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'Christabel,' 'King Lear,' and the Cinderella folktale.

Source studies of Coleridge's mysterious ballad Christabel have been numerous and yet tentative. In the well-researched and well-known Road to Tryermaine, Arthur Nethercot admits that he "has not found any one whole story on which .... the poem depends" (27). Similarly, Kathleen Coburn asserts that "no central fable behind it has ever been found.... the traditional fables on which the narrative parts are based have been all lost sight of" (126). In spite of such remarks, however, several source-hunters and critics have shown that the ballad includes numerous folktale elements (Basler 25, Tomlinson 111, Adlard 230-38, Liggins 91-104). Indeed, Coleridge himself, recognizing in the Biographia Literaria the broad and checkered reception of Christabel "among literary men" even before its actual publication, acknowledged with some chagrin that the ballad "pretended to be nothing more than a common Faery Tale" (Collected Works 7.2.238). Given this acknowledgment and the considerable evidence (explored in the following pages) that the ballad deals with the paternal abuse of Christabel (and not merely her repressed sexual fantasies, which other critics have emphasized(1)), this essay awes that a major source underlying Coleridge's poem is the Cinderella folktale. For variations of this tale have dealt with similar abuse and quite probably influenced the ballad through his broad reading and knowledge and especially his interest in Shakespeare's King Lear, which itself includes significant aspects of the Cinderella legend. Although there are many variations of the legend, which have developed in European and other cultures, several of the variations have elements in common that Coleridge would have recognized. But, interestingly, he tried to de-emphasize some of these elements both in his criticism of King Lear and in his ballad. In the following pages I shall discuss variations of the folktale most akin to the play and the ballad, indicate relevant parallels between these works and their common source, and argue that the ballad's provenance helps confirm that its true though horrifying subject matter is father-daughter incest.


According to Marian Cox's seminal study of the Cinderella story, the "unlawful marriage" or relationship -- a euphemism for incest between a father and daughter -- characterizes one group of the story's variants and "has been utilized in the legendary history of Christian saints, in a number of medieval romances, and in . . . mysteries based on the same" (xliii-xliv). For example, in the "Constance Saga," from which the medieval romance Emare derives, a young maiden was rejected by an unnatural father -- not unlike Christabel near the end of her fragmentary tale, where Sir Leoline turned "away from his own sweet maid."(2) And just as Leoline had once loved Christabel "so well" (24), so in Vita Offae Primi an ancient king of York had loved his daughter to excess. But she resisted and her would-be executioners abandoned her in a forest, where she was found by Offa, who eventually married her (Hibbard (23-24). According to one Catskin variant of the Cinderella legend, entitled "The Princess of the Cat-skins" -- a variant that has appeared throughout the British Isles (Cox 170, 264, 267; Rooth 125), a widowed queen with one daughter remarried, was ill-treated by her new husband, and died. The widower thereupon proposed marriage to the daughter. But the girl's good fairy reassured her that she was being watched over since birth -- just as Geraldine implies of Christabel ("`All they who live in the upper sky, / Do love you, holy Christabel'"(3)). With the good fairy's help the daughter fled and was saved by a young prince, who straightaway married her (Kennedy 81-87, Cox 272-73). In "The King who Wished to Marry his Daughter" a king's wife died, after which he sought to marry a woman whom his deceased wife's clothes would fit. When by mistake his daughter tried the clothes on, he urged her to marry him. She sought advice from a foster mother and she delayed the king with several requests. Fleeing to another country, she became a cook-maid, eventually revealing her true beauty to the country's prince, who then married her (Campbell 1: 226-29, Cox 184).

As indicated in the last two examples and as Alan Dundes observes, "Many [Cinderella] folktales begin with the queen or original mother already dead" or absent (236). This factor was central to one of the most important of all Cinderella tales, the legend of St. Dipne; and, as I will show, it was important to King Lear and especially Christabel. According to J. A. S. Collin de Plancy, Dipne was the lovely daughter of a pagan Irish king. After her mother died Dipne remained devoted to her memory -- just as Christabel remains devoted to her deceased mother ("O mother dear! that thou wert here"). But the king -- a lustful though grief-stricken man, whom Sir Leoline closely resembles in his "wroth" and "madness" ((412-13) -- tried to induce Dipne to marry him. As he became more insistent, she sought solace at her mother's grave and counsel from her confessor, who advised her to delay the king until she could flee. Eventually, she embarked for Antwerp, near which she rested in a forest. Furious, the king pursued her and after she resisted his demands he beheaded her. St. Dipne's feast is celebrated on May 15. Her martyrdom took place on the 30th of that month in the year 600, and is still cited today by scholars concerned with the implications and problems of father-daughter incest (Collin de Plancy 2: 219-23, Cox lxv, Herman 1-2).


