Mr. Ackroyd can offer no evidence in support of this doubling in Shakespeare's company, and I, in my turn, can offer no real evidence for my repudiation of the idea. Of the three--soon to be four--LEARs I've appeared in, the roles were only doubled in one, and that didn't work very well. The actor, a very young, petite and athletic woman--she played Ariel in the same season--was a strong Cordelia, but she didn't have the gravitas to oppose a much older, much larger Lear. Other than that production, I've never seen the doubling tried, although I thought Emma Thompson a wonderful Fool in an otherwise forgettable production for the Renaissance Theatre Company in the early 90's, and she recorded Cordelia for the same company a few years later, so she could certainly have carried it off.
The problem for the contemporary director is that he or she is most often forced to look for a Cordelia who can also play Fool, rather than a Fool who can also play Cordelia, and Cordelia is a much more physically specific piece of casting. She must be a woman, and while the Fool can be either sex, the role is written male. She must be the youngest of three sisters, all three of whom are potentially sexually active. This is not to say that people don't have sex into their eighties, but Goneril and Regan tend to be cast in their thirties and forties. The Fool has no sexual stakes in the play, and he may be played--in fact he seems to me to work best when he is played--as an older man.
While Mr. Ackroyd, and others who argue in favor of this double, emphasize the links between the characters, I find the differences between them equally compelling. Certainly both try to force Lear to acknowledge the folly of his behavior, but the way in which they each go about it emphasizes the gulf of age and experience which separates them. Cordelia has the absolute faith and rigorous moral convictions of the very young. All she needs to do is tell her father the truth, and he'll see the error of his ways. In defending her position, she advances a 50-50 division of a woman's love between a parent and a husband as the natural order of things. There is no gray area here, none of the little concessions to psychology or personal politics which adult children have been making to aged parents since just after the flood. "But goes thy heart with this?" Of course it does. She doesn't even seem to pick up on the fury just barely concealed by "So young and so untender?" She begins a new line with three perfect iambs: "So young, my lord, and true." as if that will end the discussion. And the storm breaks upon her unawares.
The Fool knows his man better; he's probably known him longer. His attacks are much more sophisticated and indirect. He knows exactly how far he can go before he's whipped, and he recognizes the danger to Lear in provoking him to an ungovernable fury. In fact, he's forced to watch in complete silence in II iv, as Goneril and Regan do deliberately exactly what Cordelia did unconsciously in I i. "All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with." makes much more sense in a middle aged or elderly mouth. Its owner has seen all sorts of titles--permanent, transient, actual and metaphorical--come and go, and no twenty-something would seriously advise anybody to "Leave thy drink and thy whore/And keep in a door/And thou halt have more/Than two tens to a score." The conservatism, not to say the puritanism, in the injunction to lay aside the good stuff and save a little something for your retirement makes the line an injunction from one old man to another. The youngest daughter says "Dad, you're an idiot." The old friend and/or retainer can plausibly say "Come on, Old Man, act your age."
All of which is not to say that there are not some young actresses out there who can't pull both characters off, but one of the many things that makes Emma Thompson so marvellous is that there aren't that many of her. It's a bromide in the profession that anybody capable of playing Juliet is too old to be cast in the role, but we've all seen marvellous Juliets. The role is, after all, written as and for a young woman/man by the greatest of practical playwrights. I am convinced--and again I can offer no evidence--that the Fool was written for Robert Armin, a profound and intelligent middle aged comedian, a fact which would make it necessarily difficult for a young woman to play him. I've seen it tried several times, with and without doubling Cordelia, and I've never seen it work.
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