King Lear and Cordelia?

When I saw this cabinet card from the United Kingdom, I immediately assumed it must have come from a Victorian production of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  The tragic play revolves around the relationship between the king and his youngest daughter, Cordelia.  I spent some time looking for images of historical productions of the play, but found surprisingly few, and none that closely resembled this one.

I did find that in 2018 the BBC released an abridged movie of the tragedy, set in a fictional present time.  The king and his three daughters are played by Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Emily Watson and Florence Pugh (as Cordelia).


Anthony Hopkins and Florence Pugh 1
Florence Pugh and Anthony Hopkins in King Lear (2018). (BBC via The Hollywood Reporter)


Shakespeare Magazine has photos of the film’s cast, along with a helpful description of each character.  In one of those images, below, I think Florence Pugh actually resembles the actress in the cabinet card photo, even if their costumes are very different:

King Lear - Generics
Florence Pugh, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Watson and Emma Thompson in King Lear (2018). (BBC/Playground Entertainment/Ed Miller via Shakespeare Magazine)

King Lear and Cordelia (maybe) 3


If you think the photo might be from a different play, please say so in the comments!

King Lear and Cordelia (maybe) 2
Theatrical cabinet card, c. 1890 (?), from the collection of the author



25 thoughts on “King Lear and Cordelia?

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  1. I watched a few episodes of the BBC King Lear production (huge Anthony Hopkins fan) and was very impressed. I love seeing these older images. My first thought was that it’s a shame we don’t have any pictures of the real Lear, and then I realized that, d’uh, they didn’t have photography back then. This will have to suffice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Researching stage actors and actresses of the pre-photography era is particularly frustrating, because you know there would be photos of them if they had lived a little longer. Instead there are paintings or drawings, which are beautiful but always idealized to some extent. Even after studios became widespread in the 1850s-1860s, there were technical limitations to the types of images that could be made. Anyway, it’s funny you had that thought about Lear (or Leir). I’ve caught myself having those thoughts a few times!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow, this is really neat! You found a treasure and then added some great research to it. The resemblance to Florence Pugh is remarkable. I can’t imagine that it would be from anything but King Lear. I’ve not seen the BBC version but I’ll certainly look for it. 😊🌷

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    1. I haven’t watched the BBC version yet either, but will give it a try when it comes to Netflix. Emily Watson is one of my favorite actresses, but I’m not sure how I feel about her playing an Evil Sister, haha! Sometimes we want certain actors to play positive characters all the time, but that must be boring for them. Thank you, Suzanne!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My guess would be King Lear. Very dramatic pose! I also tried looking online to see if I could find any photos but didn’t have any luck. Maybe this photo was from a small company production (not in London or Stratford-on-Avon).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I suspect you’re right about this being from a small company production. On one hand, the print itself is very sharp, so a good camera was used, and the backdrop is elaborate, as though it might have been painted just to make publicity photos for this play. (We might call this “high production values.”) On the other hand, a London studio would have printed its name on the mount, and probably the name of the play or the names of the actors, any of which would have made the photos easier to distribute or sell. The absence of information is very curious.

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  4. It is a shame that we would need an expert in the evolution of theatrical costume to date this for us to the nearest decade because the costumes give nothing away to a layperson’s eye.

    I would, however, venture, that this is not a London King Lear but something perhaps out of one of the repertory companies somewhere in England.

    I say this because Lear’s crown looks lightweight and not for total real; his regal cloak is not ironed and the king himself does not look anguished at all. We need anguished, on the point of clear leaving his mind even with Lear even when looking at Cordelia! Which is why, I suppose, they say that it is a mature artist’s role.

    This Lear looks so calm, loving, concerned.

    So perhaps a resident theater in a repertory theater in England outside of London where crowns weigh you down, cloaks were of lustrous and heavy with brocade to die for; and Lear is crazy mad. throughout. Gone.

    But what can we know really without some ‘proper’ hint and not just the imaginings of my mind? Sarah

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you brought up the king’s demeanor, Sarah, because I thought about that as well. He does look a bit mad, or at least distracted; he seems to gaze over the top of Cordelia’s head, off into some imagined space. But as you point out, there’s no anguish in his expression or pose, only tension or concern about something. For her part, Cordelia gives him her full attention. (We’ll call her Cordelia, for convenience.) Her face betrays no emotion, but the intensity of her gaze tells us she cares about this distracted old king.


  5. Now that I have King Lear in mind, I can’t see anything else — the power of suggestion strikes again. However: it did occur to me that the Tate version of Shakespeare’s play was different in many respects, and it was being performed into the 1700s. I couldn’t help wondering if some of the revisions carried on even longer, especially in provincial performances. It would require a theater historian to figure that out, but the section in the Oxford Shakespeare on Nahum Tate’s adaptation is pretty interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That was a really interesting section to read, Linda. Thank you for digging it up and sharing it! This sentence stands out:

      “But at the time Tate wrote, Shakespeare was not thought of as an immortal classic, but as a dramatist whose works, however admirable, required adaptation to fit them for the new theatrical and social circumstances of the time, as well as to changes in taste.”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It may have been King Lear, but equally it could be a scene from the legend of King Arthur. The British have always loved romanticism. 🙂 Whatever it was from, lovely photo!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome. I think the thought we first have when we see a photo tends to be the one that sticks! I thought ‘Arthur’ then read other people’s comments… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Looks like King Lear to me. Probably the king and Cordelia from Act 1, when he says “Now our Joy, Although the last, not least…”
    In my humble opinion, the mad king wouldn’t have been wearing a crown. The photograph resembles Laurence Olivier’s Lear a lot! Lovely post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great observations, Rethy, thank you! I looked up Olivier and discovered that he first played Lear in 1946. The Guardian has a page with photos from many different productions, which I hadn’t found earlier. (I should warn you that it’s a lot of photos.) Every production is so different! Here’s the photo of Olivier in 1946:–001.jpg?width=1010&quality=85&auto=format&fit=max&s=a6190e130bce461b1b2ceb9fef92072d

      Liked by 1 person

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