In a study of King Lear in 1934, James Bransom insinuated that an "incestuous passion" by the king for one of his daughters may have influenced his behavior (221). In a letter to Bransom, Freud agreed, suggesting that "the secret meaning of the tragedy" involves the king's "repressed incestuous claims on a daughter's love."(4) But in "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's 'Gradiva'" which was published (in 1907) long before he wrote to Bransom, Freud had raised suspicions about Lear although he doubted the king's culpability, referring to the love-test at the beginning of the play as "an improbable premiss" (9: 43). Referring later in "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (1913) to the same test as the "extraordinary premiss" of an old man," Freud argued that it functions to displace the king's impulses and that Cordelia resembles Cinderella. But here Freud made no direct mention of incest (12: 301). Even though he planned to undertake a synthesis of folkloristic and psychoanalytic approaches to King Lear, he never did (Holland 215).

Nonetheless, the suggestions of Freud and Bransom concerning the tragedy have been taken up by more recent scholar -- and with considerable persuasiveness. For example, Arpad Pauncz has argued that "Lear not only loves his daughters; he is also in love with them, especially the youngest one" (60). When Cordelia shrinks from him, his anger and outrage toward her, which anticipate the reactions of Sir Leoline toward his daughter in Part II of Christabel (636-41), implicate the king's real desire. As S. C. V. Stetner and O. B. Goodman aver, "Cordelia's instinctive withdrawal ... begets Lear's guilt-ridden rage, and he just as instinctively tries to cover the shame of having touched a forbidden place" (83-84). Thus, ironically at the very same time this father angrily disclaims his "paternal care," "Propinquity," and "property of blood" in Cordelia, he uses words that imply a "barbarous Scythian" appetite for "his generation."(5) Regarding the play's opening love-test specifically, Mark Taylor says that Lear tries "to assert his control over the one daughter whom he loves, who has come of age, [and] who is separating herself from him" (74) -- just as Christabel seeks to do from Sir Leoline despite her lover's untimely absence.

As with Freud and others, the love-test at the beginning of Lear continues to raise disturbing questions. As Mark Blechner queries, if Lear's strategy is to base the division of his kingdom on the results of a contest meant to flatter him, why does he award lands after each daughter's profession of love? "If it is truly a contest, why does he not wait until all three daughters have spoken?" (311). And why does he put his favorite daughter in the embarrassing position of having to ignore her truthfulness and flatter him in front of Regan, Gonerill, and others? His words and actions in the opening scene seem calculated to elicit from Cordelia a response that gives him the opportunity to express his displeasure, deny her a dowry and perhaps a husband, and thereby keep her for himself.

Following the contest, during which France seems to hint at Lear's incestuousness ("Sure . . . / Must be . . . your forevouched affection / Fall into a taint"), much additional evidence implicates the king's behavior. Indeed, he seems almost to admit that he is the very source of Gonerill's "derogate" or debased body (I.iv.235) when he refers later to her as a disease of his own flesh -- "a disease ... / Which I must needs call mine" (II.iv. 215-16). During the storm in Act III, which mirrors his internal turmoil and emerging sense of painful responsibility, Lear actually refers (in the second person) to himself as "incestuous" (ii.53). And shortly thereafter when he assumes that Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise) suffers from "unkind daughters" as he himself does, Lear asks a darkly ambiguous question and then utters a darkly ambiguous assertion:

Is it the fashion that discarded fathers

Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?

Judicious punishment: 'twas this flesh begot

Those pelican daughters. (III.iv.67-70)

Although the question here may suggest Lear's fear and hatred of a developing fashion that fathers -- rejected by their daughters -- receive little mercy (on themselves) from them, the same question may suggest quite the opposite: perhaps it is becoming a trend that fathers -- rejected by their daughters -- have little mercy on them (i.e., "on their flesh" and blood). As Gloucester says a few lines later, acknowledging the cycle of conflict between parents and children, "Our flesh and blood [i.e., our offspring as well as our own individual humanity] ... is grown so vile / That it doth hate what gets it [i.e., what begets it]" (III.iv.129-30). And just as Lear's assertion about "Judicious punishment" maybe taken to mean that his angry desire for retribution is appropriate, given that he helped beget such cruel ("pelican"-like) daughters as Gonerill and Regan, so also may the assertion be taken to mean that their punishment of him is just, given that other and most unnatural gift of his flesh to them. After all, since they are "pelican daughters," then he must be a "pelican" parent -- as implied by Edgar's cryptic response to Lear: "Pillicock [a term of endearment but also a reference to the phallus] sat on Pillicock Hill [the female genitals]" (III.iv.71).(6). Perhaps Lear's subsequent mention that his daughters were "Got `tween the lawful sheets" (IV.v.112) implies not only their begetting but also their having been gotten or taken by him between his bed sheets, which were at one time lawful in his former marriage but have remained "lawful" only in his twisted inversion of the law itself. That Lear has looked upon his daughters in ways less than morally and socially acceptable may be suggested in the pun on his name by that master of puns, the Bard himself (see Kokeritz 204-07).

