“What’s Cute Got to Do with It?: Early Modern Proto-Cuteness in King Lear”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 What’s Cute Got to Do with It?:  Early Modern Proto-Cuteness in King Lear

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In the past twenty years, the field of cute studies has grown extensively. Much of cute scholarship has focused on Japanese culture and the concept of kawaii or cool, particularly focusing the relation of cuteness, animation, and sexuality. For example, in her 1999 chapter “Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics,” Kanoko Shiokawa uses a feminist lens to examine the gendered qualities of cuteness. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein’s 2002 book considers the similarities and intersections between Japanese kawaii and African American cool. In her 1996 chapter “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” Lori Merish argues that cuteness has a race and class-based component. Other critics have focused more specifically on the concept of cuteness in the United States. More recently, in his 2000 book on aesthetics and consumerism, Daniel Harris offers a survey of cute and anti-cute in American culture.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Cuteness, as we conceive of it, has its origins in the nineteenth century. According the Oxford English Dictionary, cute or “attractive, pretty, charming” comes from “U.S. colloquial and Schoolboy slang” with its earliest record usage in 1834. Despite the origins of cuteness in the nineteenth century, my essay searches for earlier forms of cuteness, an early modern proto-cuteness and asks if earlier structures, systems, and concepts anticipate our contemporary definition of cuteness. Do Shakespeare’s works, particularly King Lear, offer insight into a seventeenth-century ancestor of cuteness? Is Shakespeare ever cute? Cute King Lear is a critical investigation of the intersection between early modern culture and contemporary aesthetics.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 For some early modern scholars, the notion of a cute King Lear might be troubling, and some critics might wonder what Shakespeare could possibly have to do with cuteness. For many, an investigation of cuteness in the early modern period is too anachronistic. Shakespeare’s world is full of bearbaiting, brothels, and beer; surely, this is a world devoid of cute objects. Initially, cuteness seems to have neither a place nor a predecessor in the early modern age. A critical investigation of cuteness takes a leap of faith, but once we start looking for it, we find glimpses of cuteness throughout the age.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Before transitioning to the central parts of this essay, I will briefly look at one example of how the cute aesthetic lurks beneath the surface of Shakespeare’s works.  Let us consider dogs, who are often contemporary cute figures (e.g. Chie Hayano’s 2009 Cute Dogs: Craft Your Own Pooches and J.H. Lee’s Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog). Initially, Shakespeare’s dogs seem far from cute: as an insult, Lear calls Oswald, “you whoreson dog, you slave, you cur!” (4.75-76). 1 Upon further investigation, however, we discover that dogs function beyond cruel insults, and perhaps, they demonstrate a distant link to contemporary cuteness.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The primary dog that offers a glimpse of cuteness is “Sweetheart.” Lear exclaims, “The little dogs and all, / Tray, Blanch, and Sweetheart—see, they bark at me” (13.56-57). Majorie Garber explains that Troy, Blanch, Sweetheart are likely “lapdogs or toy spaniels, then very much in fashion” (189). Although writing about animals in medieval culture, Joyce Salisbury notes,

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The original medieval pets in the purest sense—as non-working animals—were small dogs, lapdogs, for noble ladies….What characteristics marked these lapdogs? As we have seen, the main characteristic of all domestic animals is pedomorphosis, that is, the retention of juvenile characteristics, both in body shape and in personality characteristics, such as whining and submissiveness The most extreme example of the retention of juvenile traits comes in toy dogs: in addition to their small size, they have disproportionately broad heads, small limbs, large eyes, and smaller noses and mouths. All these are characteristics of human infants and thus evoke what the Nobel Prize-winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz defined as the ‘cute response.’ Thus, toy dogs are not just juvenile; they are almost neonatal in appearance. In fact, people frequently see the small dogs as substitutes for children. (116).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Beginning in the late medevial period, noblewomen began to own what we know call “lapdogs.” Continuing into the early modern age, noblewomen owned lapdogs as pets. By linking the dogs, as neonatal figures (or what we would now call cute objects), to the feminine, we find earlier strands of the femininity often associated with cuteness. 2 The link between the neonatal and the feminine continues today with the alignment of cuteness and femininity. Lear’s “Sweetheart,” as a lapdog with an endearing name, demonstrates one historical predecessor to contemporary cuteness. 3

