Cordelia

Cordelia by William Frederick Yeames 1888Cordelia appears in only three episodes of the play, speaking a total of only 118 lines (fewer than either Goneril or Regan) and yet she makes an impact far greater than such a relatively small role may suggest.

Cordelia’s integrity

In Act 1 Scene 1 the first words Cordelia speaks in the play are asides to the audience in which she says that she will never be able to pass her father's ‘test’ of affection: her love cannot be put into words so she decides to opt for silence. Thus the first word she speaks to another character (her father) is an uncompromising, 'Nothing'. She is disgusted by her sisters' lack of integrity. Their words sound as falsely extravagant to her as they should to her father, if his sound judgement were not clouded by wilfulness and the self-concern of an aged king, who is used to other people obeying his every whim. Cordelia’s 'Nothing' is the word which kick-starts the complexities of the plot.
 
In this first episode she epitomises truth-telling and integrity, directness and sincerity. Honesty is more important for her than pleasing her father and she knows that her uncompromising answer will alienate him. She will not pretend that she loves him exclusively. How could she, as she is about to get married? 

Cool logic

Cordelia’s decision to be loyal to the truth leads her not only to state the unvarnished facts but to do so in language which is forthright to the point of bluntness: 
'I love your Majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less'. 
She adds, with cool logic, 
'Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all?'
 
She knows what the result of her honesty will be and she shows no surprise when Lear disowns her, his love turning on an instant to hatred, her dowry denigrated to a father's curse. If it were not for the sympathy of the King of France, she would have nowhere to turn and no prospect of a royal marriage. 
 
Yet Cordelia never loses her composure. She sarcastically calls Goneril and Regan the 'jewels' of their father and leaves the stage condemning their hypocrisy, their 'plighted cunning'. She fears what will happen to her father left to the mercies of two such unscrupulous sisters. The cool, quiet terseness of Cordelia's language distinguishes her from the rest of her family in this opening scene.

A softer Cordelia 

The reappearance of Cordelia is prepared for by the Gentleman’s account of the French Queen to Kent in Act 4 Scene 3. Although she is still ‘a queen / Over her passion’, her enduring love for her father is made clear, as well as her practical compassion.
 
She is described in the kind of language that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have associated with the Virgin Mary, expressing ‘patience’, ‘pity’ and ‘sorrow’ as she shakes ‘The holy water from her heavenly eyes’. This connection is emphasised again in Act 4 Scene 7 when Cordelia intercedes for her father to the ‘Gods’; Mary was believed by those who were Catholic believers to intercede to God for them.
 
When she finally appears in Act 4 Scene 4, Cordelia is associated with the healing powers of nature, which she calls on to aid her father’s recovery. Far from the thoughts of vengeance which dominate her sisters, she makes it clear that her fundamental loyalty is to her father. Although she is allied with the invading French forces, this war is not about military 'ambition' but rather about 'love' and her 'aged father's right'. 

Reconciliation

Cordelia is understandably hesitant as she waits for her previously tyrannical father to wake in Act 4 Scene 7, yet takes the initiative in tenderly kissing him. Her innate goodness has already been emphasised by presenting her on stage alongside Kent, both figures of truth and loyalty.
 
By the time she is reconciled to Lear, the old king has come to acknowledge his grievous errors and his mistreatment of Cordelia. Indeed his shame had previously prevented him from approaching her. When he does, he says:
 
      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.
(Act 4 Scene 4)     
 
Cordelia’s reply, 'No cause, no cause', shows that she has changed too – it would be a more honest (though less compassionate) answer to agree with her father. However, it is empathy for her father’s suffering, as well as Lear’s recognition of his wrong-doing, which motivates her denial.

The strength and vulnerability of goodness

When Cordelia and her father are ultimately captured and taken to prison in Act 5 Scene 3, she accepts her fate with serenity. She is no slave to Fortune and is still desirous of facing up to her sisters, perhaps wanting to shame them into better behaviour. Her subsequent tears are less a sign of weakness than of sorrow for the loving humility of her once powerful father. So, although Cordelia is shown to be vulnerable to the machinations of evil, she retains a moral strength, upholding love and justice to the end. 

Cordelia and Christ

Michelangelo's PietàCordelia’s reference, before being led away, to others who have unjustly suffered would remind Shakespeare’s original audience of the fate of Jesus, an innocent man punished for no wrong-doing of his own according to the New Testament (see Luke 23:13-25). Such an association would be strengthened by Cordelia’s final appearance is as a corpse in Lear's arms. This is an inversion of the traditional Pietà scene where a woman/mother (Mary) cradles a dead man/son (Jesus), familiar to Shakespeare’s contemporaries through many religious paintings and sculptures. Unlike Christ however, and against all Lear’s hope, there is no resurrection for Cordelia on stage.
 
Instead, her death is a reminder of the fragility of life and the strength of evil and chance circumstances in a pagan world. Although Edmund's orders for her execution were countermanded as he died, the message arrived too late and she had been hanged. 

Love stronger than might

Lear's final words about her show that Cordelia's huge impact on the story has not depended on physical dominance or aggressive shows of strength but on loving constancy, inner purity and integrity. Even her speech has not been forceful. Unlike the increasingly shrill utterances of her sisters, according to Lear, 'Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low.' 
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