagiarism and anachrony are implicated in each other’s outcomes. The generation gap between Humbert and Lolita is not merely a biological, social and moral concern; it is also a textual and epochal one: these are characters from incompatible historical narratives unbearably entwined. The reason is that plagiarism is always anachronistic. The plagiarist (in the strictest sense of verbatim literary theft) enacts a temporal mismatch between reading and writing: one in which time has been artificially frozen… the text has remained untenably constant, impossibly new, whilst the context has undergone organic change. The correlations between this effect and the psychology of pedorastic abduction are uncomfortable but undeniable. That’s why Martial used the metaphor. And, I think, why Nabokov implicitly explores it too. The plagiarist, he suspects, is the literary paedophile.

Verbatim literary theft is not a major feature of Lolita. It is certainly the case, however, that the revisiting of old work (or should that be the abduction of juvenile work?) gives the impression of a writer who feels, as Derrida said, ‘as if two stories and two times, two rhythms were engaged in a sort of altercation’, and the effect seeps deep into the narrative.

I might allow myself to stretch this tendentious double reading to the limit (though without any serious commitment to its validity) by stating that Derrida, in his turn, appears to use ‘The time of a thesis’ to kidnap Nabokov’s adumbrating little epilogue ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’ and take it on a road trip across postwar French Philosophy.

The Birmingham Quean began with the same kind of dubious textual intentions. If I’m doubtful of ascribing them to Nabokov, and certain I’m misascribing them to Derrida, my decision to do so nonetheless comes as a result of this essay borrowing from its parent piece a quality of downright cheek. The overarching theme—it was both a theorem and a praxis; perhaps a ‘gimmick’ is the best word—the overarching gimmick was the idea of the ‘counter’: the thing that stands for, between and against… at once a token, a fake, a site of transaction, a balance, a riposte. This was the name supposedly given by the fantastic scholarly zealot, Amrit Singh (a dumping ground for all my moments of wild idealism) to his version of Situationist détournement: a kind of close parody which involves reproducing a block of text with minor but fundamental alterations that force its pointedly flawed reproduction to act not only as its own antithesis, but also as the arena of this dialectical transaction. That’s how Singh might put it. Back home this kind of thing is much more often called a ‘piss-take.’

There was more to it than that however. Crucically, Singh’s character, the whole point of his existence, rested on the belief that to employ the counter to its fullest was to go beyond the simply critical, dialectical or deconstructive urges of its theoretical forebears—beyond even the poststructuralist passion for embracing contradictions—and to achieve something much more classically utopian in scope and classically literary in kind. The trick, supposedly, was to combine Habermas’s neo-enlightenment idea of ‘the perfect speech situation’ with Bakhtin’s ‘dialogic imagination’ to forge a notion of internal social democracy, conceived not as relativist pluralism (not a mish-mash of contingencies, or an ultra-liberal multitude of points of view, or even the schizoid rebellion of Deleuze and Guattari) but as musical counterpoint: something which weaves in and out of harmony over time; not multivocality for its own sake but something for which divergence and convergence represent displacement along the axis of a new dimension. For Singh, in his most unguardedly enthusiastic aspect, counterpoint was Hegelian synthesis without the pitfalls of nullification or transcendence. It was Roy Bhaskar without the grinding legacy of logical positivism. Instead of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis of dialectic, you had the unending melody, countermelody, counterpoint of fiction: dramatic writing as the way beyond the perceived philosophical bankruptcy of critical and social-scientific discourse… of philosophy itself. Where M-theory attempts to provide science with its ‘theory of everything’ by adding one last dimension to the superstring model, Singh explicitly considered his ‘counter-theory’ capable of doing something analogous for the humanities.

The trouble with all this, predictably enough, was that the writing was a load of toss. It entirely failed to practise what it preached. It was hopelessly in thrall to obscure philosophical considerations and never managed to provoke the experience of cognitive counterpoint that generations of artists, writers and musicians had achieved without recourse to exotic jargon. Involved was a series of these ‘counters’ (these détournements) which stalked a city conceived as the ruined heart of an illusiory empire and as literally synonymous with counterfeiting. They did so in the wake of a mute tramp: the blackbird to their thirteen (poly-plagiaristic) ways of looking. Crucially, this figure was identified as the antithesis of the philosophical notion of the zombie (the other side of the coin, if you prefer): not the apparent human being without a human consciousness, but an ultra-human (entirely contrapuntal) consciousness with none of the apparent humanity that might reveal it to society.

It was ironic, of course. Singh, whilst cherished for his wonderful ideals, was totally incapable of revealing the complexities of this cognitive utopia and satirized as a theory-afflicted fantasist for believing it was ever there. Irony, however, is far too often served up as a defence. That the project was only revealed to be a self-fulfilling prophesy of its own zombiism by the breakdown of a long-term relationship is worth no further comment here than the observation that the words ‘project’ and ‘relationship’ in this sentence are interchangable.

What followed were a series of false-starts: a novel called Barelady about the supernatural interference of a drag-queen in her own imaginative childhood; another called Fox-fire about a family’s thoughts, movements and interactions on the day their house is burnt down by their youngest member; and a series of essays called The Zombie in the Salon, whose title piece placed Balzac’s gothic parody Sarassine in the context of the arrival into metropolitan French culture, and the author’s own esoteric circle, of the colonial figure of le zombi, (the Zomby project was never fully exorcised); it read Roland Barthes’ S/Z as a structuralist land stalked by the hideous hobgoblin of the reanimated author. [The plagiarius is not just a kidnapper, but a voodoo priest capable of making corpses walk amongst the living to serve as his unthinking slaves.]

As before, the ideas were all there—the simultanaiety of seemingly incompatible thoughts, genders, races, classes, eras, philosophies and politics… the grail-like vision of that extra, contrapuntal dimension was ever-present—but the effect was simply not forthcoming. It was musing; it was even occasionally amusing; but it was never music. I started to feel sickened by my own prosaic habits, my inescapable repetoires of syntax, rhythm, structure, dialect. I experienced the sporadic panic of stylistic claustrophobia.

Then something happened. I was teaching Byron to a group of second year Literature students. With one exception, they’d clearly not read much (if anything) of Don Juan and were resisting it on the usual grounds of obscurity. I went through the routine attempt to confound their expectations. I suggested that Byron’s massive contemporary popularity was a direct result of the expansive, narrative, uncondensed and definitely non-obscure nature of his poetry and that all the rather more lurid attributes of his celebrity only followed in the wake of his literary success. So far, so typical (and probably so useless and so inaccurate). For some reason though, I found myself offering for debate the idea that his choice of stanzaic verse-forms was not only important in the creation of a sense of undbounded scope, but was actually the driving force behind it. It was a deliberately narrow argument from form rather than history, culture or politics (the course was called ‘Writing and Ideology’) and I was initially gratified that the students dismissed it as unlikely, but I soon found myself warming to the role of devil’s advocate for more reasons than the obvious.