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 I mention Shakespeare’s “Sweetheart” not because the rest of this chapter examines cute early modern dogs, but to point to one example in which cuteness is not initially obvious, but becomes more evident after a close reading. However, the rest of this chapter considers the way that cuteness—or at least early modern proto-cuteness—plays out within the relationship between Lear and his daughters. Lear’s desire to control his daughters correlates with what later, in the twentieth century, becomes the desire to control the cute object. From a cute perspective, then, Lear’s desire to control his daughters (and consequently project cuteness onto them) stems from his own fears about his old age and his potential to become, himself, a cute object. I close this chapter examining William Frederick Yeames’s 1888 Cordelia and offer a brief connection between nineteenth-century sentimental art and the emerging aesthetic of cuteness.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Cuteness and Controlling Children

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Because cuteness deals primarily with the childlike and the feminine, this project focuses most of its attention on Lear’s treatment and conception of his daughters. Describing cuteness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lori Merish argues, “Cuteness stages a problematic of identification that centers on the child’s body. This problematic involved anxieties about the cultural ‘ownership’ of the child….cuteness represents lines of interpersonal, intergenerational identification, promoting affective bonds of social affiliation and cohesion” (187). When connecting cultural anxieties to concerns about the ownership of the child’s body, Merish speaks about a specific cultural and historical context in which the United States experienced mass immigration and an expansion of the ‘nativist’ movement. We cannot carry over these precise concerns to our reading of proto-cuteness in Lear because the early modern England has very different concerns than the nineteenth-century United States, but we can still think broadly about the cultural ownership of children and the intergenerational family lines.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Of course, Lear’s daughters are not the child-age children often associated with cuteness, but Shakespeare’s Lear still deals with “lines of interpersonal, intergeneration identification” as well as “bonds of social affiliation and cohesion,” despite differences between early modern concerns and the ones that Merish describes. The play opens with a conversation between Kent and Gloucester in which the two men discuss the division of the kingdom and issue of legitimacy. Gloucester acknowledges that he has two sons, one illegitimate and one “by order of law,” and he claims to like each equally (1.18). The opening scene’s focus on familial lines and bonds invites a cute reading because the cute aesthetic shares these same concerns.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Accordingly, Lear’s opening speeches suggest a continued emphasis on intergenerational bonds and social stability. The majority of Lear’s speeches look forward to the future of the kingdom, through his daughters’ marriages and inheritances of the divided land. Lear recognizes the future marriage of Cordelia to one of the “two great princes, France and Burgundy– / Great rivals in” Cordelia’s love” (1.41-42). The intergeneration focus even passes Lear’s immediate children; he looks forward to a continued family legacy. Lear gives land not only to Gonoril but also to her descendants:

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Of all these bounds even from this line to this,
With shady forests and wide-skirted meads,
We make thee lady. To thine and Albany’s issue
Be this perpetual.” (1.57-60).
The land becomes synonymous with Lear’s legacy and the future descendants, who will eventually, in Lear’s vision, rule on the land. In Lear’s vision, his gift of the land is a “perpetual” gift that will continue his family line.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Another way that Lear’s opening speeches reinforce the emphasis on social cohesion is through his insistence that his daughters declare their love for him. In one sense, as we shall see, the need for his daughters’ declarations of love is ridiculous, unnecessary, and unwise; yet, in another sense, the declarations of love serve to establish and reinforce the bonds between fathers and daughters, creating stability for the family and arguably even the nation. Lear demands order, specifically that his daughters submit to his commands and explicitly express their loyalty to him. Lear declares, “Tell me, my daughters, / Which of you shall say we doth love us most, / That we our largest bounty may extend / Where merit doth most challenge it?” (1.44-47). Later, Lear casts familial loyally as an ethical duty: “Thou better know’st / The offices of nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude” (7.334-36). In the patriarchal family, the daughters must profess their love for their father and submit to their father’s commands. Certainly, the concerns about intergenerational relationships and social bonds are different than the concerns that develop, alongside with the emergence of the cute aesthetic, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the parallel between these distinct concerns invites us to search for an early modern proto-cuteness.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Along with cuteness’s interest in intergenerational and social bonds, a central force behind constructing cuteness is the desire for control and the construction of the ridiculous. Harris writes, “The process of conveying cuteness to the viewer disempowers its objects, forcing them into ridiculous situations and making them appear more ignorant and vulnerable than they really are” (6). Often, the person in power subjects the cute object to a ridiculous situation, heightening the cute object’s disempowered state. Harris offers the comical and ridiculous situation of Winnie the Pooh, struggling to reach honey, stuck in a honey pot, and while this modern ridiculous situation (of Pooh and his honey pot) is foreign to Shakespeare’s world, the power relation between the subject and the cute object is not.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Lear’s demand that his daughters quantify their love for him demonstrates the tendency of individuals to force cute objects into ridiculous situations—though not into “honey pot” situations. Lear’s love-test is unwise and unnecessary. G. Wilson Knight critiques Lear’s demands, “The incident is profoundly comic and profoundly pathetic….Lear is selfish, self-centered. The images he creates of his three daughters’ love are quite false, sentimentalized: he understands the nature of none of his children and demands an impossible love from all three” (117). Similarly, Noel Hess recognizes the scene’s ridiculousness: “Regan, Goneril and Cordelia are subjected to a ritual public humiliation whereby, in order to gain their inheritance, they must openly compete with each other for their father’s love and state that their devotion to him is unlimited and unequalled” (210). Whether we adopt Knight’s description of “profoundly pathetic” or Hess’s description as “public humiliation,” the ritual is, at its core, ridiculous.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Even Cordelia’s death anticipates the cotemporary condition of cuteness. Lear’s lamentation about Cordelia’s death relies on visions of the feminine as gentle, quiet, and passive. As Cordelia dies, her father reflects, “Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in women” (24.268-69). Although Lear’s lamentation predates the emergence of a cultural concept of the cute, the feminine ideals of softness and gutlessness point to later cute aesthetics’ celebration of docility and gentleness, features that I will later discuss when examining Lear’s old age.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Anti-Cute Daughters

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Lear wants cute daughters, ones who are controlled and submit to his authority; yet, he finds that they exist beyond his control. For Lear, his daughters move from the realm of cuteness to what Harris terms the “anti-cute,” the aesthetic closely tied to the perverse and monstrous. This perverse cuteness represents the child as the “vehicle of diabolical powers from the Great Beyond, which have appropriated the tiny, disobedient bodies of our elfish changelings as instruments for their assaults on the stability of family life” (Harris 17). Similarly, Maja Brzozowska-Brywczynska  describes the fragility of the boundary between cute and anti-cute: “The fascinating metamorphosis of cute into anti-cute reflects the above-mentioned circularity of the cute concept—for when cute acquires wicked features it in fact goes to the excess of cuteness, exploiting and parodying the sweetness to its very limits, poisoning itself while retaining the artificially lovable texture. Cute becomes grotesque” (219-20). In this manner, the cute is gentle, inviting the viewer’s sympathy, but the cute object’s gentleness easily transforms into the monstrous, threatening the viewer.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Unable to control his daughters, Lear constructs them as anti-cute offspring who threaten stability and order. The cute easily gives way to the perverse and monstrous. Lear casts Gonoril as a “marble-hearted fiend, / More hideous when thou show’st thee in in a child / Than the sea-monster—detested kite, thou liest” (4.251-53). Not only does Lear consider Gonoril a sea-monster, he exclaims that she is “serpent-like,” aligning her with the devil and evil, more broadly (7.317).