Just as significant evidence of incest can be detected in King Lear, so also can several traces of the Cinderella folktale. Indeed, the frequently discussed love-test at the beginning of the play has been recognized as tale type 923, "Love Like Salt." In 1886 E. S. Hartland labeled the first of what he thought were five distinguishable types of "The Outcast Child" as the "King Lear type" (310), and in 1893 Marian Cox referred to the initial elements of Cap o' Rushes (a variant of the Cinderella story) as "King Lear Judgment -- Loving Like Salt" (xxv, 80). This folktale consists of a basic plot involving an initial love-test in which a king requests that his three daughters proclaim their love for him. The third, his favorite, replies that her love is like salt to fresh meat and she is forthwith rejected and banished by the enraged king. The folktale usually ends with the marriage of this daughter to a prince -- just as Christabel eventually marries her prince, according to Coleridge's apparent plans for concluding his unfinished ballad.(7)

Whereas Cox classified "King Lear Judgment -- Loving Like Salt" with the Cap o' Rushes tale type, Anna Rooth classified the story with the Catskin tale type (14-15, 19-20) -- but also under the same plot schema mentioned above. In Rooth's study of the Cinderella legend this grouping of Cap o' Rushes and Catskin tales corresponds to the Aarne-Thompson classification "The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars" (Aarne and Thompson 82). Between the Catskin and Cap o' Rushes tales the only differentiating elements involve the appearance of the "King Lear Judgment" and the "Outcast Heroine" in Cap o' Rushes. But in the Catskin tale there are the functionally equivalent incidents of the "Unnatural Father" and "Heroine Flight." According to Alan Dundes, "This is of enormous significance in seeking to understand King Lear" (234). For the plot summary of "The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars," which includes both Catskin and Cap o' Rushes elements, begins as follows: "Present of the father who wants to marry his own daughter." And the principal motifs in the tale include these: (1) a deathbed promise concerning the second wife; (2) a lecherous father; (3) a father who casts his daughter forth when she refuses to marry him; and (4) the flight of the maiden to escape marriage. "The gist of all this," says Dundes, "is that the 'love like salt, plot appears to be a weakened form of the folktale plot in which a `mad' father tries to marry his own daughter" (234).

Considering the influences on King Lear from these various elements of the Cinderella story, Dundes asserts that the play ought to be read from the daughter's perspective -- not the father's, suggesting therefore that it deals with "`daughter-father' incest rather than 'father-daughter' incest!" (235). But since Shakespeare titled the play The Tragedy of King Lear and since it focuses mainly on Lear's mind and circumstances, quite the opposite can -- and should -- be suggested. And not only have Freud, Bransom, and a host of other Shakespeare critics suggested thus, but so also has that great progenitor of Shakespeare criticism -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who emphasized in his notes for a lecture on Lear (dated January 28, 1819) that the king is "the main subject-matter of the play.(8)


That Coleridge detected in King Lear elements of the cinderella legend and of incest seem quite clear from his critical commentary on the play. That he incorporated similar elements in Christabel seems equally dear. Granted, his most sustained commentary on Lear did not emerge until his lecture in January 1819. But he had mentioned the tragedy in the second lecture of his 1811-12 series, and he commented on the play at greater length in the fourteenth lecture. In addition, as R. A. Foakes points out, Coleridge had studied King Lear and had written a few annotations on it in two editions of Shakespeare -- one extended annotation having been dated January 1, 1813 (5.2.323). Although his commentary and annotations occurred after the composition of Christabel (1797-1800), he had been reading and thinking about Shakespeare frequently and for a very long time -- "<almost> daily ... since I was ten years old," as he indicated in his notes for a lecture on May 19, 1812(5.1.429).