Byron’s huge vocabulary, I argued, was (for example) only so big because it had to be. That’s to say that Byron had to ‘go in search’ of words that other people had no need to use because he was writing hundreds of stanzas of Ottava Rima. Quite apart from the demand for multitudes of triple rhymes, this form also required (if Ariosto’s model was to be emulated) hundreds of those polysyllabic ‘feminine’ rhymes that are famously so much easier to do in Italian than they are in English.

The students, for the most part, weren’t having any of it. They could understand a basic principle like an expansion of lexis brought on by the strict requirement to ‘find the right word’, but refused to make the counter-intuitive leap to the notion that this increased (rather than decreased) the intoxicating sense of liberty and possibility in the mind of both poet and contemporary reader. Perhaps it was a carefully-honed tendency to doubt post-newcritical formalism that led them to reject what I was suddenly (against my better instincts) starting to believe, but I think it would be flattering my teaching abilities to put the puzzlement of the majority of this group down to anything more than a lack of intimacy with stanzaic verse. In any event, I doubt that any of them was doing what I was doing during that last quarter hour of the tutorial (it didn’t seem at all the right thing to demand it of them): namely, writing Ottava Rima.

For some reason, like Roy Fisher teaching ‘The Man With the Blue Guitar’, I found my mind drifting off into a bit of tangentially related verse while my mouth was still contorting and my vocal chords vibrating. This is what I came up with. I can’t claim that it hasn’t been adapted since, because I never actually wrote it down at the time:

This was no singer with the seraphim:
   Despite the flare, the verbal phosphorous;
No Alex/[“stroke”]Leander who could swim
   The Hellespont or cross the Bosphorus;
Whatever Byron’s passing meant to him,
   Or Greece, his old age wasn’t lost for us.
But then his verses always gave us more
To learn, to love, to live for, to explore…

You ask me how a rhyme-scheme can assist
   A poet’s talent if he’s made to force it.
You call him a stanzaic masochist:
   A siren lashed into a breathless corset.
And you consider me a fantasist
   To champion his octave: to endorse it
By claiming it can set the language free,
But that’s the dream: Byronic liberty.

It was trite, pretentious doggerel, it still is, but it opened a crack in a door… just wide enough to glimpse the possibilities of a refreshed language: a polymorphous libido of sound and sense; a writing granted a crucial extra inch of leeway by a verse-form that restricts not the writing itself, but the writer’s ability to stifle it with ticks and tendencies, so that it might achieve on its own what we might otherwise attempt to force it to achieve. On offer seemed to be the first tangible affirmation I had ever found of the proposition ‘writing is its own research’.

Suddenly… it was. Everything that followed—the parodic canto about Britannia Spears, the overarching project of anachronistic satire called R. H. Twigg, the reincorporation of material from Barelady and The Zomby Project in the putative frame narrative of S. A. M. Trainor, the synoptic layout… everything—came as a result of this decision to explore the Byronic octave. Here was Singh’s extra-dimensionality. Quite apart from being an example of that old chestnut ‘one song to the tune of another’, the blended pastiche of Don Juan, The Birmingham Counterfeit and The Rape of the Lock seemed to turn Singh’s abstract notion of synacoustis (‘hearing together) into a manifest ‘reality’ as a result of this new sonic/comic element of Ottava Rima. Simply put, the structure of rhyme, rhythm, line and stanza provided the writing with nodes of multidimensional connection which do not exist in prose. Even if it was deliberately cheap, tacky and haphazard, this was music. If there is an overall counterpoint in The Birmingham Quean it flows directly (though neither straight nor in a single sense) from the Ottava Rima.

If we were to insist on a linear trajectory, at the very least in order to formulate an account of the project’s growth, the most convincing would be based upon the progression of its research practices. The poem, during construction, required the compiliation of an idiolectal rhyming dictionary. Besides the use of only marginally sane repetitive exercises of phonemic recall (I refused any prompting from ‘standard’ rhyming dictionaries), this involved scouring a wide range of texts in search of words and phrases I could not force myself to recollect. The resultant juxtapositions turned up both uncanny patterns and surprising discrepancies. Consistently the most interesting feature seemed to be the wild anachronisms involved. Think of "Boadicean chariot" and "Ainsley Harriet": one an item of ancient (and consistently anti-modern) iconography, the other a figure of camp contemporary ephemora. I began to footnote these observations and very quickly found myself moving to a self-ridiculing, parodistic form of stuffy annotation of the modern and the modish. By now it was the year of the Queen’s 50th jubliee, and (feeling far from jubilant) it was a predictable step that I should imagine a commentator to my already chronically anachronistic canto who was not merely an old fuddy-duddy, but literally lived in 1953.

Beside the personal rhyming dictionary, I was now having to compile a list of words, phrases and ideas which had entered British English since 1953. The two main component praxes of this effort being: 1. checking all the items I was uncovering for the rhyme-list in old dictionaries; and 2. reading as much text as I could that had been published in the early nineteen-fifties, in an attempt to uncover what was ‘missing’. What I found in this latter endeavour—what was ‘already there’, as it were, within this arbitrary slice of postwar history—was a remarkable internal anachrony. 1953 turned out everything from the still-Edwardian to the proto-postmodern: from Anthony Powell to Alain Robbe-Grillet. To place a page of William Burrough’s Junky next to one from Notes and Queries that appeared in the same month was as eye-opening a contrast as any I could force with a tendentious diachronic comparison.

Crucially, there was already a strong sense (a burgeoning postmodernist sense, you might say) that the internal anachronies of discourse were being self-consciously effected. The fact that I had gone back and read Raymond Williams’ essay ‘The Idea of Culture’ in its original context, almost adjacent to his review of a work that it suddenly appeared to pastiche – William Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words, suggested that, instead of explicit critique or contrastive ‘originality’, even the most self-consciously revolutionary of writers was engaging in a kind of intergenerational burlesque. In short, Williams’ essay seemed to be what Amrit Singh would have called a counter.

It seemed that history was granting a reprieve to the Zomby project. In the spirit of Williams’ essay, though obviously as a much more caustic and controversial form of satire, I could not resist framing an introduction to Twigg’s commentary as a Singhian counter to the work of the man I considered my intellectual enemy by inheritance: Enoch Powell. But the reprise (and the reprisals) needed to go further. I felt I had to reinstate some of my contemporary critical work (whether putatively written by Amrit Singh or not, it was never free from irony) alongside those other remnants of the Zomby project whose instigatory influence upon the new work could not be left unmentioned. To achieve this I stumbled upon the idea of a narrative that would appear on the back pages of the poem: the story of a sexual double-bind whose pattern followed (and sometimes led) those of the poem and of R. H. Twigg. Finally, perhaps as an attempt to avoid this simpler contemporary narrative claiming any precedence over the other strands, the story of the slow, contemplative ‘spontaneous combustion’ of R. H. Twigg began to flicker around the edges of the (imaginary) manuscript.

