Lear’s Tragically Unjustified Destiny
“Cordelia is about as far from being a Cinderella figure as it is possible to imagine. She is one tough, ruthless cookie, and utterly her father’s daughter.” Explore and discuss.
Cordelia differs from the traditional ‘Cinderella figure’ primarily because she does not in any way experience a sense of justice. Unlike in the Cinderella folk-tale, where good is rewarded and evil is punished, King Lear is devoid of all notions of ‘fairness’ at the hands of the pagan gods that many of the characters fatalistically call upon throughout the play. Lack of ‘poetic justice’ is seen by some as part of the ‘definition’ of a tragedy; King Lear takes this to the extreme. The end of the play brings with it a sense of absolute futility: Lear dies in a state of bewilderment, wondering what it has all been for, and bemoaning the injustice of life. He says of Cordelia’s death, ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?’ (V:iii lines 306-7), and dies before he can find an answer. The mental state of despairing confusion in which Lear dies is more tragic than the death itself, because it amplifies the already huge sense of injustice. This is accentuated even further when seen in the light of Edmund’s statement that ‘The wheel is come full circle’ (V:iii line 174). The cyclical nature of life will cause the events of the play to be repeated unless something has been learned from them. Whether there is hope depends upon one’s estimation of Edgar’s character: I believe that the outlook is bleak.
While Cordelia undoubtedly displays traits that link her character to that of Lear, I think that they are fundamentally different on several levels, especially at the start of the play. She is stubborn and proud, like Lear, but importantly she is neither rash nor impulsive, and does not react in the extreme manner that he does when challenged or insulted. Whereas Lear’s reaction is to lash out and punish in order to maintain his level of power in a scene, shown by his banishment of Kent and of Cordelia in the first scene of the play, Cordelia has a more even temperament and is better inclined to try persuasion and sound reasoning in order to win someone over, as in I:i, where she argues with Lear as to the value of her love without becoming angry, but protests little when her fate is revealed. That is not to say that Cordelia is pliant – far from it. It is her strong sense of pride and an unwillingness to ‘devalue’ herself by playing Lear’s egotistic game which leads to her banishment and arguably precipitates many of the events of the play. These differing attitudes of wrath and persuasion are equally calamitous and ineffective in the context of the play: Lear’s anger is one of many personality flaws that cloud his judgement and encourage rash decisions, while Cordelia’s changeable stubbornness leads to her banishment, but does not cause her to contest the decision.
Although, morally, refusing to flatter Lear is the correct action for Cordelia to take, is undeniably admirable, and shows an impressive strength of character in defying the tyrannical king, it can also be seen as self-indulgent, arrogant and overly proud to contest and, effectively, humiliate her father in public. She would do better, knowing Lear’s likely reaction, to swallow her pride at this point and comply with the vain whim of an aging man, one who she loves dearly and presumably therefore would not have to lie to flatter him. Cordelia pretentiously picks up that the question posed her by Lear is not ‘How much do you love me?’ but ‘What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?’ (I:i lines 81-2), i.e. ‘What can you say to better their flattery’. Lear misconstrues her answer, but she makes no effort to explain herself. It would be kinder to him for her to answer differently, saving him from his scheming older daughters, but Cordelia thinks only of herself at this point, selfishly preserving her integrity and moral dignity at all costs. Far from being a ‘Cinderella figure’ caught up in circumstances beyond her control, Cordelia can decide which route to take, and does so unscrupulously and unremorsefully.