Because he greatly admired the "judgement" and the "concealment of art" by which "Shakespeare always in his first scenes prepares ... for ... all the after events, in his plays (5.1.559), it is little wonder that Coleridge paid special attention to the beginning of King Lear. Because, furthermore, he admired Shakespeare's skillful use of "popular tales" (5.1.520), it is little wonder also that he found the love-test at the beginning of Lear especially worth attention. But his attention was as much unsettled as it was admiring. Hence, as his notes for the 1819 lecture on the play indicate, he found nothing "unnatural" and yet something quite "strange," "selfish," "intense," and even disturbing in the king's behavior: i.e., "The strange, yet by no means unnatural, mixture of Selfishness, Sensibility, and Habit of Feeling derived from & fostered by the particular rank and usages of the Individual -- the intense desire to be intensely beloved, selfish and yet characteristic of the Selfishness of a loving and kindly nature -- a feeble Selfishness, self-supportless and Leaning for all pleasure on another's Breast ..." (5.2.325). Just as the last two phrases may well have been -- from Coleridge's perspective -- suggestive and even quite revealing of Lear, whose "bosom ... well neighboured" Cordelia's (I.i112-13), so also may they apply indirectly to the untoward advances of Sir Leoline on Christabel, whom he presses "to his breast" (399). Undoubtedly distressed by the king's conduct, Coleridge tried nonetheless to make light of it -- repeatedly, and interestingly, in ways that implied not only his distress but also the reason for it. Calling Lear's test of his daughters "a Trick ... a silly Trick," he continued with the following combination of an additional disclaimer and a vague reference to folklore tradition -- as if the latter might undercut the reality and the gravity of the actions upon which the play is founded: "Here notice the improbability and nursery-tale character of the tale./ prefixed as the Porch of the Edifice, not laid as its foundation ..." (5.2.326).

Long before these notes for the 1819 lecture, Coleridge had mentioned elsewhere the "improbability" of the play's opening scene. And in connecting the scene with "an old Story," he indicated that such a connection may actually eliminate the "effects" of improbability. As he wrote in the annotation dated January 1, 1813, in the Theobald edition of Shakespeare,

It is well worthy [of] notice, that Lear is the only serious performance of Shakespear, the interest & situations of which are derived from the assumption of a gross Improbability; whereas Beaumont and Fletcher's Tragedies are, almost all, founded on some out-of-the-way Accident or Exception to the general Experience of mankind. But observe the matchless Judgement of our Shakespear. First, improbable as the conduct of Lear is, in the first Scene, yet it was an old Story ... a thing taken for granted already, & consequently, without any of the effects of Improbability. (Blinkley 667)

No doubt, the "out-of-the-way Accident or Exception" to humanity's general experience that Coleridge recognized in Beaumont and Fletcher's tragedies, but tried to ignore in the first scene of Lear, is sexual impropriety -- in particular, incest. For in spite of his general regard for Beaumont and Fletcher, Coleridge frequently complained of the "Lust" and indecency in their work (Brinkley 657-59, 668-69). In his marginalia in the Stockdale edition of Beaumont and Fletcher, for example, he made a note to himself to determine exactly "how many of the[ir] Plays are founded ... on unnatural incestuous passions ..." (Brinkley 657). But no matter how much he tried to play down the source and implication of Lear's "gross Improbability," it was of such concern to him that he felt the need to note further (in 1813) that "The accidental is nowhere the ground-work of the Passions" in the play: "... it is merely the canvass for the Characters and passions, a mere occasion -- and not (as in B. and F), perpetually recurring as the cause & sine qua non of the Incidents and Emotions ..." (Brinkley 667).

Clearly, the "nursery-tale character" of Lear had long concerned Coleridge -- so much that he focused on the opening love-test repeatedly, and ironically, in order to de-emphasize it. Even in a lecture as early as 1808, he is reported (by Henry Crabb Robinson) to have described the play in the following terms: "There was once upon a time a king who had three daughters and he said to them, `tell me how you love me, and I will give my kingdom to her that loves me best' ... (5.1.118). Regarding Cordelia's sullen and proud reply -- "Nothing" -- to her father's question "What can you say to draw/ A third [of my kingdom] more opulent than your sister?" (I.i.80-81, 84), Coleridge asserted in his notes for the 1819 lecture that her response was Shakespeare's "surest plan ... of forcing away the attention from the nursery-tale" element of his play -- at the very "moment" when that element "has answered its purpose[,] that of supplying the canvas to paint on" (5.2.329). Although the critic tried to play down the love-test and related elements in Lear, he appears to have recognized something quite ancient and quite terrible in them -- a "fierce ... group of Human Passions, Crimes and Anguishes," as he put it in a subsequent lecture, dated 25 February 1819 (5.2.376).

