By Freya Savla '22
Edited by Katie Painter '23 and Rosemary Chen '24
Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear ends with a stark grimness that propels an unsparing conclusion, taking not only the audience, but also the characters of the play by surprise. The deaths of Gloucester, Edmund, Regan, the Fool, King Lear and Cordelia, to name a few, inspire an all encompassing anguish as Albany, Kent and Edgar are left to salvage the ruin wreaked during the course of the play. At the same time, in light of the cathartic experience that the ending advances upon the audience, it is hard to ignore the beauty with which Shakespeare renders his tragic vision. Despite the calamitous occurrences, the scenes depicting King Lear and Cordelia before their final deaths retains an aesthetic value that transcends and informs one’s experience of the play. The language of Cordelia’s exchange with King Lear in their seemingly perfect reconciliatory moment evokes a kind of pleasure that endures the ugliness and grotesquerie of the tragic ending, leading the audience to devastation, but not complete despair. There is still hope to be found and hope in The Tragedy of King Lear emerges in the words and silences of Cordelia, who not only sets the events of the play in motion, but also adds an aesthetic quality through her meter, rhyme and softness. Cordelia’s speech frames the Tragedy of King Lear, imparting not only a formal and causal structure to the events of the play, but also redeeming and salvaging its despair through her aesthetic sensibility.
Cordelia’s silence opens and closes the narrative action, making her the structurally unifying force of the play. Her refusal to say what King Lear wants of her in the beginning causes him to declaim her and subsequently banish Kent, thus setting into motion the chain of events that causes King Lear’s descent into madness and the breakdown of social hierarchies in Lear’s world. At the end of the play, the last appearance of Cordelia once again yields not an answer but the absence of one. As he takes her into prison, King Lear tells Cordelia about the visions he has of the two of them as “birds i’th’cage” laughing at “gilded 1 butterflies” and acting as “God’s spies” (5.3.16). “Have I caught thee?” (5.3.21) Lear asks, yet even then, Cordelia does not respond, echoing the way she says “nothing” in the first scene. This silence foreshadows her final silence upon dying when Lear desires her to speak and is once again left unanswered: “ “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?”(5.3.281). Her death brings the events of the play to a close as Lear finally dies and Edgar assumes kingship. Cordelia’s selective use of speech accords her a status above the other characters who are caught in the suffering spirals of their actions. As Lear pronounces, she is a “soul in bliss” (4.6.43), an outside, almost ethereal presence in a world where everyone is caught in the “wheel of fire” (4.6.44). In a way, her otherness highlights the grotesque nature of everyone else’s actions. Thus, in initiating, curbing and underscoring the actions and events of the play, Cordelia and her speech become its structural center and narrative authority.
Despite making only four appearances, Cordelia remains a dominant influence throughout the play. The void created by the absence of both Cordelia and her language can be seen as one of the causes of the anarchical dissolution of the play. Cordelia, as Lear’s favorite daughter, was supposed to receive the central half of his kingdom. Her exile to France creates disharmony as she is decentralized — not only from the play, but also from the kingdom, and the subsequent vacuum created sends Lear’s world into tumult. In a drastic departure from the finery and grandeur of the court, King Lear’s daughters throw him out into a terrible thunderstorm; Gloucester sets up a hunt for his own son; Cornwall plucks out Gloucester’s eyes; Goneril seeks to kill her husband. This dissolution of order is reflected in Cordelia’s speech (5.3.9). When she speaks at the court, the simplicity of her words differs starkly from the fawning words of others. Her first words, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (1.1.57) contrast with Goneril’s hyperbolic language in the previous speech: “eyesight, space, and liberty…grace, health, beauty, honor” (1.1.51-53). Cordelia’s words are pure and grounding, reflective of a kind of order that is still present in Lear’s world. However, when she is exiled, without her words to guide the play, the fool speaks nonsensically, Edgar lapses into senseless speech as Tom o’Bedlam, the king’s language descends into curses until he ultimately loses the ability to speak coherently in the storm. Thus, the void created by the absence of Cordelia and her language leads to the disintegration of words, social structure and the characters’ identities.
