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Although Cordelia appears in Act I, Scene I and disappears until Act IV, she has an enormous impact on the play as a whole. It is generally acknowledged that the role played by Cordelia in King Lear is a symbolic one. She is a symbol of good amidst the evil characters within the play.
Since the play is about values which have been corrupted and must be restored, it is not surprising that the figure who directs the action must be embodiment of those values which are in jeopardy – love, truth, pity, honour, courage and forgiveness.
Cordelia’s reply does not initiate the tragedy; Lear’s misguided question does that. Her “nothing” sets her father’s tragic journey in motion. There is nothing wrong with her remarks. Cordelia is a catalyst and sparks action in the play. Her actions at the start of the play provide us with an explosive opening and create much suspense. Her behaviour prompts Lear’s stupidity and subsequent action. Her refusal to “heave her heart into her mouth” causes Lear to banish her and he ends up at the mercy of his two evil daughters.
If Cordelia had not spoken as she did, Lear would never have embarked on his journey of rediscovery. Her scenes with Lear in Act IV provide much poignancy and show the reader how much Lear has changed.
She acts as a perfect foil for her evil sisters, Goneril and Regan. Her reaction to them at the start of the play leaves the audience interested but suspicious. Her words “nothing, my lord” and Lear’s actions arising from them trigger the theme of “nothingness” in the play. She also brings the theme of “appearance versus reality” to the forefront.
She personifies true love in the play. Words can eloquently describe love but they do not express it. Only behaviour expresses it. She forgives her father and strives to look after him despite his betrayal of her. She honours her filial duty within the play. Both she and Edgar are needed in the play to represent good. If they were not present in the play the audience would have a very pessimistic view of the world. Even at the risk of losing Lear’s love and her inheritance, she refuses to indulge in the flattery that Lear demands. She is disgusted at her ercenary and calculating sisters, who deceive their father. She prefers to “love and be silent. ” “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty According to my bond; now more now less. ” Cordelia personifies integrity, honesty and love throughout the play. By her very nature she is unable to flatter or curry favour since dishonesty is not part of that nature. She represents the truth and it is against the backdrop of her loyalty and undying love for her father that we measure Lear’s arrogant behaviour.
Cordelia’s disinheritance and banishment are frighteningly disproportionate to the “sin” she has committed in not flattering Lear. So too, is Kent’s treatment at his hands. This concept of disproportionate consequences for actions done, underlines how monstrous Lear’s arrogance is, as well as his petty tyranny and his lack of self-knowledge. However, the horrors Lear himself will have to suffer later in the play, as a result of his own folly, will also be out of all proportion to his initial blunder.
Without Cordelia in the play, these actions would not have been sparked in Lear. The rivals for Cordelia’s hand are interestingly contrasted in Act I Scene I. Burgundy is mercenary, refusing Cordelia’s hand when she is offered “new-adopted to our hate” and without a dowry. France on the other hand is a sensitive, courteous prince who sees her now “most rich, being poor. ” He ignores Lear’s spiteful advice “to advert your liking a worthier way. ” France takes her as his queen. He admires her personal qualities and it is for those that he wants to marry her.
Cordelia’s role in the play here is to highlight how shallow Burgundy is and how he only wanted her for her land and status. She represents goodness, love and bravery in this scene. When she is unjustly treated by her father, Cordelia does not hurt or condemn either Lear or her sisters but gently forgives her father. “The jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are. … Use well our father. ” She also represents forgiveness in the play. In Act IV, celestial language is used to capture the lyrical and spiritual nature of her forgiveness. There she shook… The Holy water from her heavenly eyes… ” Absolute love includes absolute forgiveness. When she says she “has no cause” to hate Lear, she is right. Cordelia is not proud or obstinate – she is, like the Fool, a hostage to truth. In everything she says she reinforces this. She points out that she is glad not to have a tongue like her sisters, implying that in her, speech is of a different kind. If Cordelia’s purpose was to enlighten Lear and expose the corruption of the court, her task is accomplished by the end of the play.
The only outlet then is through her death. Her death adds to the tragedy of the play. Though Cordelia dies, her cause and truth do not. In carrying her corpse, Lear emits an animal cry of anguish “howl, howl, howl. ” He has discovered that no words can contain his grief and pain, that words are limited, that they can be abused. This cry echoes Cordelia’s own truth. Edgar’s closing words bear witness to the martyrdom of Cordelia. The lesson learnt is: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. ” (Act V, Scene III)