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Additionally, the anti-cute body is one that rejects normative reproduction. In her queer reading of Chucky, a contemporary anti-cute figure, Judith Halberstam  writes that the series  “offers a critique of the human, exposes the relations between human and normative gendering and reproduction, and offers an alternative formulation of embodiment, desire, and identity” (147). Expanding on Halberstam’s analysis of Chucky, I suggest that the anti-cute rejects normative modes of reproduction, even “altering” reproduction into something unrecognizable as reproduction.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 For example, in Shakespeare’s play, Lear envisions a normative reproductive line, one which Lear’s daughters marry, inherit Lear’s land, and eventually give that land to their children. Yet, Lear’s normative vision quickly dissolves after Lear discovers that he does not have power and control over his daughters. Instead, in Lear’s view, his daughters have a dangerous and monstrous procreative power. Lear, criticizing Gonoril, announces,

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter—
Or rather a disease that lies within my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine. Thou art a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle
In my corrupted blood. (7.378-82)

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Gonoril is no longer Lear’s daughter but a disease or infection in his “corrupted blood.” As Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard argue, “Goneril is figured not as Lear’s offspring but his ‘inspring’: like a disease, the bad daughter is presented as flesh that has mutinied from within. She is both one with the subject…and an invasive foreign body” (159). Goneril, as the anti-cute object, becomes a diseased body, potentially infecting Lear, corrupting rather than continuing his bloodline. The anti-cute dissolves the procreative line, transforming it into a disease.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 What is significant about the shift from the daughters as loving to monstrous is that the sudden change reinforces the flexible boundary between the contemporary cute and anti-cute. The body that seems cute might actually harbor the monstrous anti-cute body. The contemporary cute body, often with its big eyes and stubby limbs, also carries the threat of breaking into the anti-cute.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Many of the insults directed toward the daughters speak to the fluid boundaries that separate cute and anti-cute, loving and hateful, and feminine and monstrous.  For example, Albany critiques and condemns Gonoril’s false appearance: “See thyself, devil. / Proper deformity shows not in the fiend / So horrid as in woman” (16.57-59). He continues, “Thou changed and self-covered thing, for shame / Bemonster not thy feature” and “Thou art a fiend, / A woman’s shape doth shield thee” (16.61-62, 65-66). On the surface, Gonoril has “a woman’s shape,” but Albany accuses her of being a “self-covered thing,” who hides a sinister, even demonic, interiority. Similarly, Lear sees his daughters as “women all above” but “down from the waist / …centaurs” (20.119-20). In the same way that boundary between the cute and anti-cute fragile and shifting, the boundary between “women” and “centaurs” is ambiguous.  

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 The Cuteness of Old Age

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Lear conceives of his daughters as cute objects—primarily because he attempts to contain them, but control is not only motive. Generally, children are the targets of cuteness, but the elderly, too, have become cute objects. Lear’s projection of cuteness, then, stems from anxieties about old age. Many scholars have already noted Lear’s problematic relationship with old age. Noel Hess’s 1987 study reads Lear (and contemporary elderly patients) as having an anxiety regarding helplessness and abandonment:  “Through the character of King Lear, therefore, Shakespeare  has allowed us valuable insight into some of the crucial unconscious processes of ageing: not only that ageing is experienced as a narcissistic injury but that it contains the threat of helplessness, dependency, and loneliness, which is often defended against by a tyrannical control of the elderly person’s world and his objects” (211). More recently, in his 2012 book on old age in the early modern period, Christopher Martin argues that Lear navigates fears about dependency and the public “performance” of old age.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Throughout the play, characters comment on Lear’s old age. Gonoril and Regan often discuss Lear’s age and the problems that have emerged as a result of his age. For example, Gonoril announces, “You see how full of changes his age is…with what poor judgment he hath now cast her [Cordelia] off appears too gross” (1.278, 280-81). Regan responds, “Tis the infirmity of his age” and expects frequent “unconstant starts” (1.283, 289). Lear’s old age becomes a central cause of his actions and a key feature of the identity he and others create.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 From a cute perspective, Lear’s anxiety about old age, specifically the performance of old age, anticipates the contemporary construction of the elderly as cute. Lear’s projection of cuteness onto others is the result of a fear about his own potential as a cute object—and, perhaps, his fear speaks to a reality in which his daughters infantilize him, similar to the contemporary construction of the elderly as cute objects. In her recent analysis of elderly care, Karen Hitchcock reflects,