There was other bric-a-brac thrown in for good measure – the irksome machinery of the thesis, one or two editorial interjections – but never was the notion of unmediated truth-telling given any credit. The logic (or the illogic) of the poem was always the driving force.

The French symboliste, Paul Valéry, says ‘prose’ is like walking and ‘poetry’ like dancing. Both use the same materials (the same organs, bones and muscles… the same words and grammars) but in (pedestrian) prose there are external goals which give meaning to the motion, whereas in the dance of poetry the meaning and the motion are the same: they can’t be separated. Valéry’s simile is as charming as his distinction is glib. That poetry should have no extra-linguistic goals or that prose should be entirely in thrall to them is neither true nor desirable. But if Valéry is asking, then I’m dancing: prose is a dance in which the writer leads, poetry a dance led by the language.

If this is true, or at least convincing enough as a trope to be acceptable for transferred application, then The Birmingham Quean is a book of poetry. It is a dance in which the language has always led. And it is a specific set of languages that are engaged in its mad reel. If there are anachronies, ambiguities, confusions, difficulites and moments of discomfort then they exist within the linguistic culture from which they emerge and have never been imposed from the outside. If the writer appears to have reanimated an esoteric literary corpus, forcing it to stagger through recent history as a grotesque reflection of both past and present – if he seems to have kidnapped work from more innocent epochs to enslave them in his Brummagem iron(y) works – then the opposite is the truth. If anyone has been reanimated, it is the author. If anyone has been kidnapped, it is me.

The result, I concede, is a sprawling, gerry-built mess with a flimsy ironic gilt. It is, however, about a city (not to mention a history) which is itself a sprawling gerry-built mess with a flimsy ironic gilt. The intention has been to attempt to answer yes to the following two questions: Can writing be its own research? and Does fiction have a place within the (so-called) Social Sciences? I will go further, though: the intention has been to demonstrate that sometimes writing is the only way to do research; sometimes fiction is the only way to write about a history and a culture which occludes all critical analysis; sometimes the language must be given the space it needs to reveal what it contains… the opportunity to show what it is capable of achieving. I leave it up to those who judge these kinds of things to decide if the demonstration has been at all successful.

If, in some cruelly terminal analysis, The Birmingham Quean appears to be anamorphic or labyrinthian, or both at once: something crippled by the untenable multiplicity of its contents, conclusions and demonstrative positions and in thrall to the act of writing and the performative urge to the extent that it is just about unsubmittable as a thesis; if it seems more a collection of gimmicks than a coherent and original contribution to research, then I can only counter that it is necessarily and self-consciously constructed in a Birmingham brand of English, replete with those aparatuses – the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the hidden trapdoor, the identical assistant, the implied associations and traditions, the leger de mot – which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own pretentious way. It is something old and cunning but which has only just pulled itself out of its own hat by its own ears and delights in its defencelessness.

* ‘Oblique’ is πλαγιος in ancient Greek. Hence the ‘plagiograph’: the double hinged instrument used by draftsmen and children to reproduce drawings at a given angle from the original. It is this device which R. H. Twigg (entirely erroniously, of course) believes Giotto is accused of using to create his fabled ‘freehand’ circle. (The Birmingham Quean 64.7 lucider pp.183-4)

Cocking up King Lear

© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2002

He that has Fand F a tiny little wit,
With a heigh-ho, the wind and the rain,
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
The rain it raineth every day.
(KL: 3.4.74-77)

I have a confession to make: on first encountering Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, during a third year English Class at secondary school, I couldn’t stop giggling. I wasn’t the only one. My school contained the kind of puerile teenage sniggerers which perhaps only a boys’ grammar school in the West Midlands1 (like Shakespeare’s own of course) is capable of producing. The trouble was that up from the chasm of the 17th line of the poem came the ‘fast thick pants’ of the next. The teacher, Gazza (the name comfortably predated Paul Gascoigne) tried to pour oil on troubled waters by demonstrating the profound gasps which Coleridge had intended. But he’d miscalculated terribly, pouring water onto troubled oils. ‘Was that you on the phone to my mom the other day, sir?’ Shashi asked.

Foolishly, Gazza abandoned Coleridge’s potentate and moved on to ‘Gerontion’ by T. S. Eliot. And, with a fateful, near-tragic bathos, his swelling poetic voice collapsed, in a whimper of resignation, into ‘an old man in a drafty house / under a windy knob.’ We thought we’d all die laughing.

We were adolescents. The image of a pair of heavily bulging high Romantic Y-fronts had given way in our over-active imaginations, to the absurdly self-referential performance of the oldest teacher in the school (too myopic to distinguish one ‘you-there-lad’ from another), standing with his trouser-flies half open and intoning the phrase ‘a windy knob.’ Obviously, Gerontion/Gazza was, as far as we in our sexually indefatigable arrogance were concerned, not just an old man under a windy knob, but an old man with a windy nob: exposed and impotent.

Shashi fell out of his chair laughing. Gazza had a fit. ‘Rumble thy bellyful,’ he muttered, turning to face the blackboard (he always claimed it had a good reflection), ‘Spit fire, spout rain... Here I stand your slave, A poor, infirm, weak and despised old man.’

Poor old Gazza. But Gazza was a wise old fool. In that moment of classroom chaos I think he captured a glimmer of the tragic comedy of Shakespeare’s most absurdly harrowing play. (And, via Shelley of course, managed to segue back into the Romantics.)

I’m going to argue, in this paper, that there is at least justification for experimenting with King Lear and moving away from the rather sombre performances and readings we’ve got used to, in preference for a focus on precisely these kind of sniggering sexual innuendoes and laughably moving performances of tragic folly which King Lear does less than nothing to deny.

Central to my argument will be the crucial role of the Fool in the implosive relationship of Lear, Fool and Cordelia. And of course, therefore, the doubling of the roles of the Fool and Cordelia. But I want to move away from the modern model of the two parts played by a woman (first suggested, though not carried through, by Macready’s casting of a woman as the Fool in his 1838 revival of the Shakespearean text2 and the primary thrust of the doubling argument) in favour of the rather more Jacobean perversion of casting Robert Armin as Cordelia: two parts in one; a less than pretty, dirty-minded little comedian as the beautiful and upstanding Queen of France. I want to champion this theory – and more importantly to call for similar casting in future performances – for precisely the same reasons that most critics reject it: because it ironises the drama of many of the pivotal scenes, because it creates all kinds of confusions of gender and sexuality, because it tends to allow the often childish bawdy puns to ‘drowned the cocks’ of the tragedy, because it’s wilful bad casting, and because (ultimately) it makes the tragic ending (not just ‘feminine,’ as Philippa Berry suggests [1999] but) laughable… poor, infirm, weak and despicable.

