Today, just a couple of quick King Lear questions (with only tentative answers)…
In the opening scene, before it all heads downhill, there are two suitors for Cordelia, the princes of France and Burgundy…
Only in both Holinshed and the anonymous play King Leir, there is less competition for Cordelia’s hand. The only suitor named is the King of Gallia, which in Shakespeare’s day was called France. So it makes sense that Shakespeare would change the name to help his audience. While Shakespeare give France the win and Cordelia, Shakespeare gives him the short end of the stick. Displaying the Canon’s general disdain for the French, by the time comes for war, Shakespeare has the French king bail out, leaving the Queen on the battlefield.
So that’s why France.
But why add Burgundy?
Was it to add to the implied value of Cordelia? That she would have multiple named suitors? That makes sense, too.
But then why Burgundy?
Although by Shakespeare’s day Burgundy had been re-annexed by the French, for a period of time during and immediately following the Hundred Years War, Burgundy played a role in the conflicts between Britain and France, and later even fought against France openly. Shakespeare’s audience would have known this, and would have remembered the two as past rivals (and this play, of course, was taking place in the past even for Shakespeare).
Interestingly, when Tate adapted King Lear for performance, of the two suitors, he jettisoned France. Burgundy was kept on in his give-me-her-full-dowry-or-I’m-outta-here role. Instead of France, it was Edgar who loved her, and it would be he who would finally win Cordelia’s hand. Remember, though, that version of King Lear had a happy ending, not found in Shakespeare.