King Lear: topic #2, revision.
Matt Diggs III
“Lear: Be your tears wet? Yes faith, I pray weep not.
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.Order now
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.”
In Shakespeare’s King Lear the character Cordelia is disowned and denied dowry because she is unable to bring herself to flatter her father. This honesty is taken as insult by Lear in the opening act of the play, and he renounces the princess in a fit of rage. Yet when his other, more “glib and oily (I.i. 224)” daughters have ruined him, it is faithful Cordelia who comforts him. While she has the greatest reason to act against Lear, she claims she has “No cause,(IV,iv,74)” to do so. What is it within Cordelia’s soul that manifests good in the face of evil? What qualities make her the play’s most virtuous character? Because she is not actually present during the majority of the play, it is difficult to obtain an accurate psychological picture of Cordelia. BUT HER WORDS AND ACTIONS, HOWEVER SPARSE, DEFINE CORDELIA AS HONEST, SELFLESS AND COURAGEOUS. It is these qualities that display Cordelia’s clear comprehension of the duties implicit in the father-daughter and king-subject bond.
Part of Cordelia’s moral integrity lies in her bluntness, and while Lear’s daughter does seem tactless in her first appearance, saying,
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less, (I.i.91-93)”
it is this honesty that contrast her to her sisters. In Lear, the long diatribes of compliment often belong to the most vile of characters, but not so with Cordelia. Her love is boundless, but not expressible through flattery. Though she makes little effort to elucidate her simple words, her bond is substantial, having been “Begot, bred and loved,(I,i,96)” by her father. Cordelia speaks in her explanation of performing her duties as she sees “right fit.(I,i,97)” Acting with such perfect purpose defines the princess as possibly the only absolutely righteous character in the play. But apart from merely confronting the possibility of losing her fortunes, she accepts her king’s decision with silence. She knows the consequences of her actions, yet does not stray from her ethical duties.
Cordelia’s reverence for Lear does not blur her comprehension of his folly. Because she appears incapable of altering the truth, she does admit that her father is blinded by his “ungoverned rage,(IV,iv,19)” and is mistaken in his actions. She does not, however, risk the disgrace of Lear by speaking of these things in his presence.Far from contradicting her honesty, this furthers her ideal of honoring her king.Moreover, her speech is not so tame to those to whom she has no paternal bond. Indeed, sweet is the rose and sharp is the thorn. She freely tells of her sister’s “faults as they are named.(I,i,271)” The mildness of her declaration of love was an attempt to reveal her sisters’ as exaggerated.
At no point in the play does Cordelia appear to have any concern for her own advancement. She ignores countless opportunities to gain fortune and recognition. From denying herself the best dowery to marshaling troops for her father’s defense, Cordelia does not act in her own interest at any point. When she states,
My mourning, and importuned tears hath pitied.
No blown ambition doth our arms incite
But love, dear love, and our aged father’s right.
Soon may I hear and see him, (IV,iv, 22-9)”
she seems hardly conscious of the magnitude of her sacrifice. She even denies herself the retribution her father has earned so well. This selflessness is not as much a series of actions by Cordelia as it is a way of life. There is never a point at which she admits to any indecision as to her proper course, and she attains a kind of predictability. Like a savior, her sacrifice benefits others, and her work is solely for her “Poor perdu. (IV,iv,35)”
A large part of the princess’s charity is her unwillingness to recognize herself for what she is. The viewer receives the strong impression that she is unconscious