And not only did he detect disturbing elements of the Cinderella legend in Shakespeare's play, but he also deployed such elements in some fascinating intertextual relationships between the play and Christabel. As mentioned earlier, one such element was the motif of the dead or absent mother. According to Judith Herman, "In the archetypal incest stories (e.g., the story of Lot and several variants of Cinderella), the mother's absence is literal and final" (44). Thus, just as Lear reminds Regan as well as others of her "mother's tomb" (II.iv.123), so also does Leoline remind Christabel, himself, and his whole manor of the loss of his wife and his daughter's mother. Indeed, according to Leoline's "law," matin bells must ring daily from midnight until "dawn" (338-42) in order to commemorate his wife's death. And just as such a loss appears to set the stage for the patriarchal abuse that follows in several Cinderella stories, so also does it appear to do the same in the play and the ballad.

As we have seen, principal motifs of "The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars" include both a dying wife's promise her successor and a lecherous father. In this and other Cinderella tales, in Shakespeare's play, and especially in Coleridge's ballad, the implication is that as a result of selfish need and inadequate self-control widowers sometimes misplace their "affections" and seek surrogate wives in their female children. This is particularly the case in Christabel, where the wife's dying promise concerns the lawful marriage of her daughter, who becomes jeopardized by an illicit relationship with the father, and where the penchant for excessive anger and resentment - resembling the "choleric" Lear's (I.i.289) -- combines with the father's obsessive need, sorrow, and inadequate self-control, thereby blinding his will and perverting his desire. For Christabel's birth had actually occasioned his wife's demise (197). Hence, "to be wroth with one we love / Doth work like madness in the brain" (412-13). Although these words from Leoline apply most directly to his falling-out with Lord Roland, the Baron's anger at his daughter cannot be easily ignored. As Christabel's cautious treading of his halls in order not to wake him suggests (166-71) and as her vision of fear" (453) while he embraces her sometime alter-ego (Geraldine) also implies, she does truly fear her father. The tragic paradox that paternal love can be selfish, inordinate, and resentful seems to be exactly what Coleridge was broaching in the coda of Part II of Christabel, where a father expresses his "love's excess" with "unmeant bitterness" towards his own "child" (664-65, 656).

Like variants then of the Cinderella story, where normal relationships between fathers and daughters become inverted into grotesque relationships between would-be husbands and wives, Christabel and King Lear involve similar inversions. The daughter whom Leoline "loves so well" (24) finds herself in the same position as Cordelia, whom Lear "loved ... most" (I.i.117). In Act I of the tragedy a bond between Lear and Cordelia is expressed quite openly, implying not only the legal relation between father and daughter but also the idea of fettering and, as John Reibetanz and Lynda Boose indicate, a kind of marriage. For Cordelia expresses the bond in the form of the marriage vows. "I / Return those duties back as are right fit, / Obey you, love you, and most honour you" (I.i.91-93).(9) That there seems to be a kind of marriage between Lear and Cordelia is implied also in Burgundy's response to them when the king refuses to alter his decision to give no "portion" of his kingdom to his youngest daughter. Referring obviously to Cordelia and himself, though dramatically the situation can be taken to refer likewise to her and Lear, Burgundy says upon the father's refusal of his daughter: "I am sorry then, you have lost a father / That you must lose a husband" (I.i.241-42).

Ironically, like the fathers in such variants of the Cinderella tale as the legend of St. Dipne, "The Outcast Child," and "Loving Like Salt," Lear considers himself more offended (by his daughters) than offensive (III.ii.57-58) and Leoline more "Dishonoured" (by Christabel) than dishonourable (643). Yet, Leoline's sense of being dishonored by Christabel's entreaty that he send Geraldine "away" stems not so much from the daughter's lack of hospitality as from her accusatory "look of ... hate" (606) and from her vociferous reminder of the very "cause" of their inverted and tragic relationship -- i.e., his wife's premature demise. "`By my mother's soul do I entreat!'" exclaims Christabel, "`That thou this woman send away!'" (616-17). The Baron's immediate sense of being "Dishonoured by [i.e., with? through?] I his only child" is certainly ambiguous and suggestive enough to include him in the dishonoring. But whereas Lear partly acknowledges his "Close, pent-up guilts" (III.ii.55), seeking Cordelia's "forgiveness" (V.iii.11) and admitting that she has "some cause" for resenting him (V.i.73), Sir Leoline acknowledges and admits nothing. Instead, even though his bard (Bracy) tries to inform him of a dream that clearly suggests the presence of serious danger to Christabel, the Baron misconstrues the dream as if it referred to Geraldine, in whom he takes a more than friendly interest (567). Although Bracy tries to get his master to see himself more clearly, he fails. But Lear does seem to recognize that psychological blindness and moral as well as sexual hypocrisy provide no true foundation for political authority. As he says derisively to Gloucester in Act IV,

There thou mightst behold the great image of authority. A dog's obeyed in office.