Not only does Cordelia’s language structurally restore order to the play, it also serves an aesthetic function, causing the language of people around her to transform and align with her own. In the first act, her metrically abrupt “nothing” (1.1.84) breaks through the pretenses of the court and the superficiality of characters’ language, making way for the lyrically pleasing and redeeming words of the King of France. As King Lear strips her of the land and possessions that she would have otherwise received, all that Cordelia is left with is herself and her words — enough for the King of France to recognize her worth and adjust his speech to what she represents. With a series of paradoxes and antitheses that stands distinctly apart from the other court speeches, the King of France makes his speech in a style reminiscent of the Romantic poetry of Petrarch: “most rich being poor” “most choice forsaken” “most loved despised” “unprized precious” and “from their cold’st neglect … kindle to inflamed respect” (1.1.245-254). Similarly, Cordelia also inspires a change in the speech of other characters like Edgar and King Lear. In the middle of the play, she appears only once, standing over herbs and praying for the best for King Lear when she says, “Spring with my tears; be aidant and remediate…” (4.4.16). The presence of such concern and softness amidst the otherwise violent events makes her scene a turning point in the play. Her words, “aidant” and “remediate” reflect the restorative force that Cordelia embodies for the play's events and characters’ speeches. Soon after her scene, Edgar saves Gloucester, Lear and Gloucester meet, and the villainous characters begin to die. Edgar’s speech changes from the senseless, mad words of Tom o’Bedlam to the normalcy that better resembles himself — as Gloucester says, “Methinks y’are better spoken” (4.5.10), while King Lear’s approaches the simplicity and softness of Cordelia’s.
The change in the relationship between Cordelia and King Lear, however, as his language begins to mimic hers over the course of the play is the most drastic change that Cordelia’s language affects. King Lear’s language changes from the pomposity and extravagance he exudes at the beginning of the play, in his clearly weighed and calculated exhortation and use of the royal “we” (1.1.31), to a soft, fragmented speech at the end with Cordelia: “Pray you now, forget / And forgive. I am old and foolish” (4.6.82); it transforms from a political command, “Speak” (1.1.81), into a gentle plea:, “Pray do not mock me” (4.6.57). It is not just the events of the play and actions of other characters that cause King Lear’s descent into madness, but also the absence of Cordelia and her guiding, restorative language. Lear and the coherence of his words steadily deteriorate as he spends time away from Cordelia and loses the ability to use his own language to communicate. It is only when he meets Cordelia at the end and hears the sound of her words that he awakens to her, attaining the honest, pure and simple voice she has been invoking all along. The newfound softness of King Lear’s words marks a shift in his character from a proud king to a “foolish, fond old man” (4.6.58) and from his obsession with “fiends” (1.4.214) like Regan, Goneril and Cornwall to Cordelia as a “soul in bliss” (4.6.43). Thus, Cordelia’s speech engenders a shift from the emotionally and geographically divisive nature of King Lear’s language to words that create a special place where the two exist together — space on the map becomes intimacy as language changes and father and daughter can finally understand each other.
Cordelia’s presence and words frame the aesthetics of her last reunion with King Lear, an artfully constructed scene that remains in the minds of the audience long after her death. The lyrical quality of the words suffuses the scene with a softness that both Lear and Cordelia emanate, while the fragmented and simple language renders the emotional depth of the scene. Cordelia responds to Lear’s speculation of her appearance by saying, “And so I am, I am” (4.6.68) and to his claim that she has cause to do him wrong, “No cause, no cause” (4.6.73). The repetitive nature of her words slows the scene down and brings the audience back to the start, to her first “nothing” (1.1.84). While that was a negation, Cordelia is now affirmation and completeness — “I am, I am” (4.6.68) — words that heal, restore and reaffirm King Lear.
When Cordelia dies, King Lear’s last words are devastating: “… And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never… Look on her! Look, her lips. Look there, look there” (5.3.280-284). Lear’s final speech is incomprehensible as his language breaks into fractured syntax and fragmented words, as if Cordelia’s death signifies the very collapse of language. However, at the same time, the repeated “nevers” of King Lear echo what he first says about Cordelia’s voice after her death: “ever soft, Gentle, and low” (5.3.247, my italics). His utterances about Cordelia’s death thus fade into a description of her voice, and he and the audience are both subsumed into her language, which lies at the heart of the play. The ending is tragic as we feel Lear’s agony, a pain that even language cannot wholly comprehend. But “Look” (5.3.284) says Lear, “Look on her!” (5.3.283) and so look we must, at Cordelia herself — Cordelia as language and beauty, as the framework and heart of the play, and as the hope that we must continue to see through the powerful and aesthetic quality of her words that last long after the play ends and curtain falls.
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Jay L. Halio, (United Kingdom: Cambridge 1 University Press, 2014).