The selected passage is from Act IV, Scene VII, from one of the most historical and critically acclaimed plays of William Shakespeare. It is generally agreed today to be Shakespeare’s greatest play by the learned as well as the public (Hunter, p. 1).
It has the extremes of cruelty and suffering face extremes of loyalty and sacrifice and its basic motifs have the classic themes of love, betrayal, rejection and conquest. Shakespeare’s audience of the time truly understood these themes, identifying well with the king as a tragic hero and the nihilism that was fast growing its seed in the time of Jacobean theater.
In the given passage, the scene is presented between Cordelia and her father. A physician is present as well. Cordelia has just rescued her father – who is now battling a profound befuddlement of senses. He is already shifting in and out of reality, wearing flowers in his hair. After these few dialogues of Cordelia (above passage), he comes to consciousness and once recognizes Cordelia, begins to believe that they are both dead..
King Lear, writes Marvin Rosenberg, was written for the stage, to stimulate sense, feeling, and mind in a massive theatrical experience. Any evaluation must consider the artist’s use of all his arousal materials (Rosenberg, p. 1). The emotional turmoil and conflicts of relationships in Lear’s life make much for the ‘massive theatrical experience’ that Shakespeare promised.
In this given passage, Cordelia beseeches to her sisters, Regan and Goneril, in dramatic agony. They have betrayed their father and brought him to a condition which brings tears to Cordelia. For the sake of greed and land, the two sisters have brought their father down the very piths of humanity and the one daughter who was actually sincere to Lear is now at his side. Lear, tragically and unfortunately, mistrusted and mistreated this very daughter who was praying unto heavens and doing her utmost to bring her father back to a state of life and revival.
Seeing her father’s terrible condition, Cordelia wonders out loud, with ample pathos, to Regan and Goneril that if they had not considered the fact that Lear was their father – they could have at least considered his age and senility. But they did not consider it at all and left him to be swallowed by the ill-winds that blew his way with the courtesy of their betrayal itself.
Cordelia creates a powerful analogy for the condition of her father and his daughters with the dog of an enemy. She says that even an enemy’s dog, which has the sole purpose of establishing harm to you – would have stood against her or supported her in a terrible fate such as this. But what was this inhumanity of her sisters that they had so deliberately thrown their father into this highly adverse situations where there was no one left to take care of him but the wilderness and the rough fate that brought him to Cordelia in such conditions.
The character of Cordelia is a paragon of ‘virtue and optimism’. Her simple nature is signaled by her label-name, which focuses on her situation. She is a woman of heart, compassion and courage (Hamilton, p. 151). When her father asks her to speak of her love and loyalty and devotion to him, she opens Pandora ’s Box by replying in her sweet, simple, precise words, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot have my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less” (Shakespeare, p. 12). Her father does not understand the depth of these simple and truthful words and mistakes her simplicity for insincerity. He falls in the trap of slick and suave words that ultimately bring his downfall.
As she leaves the home, she speaks on her farewell note with the heartfelt emotion, which again goes unnoticed and dishonored, “The jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you. I know you what you are, and like a sister am most loath to call your faults as they are nam’d. Love well our father: to your professed bosoms I commit him. But yet, alas, stood I wihin his grace, I would prefer him to a better place. So farewell to you both” (Shakespeare, p. 19).
The foolish king does not understand Cordelia and her love and in this passage, where she sits beside him, nursing him, praying for his health, lamenting the selfishness and cruelty of her sisters, we see the same loyal daughter who refused to bear a grudge for a naïve, arrogant and narcissistic father who would destroy everything due to his these very follies.
There are powerful themes of the play that are duly depicted in this passage. Cordelia’s love for her father, despite the way that he treated her, shows her unrelenting and faithfulness to her father. She feels passionately for her father’s plight and vouches all that she possibly can to the Heavens so that he is well soon. This theme and behavior of Cordelia shows that despite Lear’s pessimism and nihilism for the world and life in general, no matter how justified his circumstances may be, there is still hope in the world. With people like Cordelia, one could not say the human race is generally bad by nature (Friedlander, n.p.).
Some critics also venerate King Lear as a Christian drama with elements of ‘regeneration’, ‘redemption’ and being ‘saved’ (Elton, p. 3). Although the play itself is a tragedy and the cruelty of the bottomless evil of the spirit and nature of mankind is aptly described in the play on various occasions and through various points, but despite all that, through Cordelia’s character and realistic love for her father, we see that mankind is capable of some good, at least.
The passage bears in it a strong message for this very fight between good and evil. The world is, although, not as grandly and starkly divided between dark and white forces, this particular passage in King Lear shows that Cordelia has the passion to hate. It is not as if she is a picture of morality or does not understand evil for the reason of being naïve or un-understanding. She is fully aware of what her sisters had in mind and what they meant to happen to their father. But Cordelia’s true and pure nature helps her ask this question – that even if they had forgotten the fact that Lear was their father – did they not realize that they were doing this to a man who was at the end of his age? A long and war-filled life that needed to be spent in harmony and peace? Yet his own flesh and blood had forsaken him.
Due to his senility, he may not have been able to realize the depth of his mistakes and actions – but Cordelia expects from her sisters to understand the senility – and care for him and not swindle him into bringing him into this state of despair and dreadfulness. This passage not only depicts the disappointment and despair of a sister, a daughter and a woebegone character, but the symbol of truth and goodness when it faces the turmoil of the chaos that evil and greed have committed in the world, which only produces pain, disaster and tragedy.
Elton, William R. King Lear and the Gods. San Marino, Calif: Huntington Library, 1966.
Friedlander, Ed. “Enjoying King Lear, by William Shakespeare”. Pathguy.com. Jan 30, 2005. http://www.pathguy.com/kinglear.htm October 27, 2007.
Hamilton, Sharon. Shakespeare’s Daughters. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2003.
Hunter, G., and Shakespeare, William. “King Lear”. London: Penguin Books. 1996.
Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of King Lear. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Shakespeare, William, Barbara A. Mowat, and Paul Werstine. The Tragedy of King Lear. New Folger Library Shakespeare. New York: Washington Square Press, 2005.