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand. Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thy own back.

Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind For which thou whip'st her. (IV.v.150-55)

And yet despite this recognition, Lear in the very next Act hopes that his imprisonment will be alone, with Cordelia ("like [love?] birds i'th'cage"); and he declares that whoever "parts" them "shall bring a brand from heaven / And fire us hence like foxes" (V.iii.9, 22-23). At this critical point in the play, after Edmund has had the king and Cordelia arrested and at the very moment when Lear's political concerns should be foremost, his words seem altogether too passionately personal.

In reworking the Cinderella story via King Lear, Coleridge tired to de-emphasize some of the unnatural relationship between Christabel and her father by displacing it partly in that mysterious of Christabel's deepest fear and concerns, Geraldine represents both victimizer and victim. Possessing a distinctly masculine side, she functions as Christabel's unnatural lover -- image of the father that "loves [her] so well" (24). This function can be seen most clearly when Christabel first looks directly into Geraldine's eyes and begins to enter a spell that not only condenses the most terrible aspects of her experience but also "lord[s]" over (i.e., silences) her explicit utterance (267-78). When "Christabel saw the lady's eye / ... nothing else saw she thereby, I Save the boss of the shield of Sir Leoline tall" (160-62). The emphatic association ("nothing else") between Geraldine's "eye" and Leoline's "boss" implies that an aspect of Geraldine involves Christabel's father, in particular, his symbol of male power and authority -- i.e., the boss, which is not only a metallic inset but also an emblematic protuberance on his shield (the shield being a substitute for his body). Thus, despite her seemingly protective qualities, can anyone doubt that Geraldine's night with Christabel re-enacts some primal sexual offense against her, an offense after which she awakens to a deep sense of wrong (381)?(10)

Possessing an obviously feminine side also, Geraldine represents Christabel as victim, for like her she too has been abused. That both of these young women are victims, whose stories the ballad's narrator tries to unfold and in so doing reveals the terrible cycle of abuse, is suggested by no mere coincidence. Just as in several Cinderella tales (and works derived thereof) an abused daughter either flees or is rejected (like Cordelia), so in Christabel does the heroine feel the need to escape her household and its daily reminder of her father's obsessive love, sorrow, and resentment, risking her safety by stealing out at midnight into a dark wood in order to pray for her betrothed (and probably her deliverance).(11) Clearly, her venture is associated not only with her beloved but also with paternal "affection":

The lovely lady Christabel Whom her father loves so well, What makes her in the wood so late, A furlong from the castle gate? (23-26)

No mere coincidence is it furthermore that under these circumstances Christabel meets Geraldine, whose story also involves sexual abuse:

Five warriors seized me yestermorn, Me, even me, a maid forlorn: They choked my cries with force and fright, And tied me on a palfrey white. (81-84)

According to Geraldine's own double-entendre, as reported by the narrator, there can be little doubt that she was "entranced" (92) by these warriors. And later when she faints and then suddenly recovers at the threshold of Leoline's castle, we can see in this psychological projection of Christabel both her revulsion at being reminded of her mock marriage with Sir Leoline (a reminder piqued by the prospect of crossing the threshold without her true beloved), and also her anxious and vexed desire to find a substitute for herself in that marriage. (Hence, Geraldine's quick recovery yet uncertain readiness to meet the Baron.)

Perhaps the most significant instance of displacement or substitution by Geraldine occurs when the Baron actually kisses her. For in that event she functions almost simultaneously as victimizer and victim, demurely displacing the frightened and distressed Christabel in a kind of marriage ceremony, complete with blushing bride and her wedding train:

He kissed her forehead as he spake, And Geraldine in maiden wise Casting down her large bright eyes, With blushing cheek and courtesy fine She turned her from Sir Leoline. Softly gathering up her train.... (572-77)

That displacement is the subject of this passage is suggested especially in line 576, where Coleridge -- instead of using the pronoun "herself" (meaning Geraldine) -- used "her," thereby implying Christabel. Immediately after this displacement Geraldine looks askance at Christabel "with somewhat of malice, and more of dread" (586) precisely because she is about to become a victim once again, entering now a situation with Sir Leoline that resembles the heroine's.(12)