The theory of the doubling of the roles of Cordelia and Fool3 in the King’s Company is often rejected specifically because of the assertion that Robert Armin must have played the Fool. The notion that Armin could play Cordelia is dismissed out of hand.4 He was too old and too comically conspicuous. Even the most ardent supporters of the doubling tend towards the notion that The Fool should be played by Cordelia rather than Cordelia by The Fool.5 This means that you either propose the post-Restoration practice of casting a woman in both roles, and/or you support the theory that the Globe saw a boy actor take both parts (the persistent use of ‘boy’ by Lear to refer to the Fool being fuel to this argument).6

All of this rests, though, upon retaining the dignity and integrity of Cordelia in performance as visibly and audibly a noble woman, rather than a midget clown (who necessarily absents himself from simple notions of dignity and integrity). Casting is seen, in this light, as a matching of like for like: a perfect ‘fit’. The idea is to mask mimesis; to create an equivalence of actor and role.

I don’t mean to assert that Shakespeare necessarily intends the opposite, merely that the evidence both for doubling and for the casting of Robert Armin as the Fool is strong enough for us to imaginatively experiment with the destabilising interpretations that this poor ‘fit’ could prompt. We don’t need to justify experimental interpretations of Shakespeare on grounds of intention. And playing with gender roles in performances of King Lear is nothing new. Lesley Ferris points out that there have been two recent productions which have cast a woman as Lear. In Frankfurt in 1990, Robert Wilson cast Marianne Hoppe in the role and refused to disguise her as a man; and Lee Breuer’s production in 1987 ‘update[d] the script to Georgia in the 1950s with Lear as a Southern matriarchal figure with three sons.’7 Compared to this kind of thing, a little male comedian playing Cordelia is small beer.

Let me take you back to the epigraph. This snatch of the wind and rain song is the most powerful suggestion in the text that Armin played the Fool. The part is in some global theatrical sense a reprise of his role of Feste in Twelfth Night. Richard Abrams notes the spectral effect:

[it] suggests that Lear’s Fool is not specific to this time and place but floats through the King’s Men’s repertory – an impression heightened by Shakespeare’s failure to provide a history for the Fool who mysteriously originates in Cordelia, so that her act 1 departure robs him of vital substance, causing him to pine away. (1985, 359)

Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘this time and place’. Chronology and the Fool exist in an unstable relationship; the prophecy of Merlin which ensues is proof enough of that. ‘This time and place’ is just as likely to be the Globe in 1608 (or, say, Frankfurt in 1990) as a blasted heath in pre-Roman Middle England. Hence Armin can parody George Puttenham8 emulating Chaucer, and the Fool can simultaneously make an anachronistic prophecy of a prophecy.

It’s the uneasy marriage of performer and role which fuels this kind of metatheatrical gag. The performer ‘fits’ the role and ‘fits’ with it. We’ll need to take a closer look at that word later.

It’s a commentator’s commonplace to mention the link between Feste and the Fool in this ditty, and to go on to gloss the meaning-carrying lines as something like: ‘He that is not very clever must make do with what he’s given.’ Foakes, in the Arden third edition, ignores line 74 (as if self-evident) and for 76 gives us ‘must make his happiness conform to his fortunes’. And Hunter (1972) says that the song ‘enshrines the lesson that our wits must be adapted to our fortunes’, which is both po-faced and about as clear as mud.

But both of these readings ignore the fundamental importance of the word ‘fit’. They assume, in fact, that the word is being used as a noun meaning ‘match’ (linked to the adjective denoting ‘the right size’ or ‘apt’): as in ‘a perfect fit’. If this is the case, then it’s certainly unusual. According to the OED, the only usage of ‘fit’ as a noun in this sense which would pre-date Shakespeare’s is from the anonymous early Middle English poem ‘The Owl and The Nightingale’, where, curiously, it is also coupled with ‘wit’: ‘Mon doth mid strengthe & mid witte,/ That other thing nys non his fitte.’ In fact the OED 2nd Edition insists on giving this denotation its own entry (‘fit’ n.3), only tentatively speculating a possible etymological link to the adjective ‘fit’, from which ‘fit’ n.4 (‘a perfect fit’) is seemingly coined, probably in the 18thC.

In his 1922 edition of the poem, J.W.H. Atkins offers this as a translation: "Man … contrives, through his strength and sense, that nothing else is a match for him". This would certainly have ironic resonances if Shakespeare or Armin intended it as an allusion. It’s not inconceivable, perhaps, that some lapsed homily is being alluded to by both texts. It’s unlikely though.

In fact the collocation of ‘wit’(s) and ‘fit’(s) is a Jacobean cliché.9 It appears, in fact, in King Leir and his Three Daughters (1605), which is routinely cited as a source text for Shakespeare’s version. In a speech of pastoral condescension, Cordella (herself disguised as one) says of the ‘country folk’ that they ‘take on them with such antike fits, / That one would think they were beside their wits!’ This is perhaps itself a self-referential comment about the performances of stage-clowns, as we shall see.

But the common idiomatic collocation of ‘wits’ and ‘fits’ is first suggested to late Elizabethan London dialect by the title of Copley’s Wits, Fits, and Fancies (1595). Here, ‘wit’ and ‘fit’ are metonymically linked terms for funny stories, rhymes or jokes. This rather collapses the distinction of the words into a rough self-referential synonymy when end-rhymed together. This gives us our first alternative gloss on the epigraph:

1. ‘He that has only a funny little ditty, must make content with the rhyme he’s given’

This reading is implosively reflexive. The line endings virtually negate one another and the two lines seem to say almost the same thing. (I’m reminded of the war song ‘We’re here because we’re here because…’ and ‘My name is Jon Jonson’). The Fool, like Cordelia, is saying nothing in this reading. And we all know what becomes of nothing.

But the self-referentiality is not limited to the text. In more theatrical terms, we could gloss this as:

2. ‘He who is stupid must make content with the costume and the role of the Fool.’

If, however, we take ‘wit’ to mean ‘a witty person’, then we could also see Robert Armin, the professional wee comedian, as ‘the tiny little wit’. This gives us another alternative gloss:

2b. ‘He who has a midget fool (i.e. both Lear and Shakespeare), must make content with what he gets.’

The Fool and Armin are perhaps self-mockingly casting themselves as the physical embodiment of stupidity. But if they are, it’s not without ironic complexity. It’s not Armin or the Fool who have a tiny little wit now, but their owners: Shakespeare and Lear. The Fool actually turns out to be ‘a wit’, whereas his King is stupid. And this brings us to the problematic nature of the performer/role distinction, and the difficulty in attributing authorship. Perhaps a contemporary audience could have heard the jingle as

2c. ‘He who is stupid but has a witty little clown in his company, must make content with the rhyme(s) he gets.’