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 At every morning handover in every hospital in Australia, a registrar will report admitting an elderly patient—perhaps a 92-year-old who fell taking out the garbage—and say, “He’s so cute” or “She’s so adorable.” As if the patient were a baby or a kitten. This doesn’t seem so terrible. It is not meant to be cruel or disparaging. But what does it tell us about the way we view the elderly?

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 If you are old and in the hospital, you can be one of three things: cute, difficult, or mute. If you want people to be nice to you, I’d recommend cute.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Throughout the play, Lear is the “difficult” elderly person, who is emotionally unstable and even mad, at times, but toward the play’s closing, he becomes Hitchcock’s “cute” figure. Like Hitchcock’s 92-year-old who is cute and childlike when he or she falls, Lear is described as if he were a baby. Cordelia laments that her father is now “child-changed” (21.14). Earlier in the play, Gonoril voices the proverb, “Old fool are babes again” (4.19). Similarly, many critics have pointed out Lear’s infantile behavior. For example, Vincent Petronella writes that Lear returns to “childhood games (bo-peep and handy-dandy), and of Jack the Giant Killer, invoked in Poor Tom’s ‘Child Roland to the dark tower came’ (3.4.182). Lear returns to the nursery, so to speak” (44). Shakespeare, without access to the contemporary cute concept, infantilizes Lear as a result of his old age.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 What we might now read as Lear’s fear of being constructed as a cute object is rooted in an anxiety about power, specifically Lear’s fear of losing control and power. While Lear’s actions and speeches often demonstrate cruelty, his fears about control stem from a legitimate concern. Throughout the play, Lear’s daughters, the Fool, and others connect Lear’s old age to his declining stability. As I previously mentioned, in the first scene, Regan reflects, “ ‘Tis the infirmity of his old age; yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.282-83). Gonoril responds that Lear had been rash before old age, and she predicts that his elderly state will worsen his rashness: “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then we must look to receive from his age but alone the imperfection of long-engrafted condition, but therewithal unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them” (284-88). In his daughters’ view, Lear, before ageing, was  already mentality instable, both rash “rash” and “wayward,” and his old age will only, in their opinion, hasten his conditions.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Not only do characters comment on Lear’s old age and his declining mental and emotional stability, but they reflect on Lear’s potential and actual loss of power. Regan declares,

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 O sir, you are old
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine. You should be ruled and led
By some discretion that discerns your state
Better than you yourself. (7.303-7)

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The Fool similarly comments, “I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy daughters thy mother; for when thou gavest them the rod and puttest down thine own breeches” (4.163-65). Scott F. Crider describes the reversal of power in terms of sin and redemption, but his observation still illuminates a cute reading of Lear: “Goneril and Regan treat their father like a child, then even like an animal. The violated bond in the family leads to psychological and political tyranny, which itself leads to self-consuming savagery” (139). In both their speeches and their actions, Lear’s daughters and the Fool reinforce Lear’s new position as one who should be controlled and led rather than who should rule and command. In the public perception and arguably in reality, Lear, as elderly and thus potential cute object, shifts from a position of power and control to one of powerlessness in which Lear becomes like a child or even an animal.  