As narratives largely about victimization, Christabel, King Lear, and some Cinderella tales are stories also about martyrdom -- stories in which the heroines bear interesting association with none other than Christ. Just as this association is indicated in the abused outcasts and plainly clad servants of various Cinderella stories and especially in the sacrificial victim of the St. Dipne legend, so also is it in Cordelia, who was once "most rich" but is made "poor" (I.i245), and in Christ/ abel, who is likewise victimized and ostracized. Indeed, the ideas and actions of both redemptive suffering and Christian kenosis, whereby divinity empties itself into lowly humanity and utter servitude, are reflected in Cordelia and Christabel.

In the description of the former as "most rich" but "being [made] poor," there is an allusion not only to 2 Corinthians 8.9 ("our Lord Jesus Christ ... was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor"),(13) but also to Philippians 2.6-7, in which Paul says that Christ "made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant." Remaining faithful to and forgiving of her father in spite of much suffering and abuse, Cordelia becomes a figure who like Christ sacrifices herself and "redeems nature from the general curse" (IV.v.197). In a world of grievous wrongdoing and tragic inversions, which may be healed and set aright ultimately through forgiveness, it seems both obviously and yet mysteriously appropriate that Cordelia attaches herself to Christ's mission (Luke 2.49) by saying on behalf of Lear: "O dear father / It is thy business that I go about" (IV.iii.23-24).

Similarly, Christabel serves as a Christ figure although she does not actually die as Jesus and Cordelia do. In his Table Talk Coleridge is reported to have said that several verses about martyrdom in Richard Crashaw's "Hymn to ... Sainte Teresa" were "ever present" to his mind whilst writing the second part" of Christabel -- "if, indeed, by some subtle process of the mind they did not suggest the first thought of the whole poem."(14) Undoubtedly, the closest similarity between Christabel and Teresa involves the act of ravishment: Christabel's physical and psychological ravishment and Teresa's spiritual embrace by God -- her "fair Spouse" (Crashaw 55, line 65). In radically different ways, Christabel and Teresa are "love's victim[s]" (Crashaw 56, line 75) -- martyrs for those who will but learn from such examples of patience and long-suffering. As Coleridge's early biographer -- James Gillman -- once suggested, "The story of . . . Christabel is partly founded on the notion, that the virtuous of this world save the wicked . . ." (283).

Although this essay explores several important similarities among various Cinderella tales, Shakespeare's play, and Coleridge's ballad, it must conclude by acknowledging an important difference. Despite all the victimization in Cinderella stories, most of them end in conventional happiness -- with a prince marrying the heroine and delivering her from a life of suffering and toil. Why then did Shakespeare and Coleridge use this legend as a backdrop to works that end unhappily? Did they miss the point? I think not. For in countering the legend's usual conclusion, they were emphasizing sizing the utter tragedy of father-daughter incest, which is the true story underlying both King Lear and Christabel.(15)


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Young, Alan R. "The Written and Oral Sources of King Lear and the Problem of Justice in the Play." SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 15 (1975): 309-19. (1) See, for example, Basler 25-51, Twitchell 33-44, Spatz 113, Holstein 123, Luther 11-12, 19-20, and Proffitt 249.

(2) Coleridge, Christabel, Coleridge: Poetical Works 235, line 653.. Each subsequent citation of Christabel is from this edition, indicated by line number(s) in parentheses.

(3) Derwent Coleridge referred to these verses as an expression of a "`fond superstition,'" suggesting their fairy-tale quality (xlii).

(4)For the complete text of Freud's letter to Bransom (dated 25 March 1934), see Jones 3: 457-58. See also Holland 64-66.

(5) Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear 101, I.i.107-08, 110, 111. Each subsequent quotation of King Lear is from this edition, indicated by act, scene, and line numbers in parentheses. For more on the incestuous implications of Lear's "Scythian" appetite, see Butler 77.

(6) For such implications in Edgar's response, I am indebted to Halio's edition of King Lear (185, note to line 71). According to Blechner, the Fool's words to Lear earlier in Act III (ii.25-32) -- "The codpiece that will house / Before the head has any ..." -- indicate "the sexual source" of the king's situation, for they suggest that "He who houses his genitals before his head, who puts his lust before reason, is headed for madness and penury" (320-21).

(7) This conclusion to the ballad is based on plans for it apparently conveyed by Coleridge to James Gillman (302). For a discussion of tale type 923 and Cap o' Rushes (type 510B) in relation to written sources of king lear (e.g., Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae), see Young.