It’s almost as if the Fool is making joking reference to the collaborative authorship of his words. Mary Bly says this on the subject:

Fools did their fooling with an eye to the dramatists’ script, but also with a sense of personal license. Jonson’s Gossip Tattle describes the Fool as a character independent of the script: "I would faine see the foole, gossip, the foole is the finest man in the company, and has all the wit: Hee is the very Iustice o’Peace o’ the play, and can commit whom hee will, and what hee will, errour, absurdity, as the toy takes him…’10

Performer and role, author and clown, and the words used to represent them: ‘fool’ and ‘wit’, are brought into an energetic relationship wherever the fool appears. These notions ‘fit’ together like hand and glove, and like combatants. Because there is, of course, another denotation for the word ‘fit’. It can also mean a ‘paroxysm’ or an ‘outburst’, an ‘attack’ or a ‘collapse’. This uncovers the antithetical nature of the word in Modern English. A ‘fit’ is both an act of perfect matching or combining, and an act of violent disjuncture or explosion: it is fusion and fission at once. It’s like one of Freud’s ‘primal words.’ In fact, like the traditional example of the verb ‘to cleave’, it seems almost to define them. Meanings ‘fit’ with and against one another.

Feste, the most infernal quibbler on ‘fool’ and ‘wit’, says this:

[aside] Wit, an’t be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits that think they have thee do very oft prove fools , and I that am sure that I lack thee may pass for a wise man. For what says Quinapalus? – ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’ [I.v.29]

Wit and folly are collapsed into a ‘fit’, here. But the interesting thing is Feste’s apostrophisation of the wit he is so sure he hasn’t got, in a ventriloquising performance with his Jester’s marotte. This is either wittily ironic, or foolishly deluded. But the point of the quoted dualism is that it means nothing if its parts are integrally obversive: only because ‘fool’ is more polysemously expandable is it superior to ‘wit’ (a fool – artificial – can be witty, but a wit cannot be foolish and still a wit). So Shakespeare and Armin’s apostrophic irony – an irony that dances on their own internal dialectic – can be the natural and the artificial fool’s at once.

Here we stumble upon the central dichotomy of the Elizabethan fool. As William Empson points out, the distinction between artificial and natural fools stems, linguistically, from the ‘‘de idio querenda’ new legal procedure under Henry VIII by which one could petition the court of wards for custody of an idiot.’ (1951, 117) Basically this refers to the ‘right of attorney’, in cases of mental handicap. But the point is immediately worried by the fact that many professional Tudor jesters – artificials, supposedly – were actually legal naturals, and it is precisely this which gives the role of fool the licence that characterises it. Paradox upon paradox. What is the difference between the mysteriously wise imbecile and the dissembling wit ‘playing the fool’? Essentially, Armin’s fool is always – even Feste – balanced between the two. Or is he?

This might be a sticking point for a portrayal of Armin. He seems to have been the perfect artificial: a scholar of the trade, a paid professional, an intellectual, and so on. For him to be the perfect fool, we need to be uncertain about this. David Wiles comes to the rescue. He suggests that Armin was a midget,11 and that he was therefore genuinely a natural fool.

Armin also had a counter-tenor singing voice. Wiles says: ‘The high singing voice adds… to the sense of Armin’s multiple personae, at once elegant and ugly, at once boy and man. [1987: 159] (We should remember that Armin’s mature appearance in the boys’ company production of his own play, The History of the two maids of More-clack was unprecedented.)12 This natural grotesqueness – as well as contextualising his parodistic bravado, suggesting a genuine seam of humour – was just enough perhaps to put the seed of doubt into the minds of contemporary spectators as to whether a fool like Touchstone in As You Like It was ‘a very natural’ or whether he ‘uses his folly like a stalking horse.’

Armin himself was wonderfully equivocal on the subject. As Wiles says:

[Fool upon Fool] has as its running theme the distinction between a fool ‘artificial’ and a fool ‘natural’. Armin declares that his book is ‘written by one, seeming to have his mother wit, when some say he is filled with his father’s foppery’, and the phrasing suggests the delicate line that Armin followed in his own fooling. He always leaves the ambiguity open, whether he is a congenital moron, like the subjects of his six sketches, or whether he is merely the artful jester. His skill lay in suggesting that his lunatic foppery might be innate. (1987, 140)

In fact, if there is a line – an Aristotelian golden mean – then Armin stood with one foot either side of it. His use of the mother / father distinction here is revealing. He is, I think, making a play with Aristotle’s generative matter / form dichotomy: matter (of the child) being mother’s and form being father’s, hence he could be both at once. But, subversively, ‘mother wit’ recalls Erasmus’s ‘mother folly’. Armin was ever the fool.

Or was he a ‘clown’? ‘Fool’ and ‘clown’ fit together like ‘fool’ and ‘wit’. Consider Touchstone’s encounter with William; he says:

… you clown, abandon – which is in the vulgar, leave – the society of this female – which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female, or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit, I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage. I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado… [AYLI IV.iii.46-]

This use of the word ‘clown’, as a clear differentiation of the courtly speaker from his rustic foe, is iterated in the persistent dichotomies of the frenchified courtly language and the colloquial anglo-saxon. (One is reminded of the verbal ear-boxing that Terry Eagleton gives to Empson’s condescending theories of the pastoral in ‘The Critic as Clown’). But this is undermined by the fact that – as a performer – the speaker is designated clown himself. This is an irony which focuses upon the performer / role distinction as its source, and it keys into the differences between the dialects of the audience in the balcony and the pit. In the figure of the fool – the irony comes naturally: clown is a non-colloquial pejorative (suggesting low rank) but it also has (as Wiles says) ‘a technical value-neutral usage’ which its owner would know better than anyone. The fool is showing himself up as a fool, here; but, as such, he has the last satirical laugh: clown he says, is mine to say after all.

The point is, of course, that the clown / fool dichotomy, dramatised here, is itself ironised. It wittily ‘fits’. Touchstone is talking to himself, and the audience, as much as to William. This fact is highlighted by the use of the word ‘bastinado’, I think. Wiles writes:

Armin prefaces his work (Quips upon Questions) with an address to ‘Sir Timothy Truncheon alias Bastinado, ever my part-taking friend’. Armin personalises his slapstick, and we must imagine that in performance he used it like a jester’s marotte, endowing it with the voice of his altar ego. Quips upon Questions makes it clear that the projection of multiple identities is the staple of Armin’s clowning. (1987, 139)

So, it’s the Arminian fool who posits the dichotomy himself: but it’s an easily collapsible one. His foil is a mirror, of a sort.13

The fact that this is a speech which makes one of the clearest statements in the play of the distinctions between high and low class, court and forest, suggests that its self-deconstruction under the pressure of the tenuous fool / clown divide is being used by Shakespeare to pre-empt the final atonement. This is characteristic of Touchstone’s totemic centrality in the play, like the Fool’s and Cordelia’s in King Lear. The bastinado is a phallus, obviously, and its salience as a copulative instrument in Armin’s arsenal resonates in the context of a sexual struggle for Audrey. The fact that it is therefore both a conjugal and an antagonistic instrument (a cleaver, if you like) which finds its way into Touchstone’s mouth, is only fitting if we consider his comment: ‘I press in here, sir, amongst the rest of the country copulatives, to swear, and to forswear, according as marriage binds and blood breaks’ which is, as Empson says, ‘(dropped coolly into the middle of his account of his duelling experience.)’