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Toward the end of the play, Lear’s docile state reinforces his potential as a cute object. Harris argues that “cuteness is the aesthetic of sleep….the pose we find cutest of all is not that of a rambunctious infant screaming at the top of his lungs but that of the docile sleepyhead….The world of cute things is transfixed by the spell of the sandman, full of napping lotus eaters whose chief attraction lies in the their dormant and languorous postures, their defenseless immobility” (7). We find children especially cute when they are sleeping rather than energetically running around, and Lear’s docile state reflects the cute aesthetic’s emphasis on powerlessness.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Even before falling asleep in the storm, Lear predicts the loss of power that coincides his sleeping state. In scene four, Lear begins to question to identity and relatedly his power. He wonders,

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Doth any here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Doth Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied. Sleeping or waking, ha?
Sure, ‘tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am? (4.217-22).

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Lear’s confusion regarding his state of “Sleeping or waking” foreshadows the later moment when Lear falls asleep during the storm. From a cute reading, Lear’s inability to discern if he is awake or sleeping reinforces his loss of power, identity, and stability.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Lear’s confused and docile state echoes the inversion of power that the Fool describes earlier. Asleep, Lear has become a child: Lear is “child-changed” (21.14). No longer a powerful father figure, Lear becomes a child dependent on others’ help. Lear, asleep, is carried off stage to Dover. Shortly after, the first gentleman explains, “In the heaviness of his sleep / We put fresh garments on him” (21.19-20). Lear becomes like a child who is dependent on others for “fresh garments.”

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 “Foppery,” too, is a likely predecessor of “cute.” Today, cute humans and animals are often those that stumble or move in a way that demonstrates a lack of bodily control or balance. Lear’s problem is not necessarily balance or bodily control but a foolish intellectual life. He cries, “Pray do not mock. I am a very foolish, fond old man” (21.57-58). Shortly after, Lear asks Cordelia to “forget and forgive” because, he says, “I am old / And foolish” (21.82-83). Lear’s foolishness draws attention to his lack of “sense or judgement” (“Fool,” Oxford English Dictionary, def. 1). By his own admission, Lear is like the contemporary cute object who is a bodily being with a lack of intellectual life.  

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Moreover, Lear’s recognition as a “foolish, fond old man” establishes himself as one who is to be pitied. As a “foolish, fond old man,” Lear recognizes and asserts his own insignificance as someone in a powerless position. Additionally, Cordelia refers to Lear as poor, whether as a “poor perdu” or a “poor father” (21.33, 36). Literally, “poor” describes Lear’s loss of control or his state of nearly complete destitution and dependence on others, but “poor” also describes “that [which] provokes sympathy, or compassion; that [which] is to be pitied; unfortunate, wretched, hapless.” (“Fool,” def. 5). Thus, by the end of the play, Lear, through his recognition of his foolishness and insignificance, becomes the cute object he had feared.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 King Lear, Cuteness, and Sentimental Art

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Finally, I close with a brief consideration of cuteness in artistic interpretations of King Lear, particularly in William Frederick Yeames’s 1888 Cordelia, a colored lithograph commissioned by the Graphic, a London newspaper. Yeames’s Coredelia was one of twenty-one images of Shakespeare’s  heroines. Yeames was a part of a London group of artists, the St. John’s Wood Clique. According to Shearer West, the group “met every Saturday in a member’s home to hold informal sketching classes based on a chosen theme” (324). West continues, “Unlike the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the St. John’s Wood Clique had no set of rules or credo. These diverse artists were united to some extent by an interest in historical subject matter, made palatable by its domestic flavor” (324). Although the St. John’s Wood Clique lacked the “set of rules or credo” of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Yeames’s paintings demonstrate a Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic influence. Like many pieces produced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Yeames’s works draw on past historical events, like the English Civil War, and literature, like Shakespeare’s plays.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Cordelia byWilliam Frederick Yeames, 1888

