Question: What is Cordelia's influence in the play, upon the characters, and upon our estimate of them?
Answer: Cordelia appears only at the first and the last of the play, and occupies only about one hundred lines. She is
absent from nearly all the impressive scenes, and yet when we lay down the book, we feel that she has ever been present; a peculiar, pervading influence has gone out from her and directed the good in their labor of love and restrained the evil in their power. The youngest and the least of
Lear's daughters, modest and retiring, we must know her long to know her well, but we love her when we know her.
A sweet, tender picture of perfect womanhood unalloyed by the frivolous ideas and disgusting manners which we are
apt to associate with a pretty, petted child is the one which comes to us when we think of Lear's doting love, of
Fiance's manly affection, of Kent's dignified respect, and of
the Fool's pining attachment. We do not wonder that the
sisters envied her. But there is a delectable smack of her
father's "quality" in the way she switches off her higgling
suitor, I. i. 250.
"Peace be with Burgundy;
Since that respects of fortune are his love,
I shall not be his wife."
Then, too, there is a lack of forethought in all her actions.
But in strict performance of duty and courageous daring
of fate to the worst, Cordelia commands the admiration
due to the purest and strongest of Shakespeare's characters.
Although she nowhere says anything very intelligent, she
leaves the impression upon us that she possesses a penetrating, vigorous mind. But her intellect is so bound up with
her feelings kept in perfect solution, as it were, and never
falling down into a sediment that she cannot express her
judgments. There is always so much more meant than
is said, that even those who are present with her find themselves drawn and controlled by a word, a gesture. Mrs.
Jameson defines Cordelia's power to be
"a tardiness in nature
Which often leaves the history unspoke
That it intends to do."
There is the peculiar recurrence of longing which comes with a note of music when
"The music in my heart I bore
Long after it was heard no more."
Lear has had no conscious reasons for his preference for Cordelia, and therefore he cannot reason it away; the Fool
pines away when she goes to France, and he cannot tell why, only he was happy when she was by, he is miserable
now ; the gentleman sent by Kent with letters to her, returns mad with admiration and eloquence, although he has
heard nothing but sighs and broken sentences. The sisters
are glad to be rid of the restraint which her presence puts
upon them. Cordelia's influence upon our estimate of the
other characters is as little capable of measurement as is
the aroma-like spirit of goodness which she diffuses about
Through her, woman is redeemed from the "proper
deformity" which seems not in the fiend so horrid as in
woman. Through her, Lear's life is redeemed from utter
futility; and following her example, Kent and the Fool are
ennobled by their loyalty to duty, while Goneril and Regan,
made doubly wicked by the contrast with her purity, are
redeemed from deserving the title of Gorgons, since they
are only at the other extreme of human nature from herself.
She is modest, yet daring in the cause of truth; active, yet
quiet in the performance of duty; firm, loving, and tender,
yet scorning the weakness which leads her father to rashness. Perhaps Schlegel was right when he said, "Of Cordelia's heavenly purity I do not dare to speak."
How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mthirteen.html >.