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To “Fall from Bias of Nature”: A Dissenting Opinion on Good Cordelia

There is an old German saying that an apple generally does not fall far from its tree. A pure nature versus nurture argument, it is usually reserved for decrying unpleasant traits inherited by a wicked person’s offspring, but this philosophy has uses for dramatists too; and in King Lear, Shakespeare often paints Goneril and Regan with the same brush. In the flattery contest of the opening scene, for example, they echo each other in manner and deed. Regan even makes the point that she is “made of that same metal as her [older] sister” (Lr 1.1.69). Younger Cordelia, may appear as an anomaly, claiming to be selfless and true, however a closer analysis reveals she shares many of the same characteristics with her sisters, especially in her capacity to petrify and emasculate, suppressing King Lear’s masculinity (not necessarily a bad thing) as she asserts her sex. Edgar, ironically by using deception, manifests a truer more selfless love.

Cordelia is a sympathetic character who values honesty above all other considerations, an unrealistic ideal in the best of times, but in the Pagan England represented, especially for a woman, clearly dooming. Still, initially, she does hold sway over her father, for it is clearly his hope she wins the flattery contest. King Lear needs her to satisfy “his desire to ‘crawl’ like a baby ‘toward death’” (Khan 248). He needs Cordelia to nurse him, “to find [a] mother[] in his daughter[],” and, if she were only obedient, she would have accepted that role, but Cordelia is her father’s daughter and her proud words are as uncompromising as Lear’s (259).

In addition, as the youngest sister in its parallel of the Gorgons of King Lear, Cordelia also has the role of Medusa. When Lear asks his daughters “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” it is a mirror quest, like Hercules gazing into his shining shield. Lear does not seek love but rather he performs an accounting of metaperception, how he feels about how they feel about him, measuring their replies in the weight of their words (Lr 1.1.49). Goneril and Regan play along, attempting to satisfy his narcissistic wishes, but Cordelia, she who he “loved… most,” denies him, petrifying and emasculating him (Lr 1.1.120). In response, he lashes out hysterically, “enact[ing] a childlike rage against the… rejecting mother as figured in his daughter[],” disowning her, even banishing his adviser Kent when he defends her (Khan 248).

To underscore Lear’s sexual transformation, Shakespeare contrasts Cordelia’s cool logic and philosophical purity with her father’s impulsiveness. Their “Nothing” call and response (Lr 1.1.85-88) begins a string of repetitions, an interior story strand, culminating in Lear’s “Never, Never, Never, Never, Never,” so evocative of pain, hopelessness, and absolute submission (Lr 5.3.284). Once the king casts Cordelia out, Goneril and Regan pile on, further eroding his masculinity. After Goneril denies his one hundred retainers, for example, Lear complains she “hast power to shake [his] manhood thus” and “hot tears… which break from him perforce” (Lr 1.4.267-268). His debilitation and feminization mirror his loss of retainers. Regan even threatens him with “What need one?” before Lear escapes her beard-plucking clutches (Lr 2.4.258). By story’s end, such as when he offers to drink poison after returning from the darkness of presumed death, Lear’s tears are ubiquitous. His frailty as “a very foolish fond old man/Fourscore and upward” and submissiveness all support a gendered interpretation of the story (Lr 4.7.56-57).

There are two other questions pervasive in the opening scene that color the entire story: Why does Cordelia deny Lear and why—if he presumes to know his favorite so well—did he expect a different answer? Part of the answer may be Cordelia’s confusion about incest revealed in her language, when she says, “Why have my sisters husbands if they say/They love you all?” and “Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,/To love my father all” (Lr 1.1,97-101). Unlike Greek, English does not distinguish “love” into different forms like eros, agape, storge, and philia. Cordelia’s unwillingness to commit to such a potentially wide range of love might seem almost unintentional, a communication breakdown of sorts, if there were no further evidence that she has a reason to worry. Unfortunately, Lear’s later suggestion of “let’s away to prison… we two alone” casts a cloud of suspicion over how the 80-year-old plans to possess his youngest daughter, making her unwillingness to comply prudent in hindsight (Lr 5.3.8-9).

For whatever reason, however, Cordelia’s love for Lear is qualified and a personal statement she owns. Edgar, by contrast, manifests a pure selfless love, especially when he leads Gloucester to a cliff in Dover with a “high and bending head,” a place from where he “shall no leading need” (Lr 4.1.71-76). His father intends to kill himself, so Edgar purges his suicidal tendencies by orchestrating a scene where the newly-made blind man miraculously survives. It is play-acting within the play, similar to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, another mise en abyme, or, as Goldberg writes, “posing one kind of stage against another” (545). In fact, the audience only sees the scene through Edgar’s description as the Gloucester’s eyes:

The fishermen that walk upon the beach Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark, Diminish'd to her cock; her cock a buoy Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge That on the unnumber'd idle pebble chafes Cannot be heard so high… (Lr 4.6.18-23)

Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom, performs this intervention without expectation of reward, which is the opposite of what Lear’s daughters anticipate in exchange for their performances. Otherwise, though, there are many similarities in the Dover reunions, including a return for both fathers from “the final closing of the eyes in a sleep without end” (538). When denied, Gloucester replies, “Away, and let me die” (Lr 4.6.50), while Lear awakening says, “You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave” (Lr 4.7.45). Their fathers’ utter state of hopelessness—again best articulated by Lear’s “Never, Never, Never, Never, Never” line—moves both Edgar and Cordelia, endearing them to the audience (Lr 5.3.284).

Finally, given how these two characters redeem themselves, it is unsurprising they fare much better than their siblings in Tate’s 1681 revision of King Lear, “the only version of King Lear performed on the stage from 1681 to the middle of the 19th century” (Garber). 17th century playwright Nahum Tate, after examining Shakespeare’s “utterly brilliant and utterly devastating play,” decided it needed a happy ending (Garber). In fact, Tate’s The History of King Lear finishes with a crowned “Divine Cordelia,” Edgar and Lear’s youngest daughter marrying, the king surviving, but, most of all, “Truth and Virtue… at last succeed[ing]” (Tate 69). Nevertheless, if the play’s purpose is to demonstrate the value of selfless love like Edgar’s, the Shakespeare version, because of the distinction made between Edgar and Cordelia, does a finer job.  

Works Cited

Garber, Marjorie. “Lecture 5: King Lear.” 2007. https://youtu.be/FgRH2vpTZUU. Retrieved 5 Jul 2020.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Perpectives: Dover Cliff and the Condition of Representation.” Shakespeare’s Hand. University of Minnesota Press, 2002, pp 132-149.

Kahn, Coppélia. “The Absent Mother in King Lear.” Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers, University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Norton Shakespeare: The Essential Plays/Sonnets, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al. 3rd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. 2016.

Shakespeare, William and Tate, Nahum. The History of King Lear. London. 1749. Retrieved here https://archive.org/details/historyofkinglea00shak/page/68/mode/2up on 5 Jul 2020.

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