King Lear in Paris

Paris doesn't pause. The New York Times cover story today on a scandal consuming the city noted that “this being France, a film will be made, and comparisons to the classics abound.” The situation, involving a daughter in lawsuit against her wealthy mother (in fact, the richest woman in Europe), was framed in this way, among others, via the Times: “Arthur Goldhammer, a chronicler of French politics at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, said: ‘This saga is the French King Lear: a thankless child attacks a failing parent and a regime totters.’” Does everything come down to Shakespeare? And, is Lear’s most lasting legacy to do with “thankless children?”


Here is the celebrated exchange between King Lear and his most beloved daughter, Cordelia. When asked in front of her sisters to comment on the depth of her love for her father, Cordelia elects not to compete with her (duplicitous) siblings; it is in professing an absence of love—or, rather, in inability to express that love or even an acknowledgment of the futility of attempting to express it—that we realize her love is the deepest. We see in her ironic stance something true, and this is what stays with us. Cordelia loves Lear. The tragedy of the play will be in his having to bury her, rather than the other way around:

KING LEAR

To thee and thine hereditary ever

Remain this ample third of our fair kingdom;

No less in space, validity, and pleasure,

Than that conferr'd on Goneril. Now, our joy,

Although the last, not least; to whose young love

The vines of France and milk of Burgundy

Strive to be interess'd; what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA

Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR

Nothing!

CORDELIA

Nothing.

KING LEAR

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

CORDELIA

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty

According to my bond; nor more nor less.

KING LEAR

How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,

Lest it may mar your fortunes.

CORDELIA

Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honour you.

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say

They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,

That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry

Half my love with him, half my care and duty:

Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,

To love my father all.

KING LEAR

But goes thy heart with this?

CORDELIA

Ay, good my lord.

KING LEAR

So young, and so untender?

CORDELIA

So young, my lord, and true.

The French case, involving both the Loreal cosmetics company and its celebrated heirs, now also involves high-ranking members of the French government, including President Sarkozy. The Lear metaphor may or may not be the right one; it is best when involving not only many heirs but also the specific, cool irony of the heir who loves the most who cares—and fights—the least. This is often how metaphors, perhaps Shakespearean metaphors in particular, tickle down. Any madness is Hamlet; any jealousy, Othello. Bloody rage becomes Macbeth and wondrous senility, Prospero. If the French courts side in favor of the daughter in this case, there will be no more comparisons to Cordelia. Yet if they do not, references to Lear may give way to allusions to Henry IV’s most famous line: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Let’s wait and see what the French press divine.

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