While there is an element of verisimilitude in all these claims, it must be asserted that the presentation of Cordelia is both interesting and polemical to say the least. Unlike the prototypical presentations of muliebrity as in the case of Ophelia and Desdemona, there is nothing weak or insipid about decisive Cordelia.
Cordelia is of paramount importance to the play as her name suggests. The word ‘cor’ comes from the Latin for heart. Indeed, Cordelia is at the heart of this play. In fact if it were not for Cordelia there would be no play.
Cordelia’s apparent defection in Act one Scene one, that is her recalcitrance to emulate the obsequious sycophantry of her sisters towards their narcissistic father sets the dramatic cogs of this play firmly in motion.
In Act one Scene one she stands juxtaposed to the oleaginous Goneril and Regan and their ‘glib and oily art’. Lear’s autocratic charade, i.e. the infamous ‘love test’ throws Cordelia into a moral quandary of no mean proportion. Through her introspection and asides, we are made privy to the scrupulousness of her character.
She is certain that her love for her father is ‘more ponderous’ than her tongue and yet she cannot compete with the fulsome declarations of love made by Goneril and Regan. This points to the moral disparity that exists between the sisters. Cordelia decides to ‘love and be silent’. Yet her obdurate father interprets her reticence as a heinous affront to his royal personage. Cordelia informs him that she loves him ‘according to [her] bond nor more nor less’.
She perspicuously impugns the logic of her sisters’ fulsome declarations by asking ‘Why have my sisters husbands, if they say/They love you all?’ She sincerely declares that when she marries she owes to her husband the following: ‘Half my love with him, half my care and duty’.
This delineates not only the pragmatic aspect to her character but the sincerity and fealty of her nature. There follows a verbal onslaught by Lear in which he histrionically lacerates the familial ties that unite him and his daughter Cordelia.
An imperfection in the character of Cordelia is her stringent adherence to moral rectitude and propriety.
Though admirable for sticking by her beliefs and moral values, it does cost her and maybe the cost is a little exorbitant- since it ultimately ends in the death of every member of her family. Her jactitation here of her moral integrity might later prove foolish.
‘I am richer,
A still-soliciting eye, and such a tongue
That I am glad I have not, though not to have it
Hast lost me in your liking’
She declares her suspicions about the malevolent designs that Goneril and Regan have ‘I know what you are’ and that she ‘would prefer him to a better place’. Base on these two quotations, Cordelia seems to have inherited Lear’s implacability and resoluteness. She will not allow anything to compromise her moral integrity even if could have occluded a greater evil- by pandering to her father’s imperious demands she could have kept in checked the behaviour of Goneril and Regan better. Surely this would be the lesser of two evils so to speak.
The Luciferian vice of hubris could very well be attributed to our quasi-divinized heroine as she acquiescently is prepare to let her father suffer under the malign auspices of her aberrant sisters: ‘Time shall unfold what plighted cunning-hides.’
Anathematised by her father and sisters, Cordelia is taken under the benevolent aegis of her husband- to- be, France who debunks Lear’s love test as an autocratic charade ‘love is not love when it is mingled with regard that stands aloof from th’ entire point’.
France is keen to re-affirm Cordelia’s worth after such a devastating uprooting in the bosom of her father’s affections:
‘Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich
Most choice, forsaken; and most
This almost Franciscan mantra based on love and humility has an economy of expression about it that diametrically opposes the grandiose but fulsome declarations made by Goneril and Regan to their father. One suspects that France will be an uxorious husband but espouses his wife’s views on actions speak louder than words: ‘What I well intend, I’ll do’t before I speak’
We see that her actions do indeed speak louder than words. She states that her husband took pity her because of the tears she shed over her afflicted father and granted her wish to rescue him from his predacious daughters. Her motives are not based on an insincere solicitude in the hope of some materialistic reward but simply on love and the hope of ‘seeking to give losses their remedies’.
The anarchic discord engendered in the play by Lear’s heinous abdication and laceration of familial ties and the ties of friendship allow for this young and inarticulate woman to be exemplified as a paradigmatic figure, a sort of apotheosis of womanhood.
She is not an inert heroine. She is a decisive and pragmatic leader as she avoids her armies’ ensnarement by the British forces at Dover: ‘Tis known before; our preparation stands in expectation of them’. She shows no bitterness towards her father when she is reunited with him. In fact she becomes emblematic of filial docility. She wholeheartedly and unambiguously forgives her father.
This soteriological aspect to Cordelia is an extremely important aspect to her character. In the course of the play she transmutes from Lear’s ‘best object, the argument of [his] praise, the balm of [his] age’, to an anathema and pariah with no dowry, to wife and Queen of France, to saviour to redeems her peevish father.
She has the power to give ‘remedies to their losses’ and her presence is cathartic: ‘Restoration hang thy medicine on thy lips; and let this kiss repair those violent harms that my two sisters have in thy reverence made!’
She is evoked as a God-like figure who brings salvation to her father and forgives him his transgressions. This is an inversion of the parable of the Prodigal son in which the father forgives his profligate and dissolute son. Instead it is Cordelia the daughter who forgives her profligate and dissolute father. She was disgusted by her sister’s treatment of Lear and his banishment from Regan’s castle: Cordelia altruistically declares that:
‘Mine enemy’s dog, though he had bit me, should have stood that night against my fire’
She is further divinised as ‘she shook the holy water from her heavenly eyes’. Cordelia is apotropaic daughter who tries to ward off evil. She is the antithesis to the atavistic evil of Goneril and Regan.
Though the play is set in pagan times it has strong Christian residues. The Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil are represented in the figures of Cordelia and her sisters Goneril and Regan respectively. A gentleman declares to Lear that Lear has ‘one daughter/Who redeems nature from the general curse/Which the twain have brought her to’. This is redolent of Post-Lapsarian story in which Adam and Eve blemished humanity with the taint of original sin and it is only the immolated Christ who can redeem mankind with his body and blood. Cordelia ultimately becomes the immolated Christ-like figure as her death serves to accentuate the pyrrhic suffering of Lear as he pays the price for his follies.
In conclusion to my essay I feel that the character of Cordelia and the function that she plays in ‘King Lear’ to be of rudimentary importance. She acts as a moral barometer against which the moral depravity of other characters conspicuously stands out.
She is an interesting character because even though she comes across as a quasi-divinised heroine, she does have an Achilles heel, her obduracy! She simply will not be compromised. The value of her moral integrity is at the essence of her being.
She espouses the mantra of another of illustrious Shakespearian protagonist, Hamlet ‘To thine own self be true.’ She acts as a soteriological figure in that she seeks to bring forgiveness, ‘restoration’ and redemption to others. Finally, her corpse serves to exacerbate Lear’s suffering thereby allowing his final release from his earthly toil and struggle.