The bastinado is: a marotte is: a miniature version of the Fool is: a phallus. This all seems to ‘fit’. And the phallus is itself the organ which ‘fits’.

Lear’s Fool probably uses his marotte or his bastinado in between his legs when he delivers his ‘witty’ lines about heads and codpieces (3.2.25-35). This ‘fit’ of the Fool’s throws into a bawdy light all of the references to heads and shelter in the heath and hovel scenes, and therefore, by extension, offers these ironically phallocentric deconstructions of the play to global interpretation.

Let’s apply this to the epigraph again. Suddenly, a ‘tiny little wit’ could refer to the fool’s marotte (a tiny little version of the ‘wit’, a figure which stands in the same relationship with the midget fool as the midget fool does with King and playwright). By extension, of course, this could mean penis. (Let’s call this conflation of marotte and penis, Dick.) This gives us another alternative gloss:

3. ‘He that has a tiny little Dick, must make content with his small endowment.’

The overtones of ‘property’ in my choice of ‘endowment’ are important, as we will see. Otherwise this is the simplest of the penile glosses. A much more bawdy reading, given the proximity of the hovel and the puns on ‘housing’, might be the following:

4. ‘He that has a tiny little Dick, must make content with an orifice which it fits (i.e. the anus)

Obviously, the fact that I’m suggesting the casting of Armin as Cordelia has a lot to do with the undertones of anal sex which I’m finding here. The casting of boys as women on the Jacobean stage has always suggested homoeroticism,14 and in this case it is a mature man in the particularly sexualised role and profession of the Fool.

But Philippa Berry (1999) manages, mercurially, to sniff out the scatological implications of the ‘missing middle’ of Lear’s Britain without the help of this doubling. Her virtuoso argument likens this ‘nothing’, between the two disjointed thirds of Britain, to the anus, and to the female. England is Cordelia is the muddy arse which unmans the failing King of Britain. She doesn’t examine the wind and rain song (strange when you consider the scatological possibilities), but she does suggest the same pun on ‘wit’ in her discussion of the Fool’s egg riddle (1.4.148-52 and 177-9):

The kingdom-as-egg subsequently mutates into a lost ‘wit’ that is now ‘nothing’ (or mad?), with a possible quibble on the white of the egg as well as on ‘wit’ as bawdy slang for the genitals – hinting thereby at the eclipse of both Lear’s manhood and intelligence in relation to a feminine ‘nothing’. (1999, 153)

But Armin as Cordelia suggests to me that, just as useful as opening up the anal readings of Cordelia, is to read her as standing, rather more simply, for the King’s lost phallus. A penis, as the Fool has already said, is also capable of ‘fitting’ into a (phallic) codpiece.

But there’s a part of the epigraph that we’re yet to unpack. In general terms, the phrasal verb ‘to make content’ would seem in Early Modern English to denote three different things: a. ‘To make do’, b. ‘To satisfy’, and c. ‘To fill’. The three denotations are etymologically cognate, of course. But the conflation of the two transitive meanings, with the further conflation of transitive and intransitive into a single signifier, would seem to offer to our fourth version of the epigraph a near definitive expression of misogynistic sexual gratification:

4b. ‘He who has a tiny little Dick, must ‘make content’ (both himself and the sexual object) by penetrating the anus’

But we get the impression that Lear is penetrating nothing, not even the arse of England. If we recall the ‘paroxysm’ or ‘collapse’ version of ‘fit’, then we can perhaps offer this reading:

5. ‘He that has an impotent Dick, must put up with its vagaries’

Crucial to this reading is the fact that it couples the words ‘wit’ and ‘fortune’ as signifiers of the penis. (If we assume the elision of a genitive apostrophe in fortune(’)s.) Paradoxically this seems to ally the impotent Dick with the capricious goddess Fortune, hence suggesting a feminisation of the flaccid penis. Which perhaps, in part, might provide back-up to Stephen Greenblatt’s denial of the binary sexual model in a Renaissance which saw the female as an incomplete or debased version of the male. (1988 p.88)

But it’s not as simple as that. Armin’s and Shakespeare’s fools seem at once to assert and to undermine the binary distinction. Both versions of gender seem possible:

LAFEU: Whether dost thou profess thyself, a knave or a fool?

LAVATCH: A fool, sir, at a woman’s service, and a knave at a man’s… I would cozen the man of his wife and do his service… And I would give his wife my bauble, sir, to do her service. [AWEW: IV.v.22-31]

This bawdiness is sticky. Apart from the obvious duplicity of ‘service’ (sex or employment), there is also the added transitivity ambiguity. Does he mean ‘serve for’ or ‘serve as’ a woman or a man? Precisely what kind of sexual roles are being played by the fool (or the knave)? Is he actor or goal? By giving ‘his wife my bauble’ is he masculating or emasculating her, or himself? And considering that the bauble is also his alter ego, which one of them is he and which one she? Is it this simple?

Only the last question here can be answered easily: no, this simpleton’s duplicities are not that simple. Lavatch is being deliberately duplicitous, but in a way that blurs the most fundamental of duplicities: gender. Lavatch, like the FoolCordelia is at once asexual and bisexual.

These foolish ‘wits’ often have a ‘fitting’ effect on the sexual dichotomy. Mary Bly (2000) refers to:

the uneasy feeling that any bawdy pun can mutate between female and male bodies. In essence, bawdy puns are curiously simple substantiations of what Jonathan Culler calls ‘the inherent instability of language.’ Whichever binary gender identity one might want to impose, one cannot do it through these puns, as they produce meaning precisely by transgression. (2000, 79)

The yoking of this notion to the difficulties of the transitivity relationship (in Lavatch’s ‘serve’ and the Fool’s ‘make content’) casts another linguistic dimension to the double-trouble of the fool. Transitivity itself has sexual connotations in a simplistic gender schema (male=active, female=passive; male=subject, female=object etc.), and it is precisely this which, again, is being simultaneously invoked and dissembled by the actor / role of fool.

There are two more things to clear up. Firstly, we must insist again on ‘fortunes’ as a plural. The OED has as its seventh denotation of the noun ‘fortune’: ‘a woman in receipt of a fortune’, ‘an heiress’. So, reverting the first line to the original, we can gloss the epigraph as this:

6. ‘He that has and a tiny little wit, must suffer the slings and arrows of his outrageous heiresses’

Lear has, remember, just claimed that the rain and wind are working in allegiance with his daughters.