(8) Coleridge, Lectures 1808-1819: On Literature Collected Works 5.2.326. See also Collected Works 5.2.137, where Lear is cited by Coleridge as one of several Shakespearean plays in which "the effect arises from the subordination of all to ... the prominent person or the principal Object." All subsequent references to Coleridge's lectures are from this edition, indicated by volume, part, and page numbers in parentheses. (9) See Reibetanz 30-31, and Boose, "The Father and the Bride in Shakespeare" 330-31. Although Naseeb Shaheen (146-47) finds this passage comparable both to the Catechism's injunction "To loue, honour, and succour ...father and mother" and to Ephesians 6.1-2 ("Children, obey your parents.... Honour thy father and mother"), he finds "faint overtones of the Marriage Service, in the lines almost immediately subsequent to Cordelia's.

(10) My interpretation of Geraldine's masculine role gains support from William Hazlitt's "Report that Geraldine was a man in disguise." (See Coleridge, Collected Letter 4:918.) Are view (probably by Thomas Moore) in the Edinburgh review (Sept. 1816 suggested that Geraldine actually seduces Christabel (63). This review and rumors such as Hazlitt's helped foster parodies of Coleridge's ballad, some of which featured an unhappily pregnant Christabel. (See Nethercot 33-36.) In addition, the conclusion to the ballad that Coleridge seems to have mentioned to Gillman (see n. 7 above) suggests Geraldine's masculine role. According to this conclusion, Geraldine "changes her appearance to that of the ... absent lover of Christabel," who is distressed and disgusted by him. The heroine's "coldness" toward this suitor is "very painful to the Baron" because it reflects her deepest feelings toward him. Although he is said to have "no ... conception" of Geraldine's disguise, his obtuseness is just as likely to involve his denial of responsibility for the fear and loathing in his child (Gillman 301-02).

(11) The extremity and abandon in Christabel's actions here have been observed by Gillman also (285).

(12) Hissing angrily in response to Geraldine's look (591), Christabel shows how confused and upset she is about being displaced. While deeply hoping to be free from her father's "love" she partly fears losing it. This paradoxical phenomenon of the incest victim wanting reprieve from yet fearing abandonment by the victimizer is not unusual, as clinicians and researchers have discovered. See Sloane and Karpinski 669; Kaufman, Peck, and Tagiuri 271; and Lustig et al. 35. For a different view of the relationships among Christabel, Geraldine, and the Baron at the end of the ballad's second part, see Nelson, who argues that there are at this point incestuous intimations of a "resolution" of the problem of uniting opposites -- a problem that is not and "cannot be `solved'" (390).

(13) See Shaheen 147.

(14) See Thomas Allsop's Report of Table-Talk, 1820-32 Coleridge, Table Talk, Collected Works 14.2.369. For views of the heroine's Christ-like suffering different from the one I am suggesting here, see Ray and Chambers.

(15) By the end of Coleridge's unfinished ballad, Christabel has been grievously rejected as well as wronged. Granted, this ending does not accord with the projected conclusion apparently mentioned to Gillman. For that conclusion was supposed to be a happy one wherein, subsequent to Geraldine's disguise and deception, Christabel's "real lover" suddenly returns and "the rightful marriage takes place, after which follows [sic] a reconciliation and explanation between the father and daughter" (302). But while this conclusion is nearly as implausible as the fairy tale's, it does assert the reality of the incest taboo and especially its social effects. Whereas according to Freud the taboo divides sexually the young from the old and from each other, according to Talcott Parsons it ultimately unites them into a greater cohesive social framework. The taboo pushes the child to form new relationships beyond the nuclear family, thereby establishing new families and stabilizing specific orders of authority within them. Herein lie not only the significance of "the rightful marriage" between Christabel and her true lover but also the sub-text of the "explanation" between her and Sir Leoline. The bestowal of Christabel on her betrothed reconciles with the Baron's previous behavior and reinforces his explanation, for as Lynda Boose observes: "The bestowal design places the daughter's departure from the father's house and her sexual union with another male into a text defined [i.e., explained] by obedience. . . . So long as the strategy operates, the loss of a daughter can be psychologically mitigated, and defeat by a rival male constructed into public rituals that redefine this transfer as the father's magnanimous gift" ("The Father's House" 32). In short, with the so-called Gillman conclusion of Coleridge's ballad, Leoline's bestowal changes Christabel from a possession of his to an article in his transfer of male authority.
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Author:Welch, Dennis M.
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Date:Jun 22, 1996
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