Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

"Have I Caught Thee?": Cordelia and the Runaway Jesus

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

"Have I Caught Thee?": Cordelia and the Runaway Jesus

Article excerpt

1. Critics Richard Strier and Deborah Shuger have related the radicalism of King Lear (1605-6) to radical strains within mainstream sources of cultural authority: early Christianity, humanism, and Protestantism. Strier compares the view of legitimate rebellion he finds endorsed in the play with the range of stances available in humanist and Protestant thought. At every turn, Strier argues, Shakespeare carries the notion "of right obedience as sometimes consisting of disobedience as far as it would go" (Resistant Structures, 165-6). Shuger, meanwhile, contrasts the play's willingness to question the social order with the conservatism of the later humanists and of most Elizabethan and Jacobean preachers. When Shakespeare counters this conservatism, however, he is not rejecting Christianity but rather coming closer to its roots. According to Shuger, "precisely those moments in Shakespeare identified by modern critics as radical and subversive derive (however indirectly) from traditions of Christian radicalism ... characteristic of the Church Fathers, particularly the Greek Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries" (Subversive Fathers, 47).

2. In the spirit of these arguments, I suggest that King Lear taps into a radical strand even further back in Christianity-as far back as the figure of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. In King Lear 4.4, as the play builds towards battle, a messenger informs Cordelia that the British army is nearing her French forces.[1] Not surprised by the news, she apostrophises her suffering sire: "O dear father,/ It is thy business that I go about;/ Therefore great France/ My mourning and important tears hath pitied/ No blown ambition doth our arms incite,/ But love, dear love, and our aged father's right" (23-28). In what Arden editor R.A. Foakes deems the play's "most direct Christian reference" (323), Cordelia's words echo the words of the boy Jesus. The only canonical story about Jesus' childhood appears in Luke 2:41-52. Returning from Jerusalem, where they have taken their twelve-year old for Passover, Mary and Joseph realise he is not with them. A frantic search leads them back to the Temple, where the boy is discovered astonishing the religious teachers with his precocious understanding. Mary confronts him with her worry: "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee with heavy hearts" (2:48). Offering no apology for this runaway behaviour, Jesus responds with questions of his own: "How is it that ye sought me? knew ye not that I must go about my Father's business?"(2:49) They, apparently, were lost.[2] Nevertheless, according to Luke's narrative, Jesus subsequently followed them to Nazareth and was "subject" (2:51) to them.

3. Shakespeare therefore alludes to a biblical story which seems to depict, without condemning, a child's disobedience. Jesus possesses greater wisdom than his mother-and he is not afraid to show it. This biblical model of disobedience, in this case within the familial realm, certainly resonates with Cordelia's overall characterisation, and most obviously with her refusal to participate in Lear's love contest.

4. At the same time, Shakespeare's allusion may reflect another cultural influence (besides the gospels, the early church Fathers, the humanists, and the Reformers). This particular episode was most prominent, arguably, in the rosary and related Roman Catholic devotions intertwining the vita Christi with the life of Mary.[3] In an article on John Donne's "La Corona" (1607-8), A.B. Chambers remarks that "rosary meditations are surely a strong force behind the popularity of the incident and perhaps an explanation for Donne's remembering it" (213). (Donne's sequence devotes one of its seven sonnets entirely to Jesus among the Doctors.) These meditations lend the event a prominence not obvious in Luke, let alone the collective impression created by the gospels. In fact, the rosary skips over the public ministry entirely, moving from the boy's appearance at the temple to the adult's embrace of the cross. …

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