Finally, if we add the contemporary denotation of ‘make content’ as ‘settle an account’ or ‘pay off a debt’, we can add a seventh gloss:

7. ‘He that has and a tiny little wit, must settle his account with the division (fit) of his estate15 (fortunes)

So, to recap. The Fool’s little ditty can be glossed as:

1. ‘He that has only a funny little ditty, must make content with the rhyme he’s given’

2. ‘He who is stupid must make content with the costume and the role of the Fool.’

2b. ‘He who has a midget fool (i.e. both Lear and Shakespeare), must make content with what he gets.’

2c. ‘He who is stupid but has a witty little clown in his company, must make content with the rhyme(s) he’s given.’

3. ‘He that has a tiny little Dick, must make content with his small endowment.’

4. ‘He that has a tiny little Dick, must make content with an orifice which it fits (i.e. the anus)

4b. ‘He who has a tiny little Dick, must ‘make content’ (both himself and the sexual object) by penetrating the anus’

5. ‘He that has an impotent Dick, must put up with its vagaries’

6. ‘He that has and a tiny little wit, must suffer the slings and arrows of his outrageous heiresses’

7. ‘He that has and a tiny little wit, must settle his account with the division (fit) of his estate (fortunes)

What this little jingle manages to achieve then, in its ‘fitting’ little way, is a super-condensed commentary on Lear’s absurd tragic predicament. Lear is a King for whom the loss of power, the loss of his favourite daughter, the disjuncture of his kingdom, the loss of his mind, his fool and his nobility are all equivalent to the loss of his erection.

Where Berry reads the threatening presence of the anus in Lear, I read the paradoxically absurd and tragic absence of the phallus. Our readings fit together. Cordelia, with Armin in her costume, is not the anus between the buttocks of Goneril and Regan, but the (standing) Dick between their (kneeling) balls. The fact that Lear cannot get her to respond is the source of his collapse.

But, as A C Bradley would never have put it, can there be any redemption for the old sod? Not, I’d suggest, without his suffering at the hands of a hostile audience. If and when Richard Burbage staggered onto stage carrying the not-so-pretty little Robert Armin in his arms as the body of the (drag) Queen of France, could we blame the youngbloods in the pit for howling not with sympathy but with derision?

But I read this ‘Howl’ as the moment of Lear’s anagnorisis. If Lear is redeemed it is in his metatheatrical revelation. This is always the redemption with which a Tragic hero likes to congratulate himself: he recognises the generic pattern of the Tragedy and therefore transcends to the deified level of the audience. But there’s no comfort in it if the Tragedy is so absurd. Lear recognises, perhaps, the implosive hermeneutics of his own play as it implodes. Lear’s tragically posthumous copulation, in the word ‘fool’, of the daughter and the Fool (the inherently copular figure, the one who can bridge the gap ‘between cosmos and chaos’) might therefore be understood as the moment of reincorporation… too late. The daughter and the Fool are dead, and Lear’s cosmic impotence remains.

King Lear is a tragedy of the absurd. It is a play which seeks both the mockery and the empathy of the audience for a spectacle of universal decrepitude and impotence; it is absolutely a play about sex, sexuality and power which seeks to assert the shame of Lear’s loss of tenuous phallic potency (embodied in Robert Armin’s FoolCordelia) in order to broaden the scope of his shame to encompass those who pillory him.

What we’re left with is the tableau of a foolish King mourning over his dead daughter’s body like the broken marotte of the professional clown. A dummy that cannot be ventriloquised. A Dick that won’t stand up.16 Or will it?

‘Look, her lips’…

Robert Armin had a beard, of course, and doubtless found it difficult to play dead with Richard Burbage fondling him and trying to take his clothes off. The tragic climax could easily descend into a farce. The point of this essay is to suggest that perhaps it should. This is something that my old teacher Gazza may well have understood. Lear’s death, whilst tickling his dead, transvestite, fool phallus is capable of being the most movingly absurd and absurdly moving of theatrical events.

The ‘fast thick pants’ are dead; long live the ‘windy knob’.


1 See Jonathan Coe The Rotters’ Club (London, Viking 2001)

2 Before Macready, Nahum Tate’s Fool-less tragi-comedy version of King Lear had held the stage.

3 This is first proposed by Alois Brandl (1894) p.179 and Wilfred Perrett (1904). More recently, Thomas Stroup (1961) and Richard Abrams (1987) have articles dedicated to the subject. All of them suggest that the doubling is ‘fitting’ to the tragedy, rarely noticing just how much ‘fitful’ comedy there is to be had.

4 See, for example, Ringler (1981) p.183-194; and Foakes (1987) p.50.

5 cf. Abrams 1985. Though (I think rightly) he dismisses H. L. Anshutz’s enthusiastic argument that ‘the character of Cordelia herself, not just the actor playing her, returns disguised as the Fool.’ (366, n.1)

6 Huntington Brown, in an entertainingly eccentric essay, (1963) supports the casting of a boy as the Fool. And it is this essay which leads to a similarly diverting spat between Fleissener and Gard as to the denotation of ‘fool’ in the line ‘And my poor fool is hanged’. Empson had already picked at this ambiguity, of course, but the point to note is how a casting decision affects textual interpretation.

7 Lesley Ferris (1993) p.3

8 George Puttenham The Art of English Poesie (1598) ‘an argument for [Shakespeare’s] use of Puttenham is developed by Gary Taylor in ‘Date’, 382-5. The lines there run: “When faith failes in Priestes sawes, […] Then shall the realm of Albion / Be brought to great confusion.”’ Foakes (1997) p.268-9 n.79-96

9 A particularly fitting example, given the subject, is to be found in The Scourge of Folly by John Davies of Hereford: ‘To our English Terence, Mr Will Shakespeare / Thou hadst been a companion for a king, / And, been a king among the meaner sort. / Some others rail; but, rail as they think fit, / Thou hast no railing, but a reigning wit’ cit. Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare Gamini Salgado (Sussex, 1975) p.30

10 Bly (2000) p.122 (and p.181 note cit.) Notice the use of the word ‘toy’ punning on the ideas of whim and the Fool’s ‘bauble’ here. The two notions are conflated as if the bauble were an embodiment of his mercurial character (see below). ‘Toy’ also carried, in contemporary usage, the meaning ‘throwaway witticism’ – like ‘wit’.

11 Intriguingly, Wiles suggests that references to characters being ‘dogs’ can be understood as indications that the diminutive Armin played the part. A fact which I think might be seen to reach its symbolic peak when Thersites nips at Ajax’s heels after being beaten by him like a dog, revealing his own master’s vulnerability. As Robert Weimann shows though, [1991, 108] the doggiest of fool’s parts was probably Kemp’s: Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: ‘I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. O, the dog is me, and I am myself. Ay, so, so.’ [II.iii.19] This follows the typical iterative pattern of Kemp’s parts: No, A, apposition / opposition. O, A*, opposition / apposition. Ay, so, so. (‘So, so’ turns up a lot in foolspeak). The difference here though, is that Kemp may well have been performing with a dog and claiming interidentification (Tom Stoppard wittily has Kemp tangled up by his own dog with the leash, ruining his performance, but getting laughs from Queen Elizabeth, in Shakespeare in Love), whereas Armin was the dog.