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Yeames’s Cordelia demonstrates aspects the nineteenth century’s emerging sentimental art and indirectly anticipates the cute aesthetic that grows out of sentimentalism. Merish argues, “Like nineteenth-century sentimentalism, with which it is closely allied, cuteness is a highly conventional aesthetic, distinguishable both by its formal aesthetic features and the formalized emotional response it engenders” (187). Since the cute aesthetic emerges alongside and out of nineteenth-century sentimentalism, sentimental works invite us to consider and analyze the emerging cute characteristics.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 To talk about Yeames’s Coredlia as sentimental art, however, I must first define what I mean when I refer to nineteenth-century sentimentalism, sentimentality, and sentimental art. Defining sentimentalism is not a simple and straightforward task. As Martin A. Berger observes, “Even among those critics sympathetic to sentimentality, definitions of the term are notoriously supple. In part, this equivocality is explained by the fact that scholars have interpreted the cultural work of the sentimental so broadly” (245). Similarly, Andrew S. Winston recognizes the “diversity” of sentimentalism, but he nuances that sentimental art “idealizes what is depicted and suggests its total goodness, sweetness, dearness, blamelessness, nobility, purity, or vulnerability” (121). Broadly, then, sentimental art focuses on an ideal subject who is good and pure.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 In Yeames’s painting, we find glimpse of the cute aesthetic and its overlap with sentimentalism. Primarily, Yeames conveys Cordelia’s cuteness through Cordelia’s eyes, which, in the conventional cute tradition, appear large—although, admittedly, not as large as cute eyes later appear. Her upward gaze places her in a powerless position, which, of course, is also the position of the cute object.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 Moreover, Cordelia prompts the audience to sympathize for her as someone who is pure and blameless. Coredlia’s white dress symbolizes and reinforces her innocence, and her lips form a frown—or at least, nearly a frown, inviting the audience to pity her. Her face suggests that she sad, and this emotional state additionally seeks sympathy from the viewer. Thus, Yeames’s work interprets Shakespeare’s Cordelia as a sentimental (or even nearly cute) figure who is pure and with whom the audience should identify. Yeames’s Cordelia  demonstrates one state of development of the cute aesthetic, in the between the early modern period and the twenty-first century.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 The Future of Early Modern Cuteness

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 What does a cute reading of King Lear mean for the future of early modern studies? My intention throughout this chapter has been clear: to consider the early modern structures and relationships that speak to our contemporary understanding of cuteness but not to force cuteness into Lear.  I want to reiterate that cuteness, as we know, does not exist in the early modern period, and thus, Shakespeare’s works are, in a strict sense, far from cute; yet, early modern literature offers us structures, systems, and moments that speak to the contemporary cute aesthetic. The intersection of cuteness and early modern studies means a search for ancestors of contemporary cuteness in early modern studies—or an examination of the similarities between early modern concepts and structures and contemporary cuteness.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 Certainly, this chapter has not exhausted the critical study of cuteness and Shakespeare’s works. I have approached the gendered and age-based components of cuteness, but others might consider the racially contingent construction of cuteness and how it interacts with Shakespeare’s plays. Still, others might continue to examine the gendered component of cuteness, investigating the ways that male characters embrace or reject behaviors deemed cute. My brief section on the artistic interpretations of Lear points to one area that is rich for potential research. Critics might consider how cute artistic representations of Shakespeare’s works alter or reinforce Shakespeare’s “original” intention. Sometimes foppish and sometimes monstrous, cuteness lurks, waiting for further critical investigation.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0  

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 Works Cited
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58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 Notes:

  1. 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0
  2. All quotations from Shakespeare’s King Lear come from the Oxford Shakespeare.
  3. I do not want to exaggerate the relationship between cuteness and early modern dogs. Certainly, lapdogs with their neonatal qualities and their relation to noblewomen speak to the contemporary alignment between dogs and cuteness, as well as cuteness and femininity. Yet, most dogs did not fare so well. Early modern authorities slaughtered dogs during plague outbreaks. See Mark Jenner, “The Great Dog Massacre” Fear in Early Modern Society (1997): 44-61.
  4. I thank my colleague Aaron Hatrick for pointing out that Shakespeare has a “Sweetheart” among his curs and mongrels.
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