12 These kind of details lead Doris Adler (see The Shakespeare Newsletter vol.27 no.4, p.30) to make the most direct (if a little humourless) argument for The King’s Men casting Armin as Cordelia. She pays particular attention to Armin’s feminising diminutive nicknames: Snuff, Pink and Robin.

13 Allan R Shickman actually suggests that Shakespeare intends the Fool to carry a mirror rather than a marotte. ‘The Fool’s Mirror in King Lear’ (English Literary Renaissance, 21. 1991) It’s doubtful how convincing this is as an assertion, but – regardless of intention – it’s at least worth trying in performance.

14 In Shakespeare from the margins (Chicago 1996: p144), Patricia Parker provides a fascinating, if slightly tenuous, reading of the words ‘ingle’ (meaning ‘catamite’) ‘angle’ and ‘English’ in and around Shakespeare which focuses on the notion of a National homosexual guilt linked to the suspicion of sex between adult actors and the boys hired to play women.

15 Here’s a similar foolish yoking of the languages of accountancy and sex: ‘I will content you, if what pleases you contents you.’ As You Like It (5.2.126)

16 Willeford recounts, as an echo of this, the skit of the clown Bébé, who explains his inconsolable grief (and his fish on a string) by saying that his pet kipper drowned in a puddle when he took it for a walk. (1969, 22)


ABRAMS, RICHARD: ‘The double casting of Cordelia and Lear’s Fool: a Theatrical View’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 27 (1985) p.354-68

ATKINS, J.W.H (ed. etc.): The owl and the nightingale ; edited with introduction, texts, notes, translation and glossary by J.W.H. Atkins (CUP, 1922)

BERGE, MARK: “My poor Fool is hanged”: Cordelia, the Fool, silence and irresolution in King Lear’ in Reclamations of Shakespeare (A. J. Hoenslaars ed.) (Amsterdam 1994)

BERRY, PHILIPPA: Shakespeare’s Feminine Endings (London, Routledge 1999)

BLY, MARY: Queer Virgins and Virgin Queans on the Early Modern Stage (OUP 2000)

BRANDL, ALOIS: Shakespere (Berlin: Hoffman 1894)

BRAUNMULLER, A. R. and HATTAWAY, MICHAEL (ed.): The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama (CUP, 1990)

BROWN, HUNTINGTON: ‘Lear’s Fool: A Boy, Not a Man’ Essays on Criticism 13 (1963) p. 164-171

COE, JONATHAN: The Rotters’ Club (London, Penguin 2001)

DESSEN, ALAN, C.: Elizabethan stage conventions and modern interpreters (CUP, 1984)

EMPSON, WILLIAM: The structure of complex words (London, Chatto and Windus 1951)

FERNIE, EWAN: Shame in Shakespeare (London, Routledge 2002)

FERRIS, LESLEY (ed.): Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing (London, Routledge 1993)

FLEISSNER, ROBERT F.: ‘Lear’s ‘Poor Fool’ as the Poor Fool’ Essays on Criticism 13 (1963) p. 425-7
   and: ‘Lear’s ‘Poor Fool’ and Dickens’ Essays on Criticism 14 (1964) p. 425

FOAKES, R. A. (ed. and commentary): King Lear (Arden Shakespeare 1997)

FREUD, SIGMUND The Interpretation of Dreams (trans. A. A. Brill, London: George Allen & Co., 1913)

GARD, ROGER: ‘The ‘Poor Fool’’ Essays on Criticism 14 (1964) p. 209

GEISSER, GOTTLIEB: ‘The Fool’s prophecy as a key to his function in King LearAnglia 104 p.115-7

GOLDBERG, JONATHAN (ed.): Queering the Renaissance (Duke University 1994)

GODDARD, HAROLD, C.: The Meaning of Shakespeare (Uni. of Chicago Press, 1951)

GREEN, LAWRENCE: ‘"Where’s my Fool?" – Some Consequences of the Omission of the Fool in Tate’s LearStudies in English Literature 12 p.259-274

GREENBLATT, STEPHEN: ‘Fiction and friction’ in Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley 1988) p.66-93

GURR, ANDREW: The Shakespearean stage, 1574-1642 (third ed.) (CUP, 1992)

HUNTER, G. K. (ed. and commentary): King Lear (London, Penguin Shakespeare 1972)

KERMODE, FRANK (ed.): The Tempest (London, Methuen 1954)

LEVINE, LAURA: Men in women’s clothing: Anti-theatricality and effeminization (CUP 1994)

LIPPINCOTT, H. F.: ‘King Lear and the Fools of Robert Armin’ Shakespeare Quarterly 26 p.243-53

McEWAN, NEIL: ‘The Lost childhood of Lear’s Fool’ Essays in Criticism 26 p.209-17

PERRETT, WILFRED: The Story of King Lear (Berlin: Mayer and Muller 1904)

RICKS, CHRISTOPHER (ed.): English Drama to 1710 (London, Sphere, 1971)
   and: Eliot and Prejudice (Faber, 1994)

RINGLER, WILLIAM A., JR.: ‘Shakespeare and his Actors: Some Remarks on King LearProceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium 12 (1981) p.183-94

SALGADO, GAMINI: Eyewitnesses of Shakespeare (Sussex, 1975)

SEIDEN, MELVIN: ‘The Fool and Edmund: Kin and Kind’ Studies in English Literature 29 (1979) p.197-214

SHICKMAN ALLAN R.: ‘The Fool’s Mirror in King Lear’ English Literary Renaissance, 21. (1991) p. 75-86

STROUP, THOMAS: ‘Cordelia and the Fool’ Shakespeare Quarterly 12 (1961) p.127-32

SUTCLIFFE, CHRIS: ‘The Canon of Robert Armin’s Work: an addition’ Notes and Queries June 1996, p.171-5

WEIMANN, ROBERT: "Epilogue and Post-scriptural future" from: The arts of performance in Elizabethan and early Stuart drama: essays for G.K. Hunter (Murray Biggs ... [et al.] [ed.]) (EUP, 1991)

WELSFORD, ENID: The Fool – His Social and Literary History (London, Faber, 1935)

WILES, DAVID: Shakespeare’s Clown (CUP, 1987)

WILLEFORD, WILLIAM: The Fool and his Sceptre – A study in clowns and jesters and their audience (Northwestern Uni. Press, 1969)

Unless otherwise indicated all Shakespeare citations other than from King Lear come from the OUP Complete Works (1988)

All dictionary references from: Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989 (ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner), Additions 1993-7 (ed. John Simpson and Edmund Weiner; Michael Proffitt), and 3rd ed. (in progress) Mar. 2000- (ed. John Simpson). OED Online. Oxford University Press. <>

back to top

© Copyright S.A.M. Trainor 2002-2009