Lear and Cordelia are therefore both egotistical, but in different ways. Cordelia is fervently protective of her dignity and honour; she uses personal pronouns nine times in lines 219-228 of act one scene one, during a speech that expresses concern not for that fact that she has been exiled, but that the true reason of her banishment is made known so that people may not think her guilty of an ‘unchaste action, or dishonoured step’ (line 224). Her concern is in the wrong province. Lear’s egocentricity is of a subtly different nature, as he thinks not in terms of purity but of ultimate power. Although the Divine Right of Kings did not exist in the pagan world of the play, it was a major issue for the Jacobean audience and manifests itself unconsciously in the character of Lear. In assuming that he can relieve himself of the responsibility of kingship while retaining the glory, power and respect, Lear shows that he is thinking only of himself and ignoring the inevitably disastrous results of splitting the kingdom will have for his subjects. His psychological problems begin when, having given up the post of king, he finds that he no longer holds the power that he is used to, and his usual method of solving disputes by punishment or exile is no longer possible. Not surprisingly for one who has been in control for so long, Lear finds the experience of being subordinate a testing one, and only after a great sacrifice on his part and that of others does he resolve his inner troubles. The difference between Lear and Cordelia in this is that she has insight at the beginning of the play, and foresees the coming troubles, saying ‘Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides’ (I:i line 276), but does not do anything, whereas Lear gains his insight too late, when it is of no use. They are both therefore tragically impotent, a feature common to many of the ‘good’ characters in the play in their different ways. One of the main themes of the play, and a problem which runs through the course of history, is the need for a compromise between Cordelia’s persuasive stubborn insight and Lear’s quick acting but unguided wrath. The opportunity for this medium seems to me to be lacking in the characters remaining at the end of the play, giving little hope for the future.
Cordelia clearly inherits some features of her personality from her father, as already mentioned, but her character as a whole is much more complete than that of Lear. She is part of the younger generation who are ironically far wiser and certainly shrewder than the majority of the older generation. However, for all this, they are ultimately no better. While she is not perfect, Cordelia does not suffer from inferiority complexes as Lear does after giving up his crown, and she has a strongly compassionate side. This feature is lacking in Lear until he recognises Cordelia once again in IV:vii. We see evidence in this scene and scene four of the same act of the love Cordelia has for Lear, a pure and ‘true’ love, as Cordelia says in I:i, the love which she was loathe to dress up in word play for fear of debasing it. She talks of ‘My mourning and important tears’ (IV:v line 26), and how ‘No blown ambition doth our arms incite, / But love, dear love, and our aged father’s right.’ (IV:v lines 27-8) this is an instance of pure, unconditional love, rare in this play, so full as it is of scheming and calculated feelings and expressions. Cordelia knows that in bringing an army to England she is treading a very dangerous path and her actions will likely be taken as an act of war, as a powerful ruler looking to capitalise on the disarray of a divided kingdom. Cordelia is stressing in these lines that it is nothing of the sort, but in fact a manifestation of pure and unwavering love for her father. One great tragedy is that Lear is responsible for Cordelia’s death: she is there solely because of him. Furthermore, Cordelia is killed just as Lear is developing a state of mind in which he can truly appreciate her love, so they are robbed of the good that comes of Lear’s madness. He says on being sent to prison, ‘We two alone will sing like birds I’ the cage. / When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness’ (V:iii lines 9-11). Lear doesn’t mind being in prison, as long as he is with Cordelia, and he has her forgiveness. The final cruel injustice of Cordelia’s death directly causes Lear’s death, because it renders his ‘rebirth to sanity’ as futile as the rest of the events in the play. Without her, he has no raison d’être, and he ‘faints’, as Edgar says. As Kent notes, ‘He but usurped his life’ (V;iii line 317): Lear was holding onto life through sheer force of will, and as soon as his will is broken, as it so utterly is by the tragedy of Cordelia’s death, his body expires as well.
Other examples of pure love such as Cordelia’s are France’s love for Cordelia, Edgar’s love for Gloucester, to a point, and the Fool and Kent’s love for Lear. This unreserved love is impossible for Lear at the beginning of the play. Certainly he is not completely cold, but the love he bears is heavily repressed, often confused, and even misplaced. This leads him to lash out and hurt those who he truly loves; his love is easily turned to hate, possibly because his arrogant egocentricity is in fact concealing a certain level of insecurity and fear of commitment. Lear’s role as king has meant that he has had to remain impersonal and removed from his subjects, and even from his family. He is unsure of himself in personal relationships, and needs to be told that he is adored, hence the apparently vain ‘love contest’ which starts the play. This need leaves him prey to self-advancing Machiavellian schemers like Goneril and Regan, and goes some way to explaining why he is a poor judge of character. The experience of madness, of being reduced to the ‘basest and most poorest shape’, as Edgar says (II:iii line 7), strips him of the complications of the kingly persona. It shows him what it is like to be ‘unaccommodated man’, to have only the things absolutely necessary for the sustenance of human existence, something he had no concept of before. The tragedy is that this comes too late: really Lear needed this knowledge when he was still king, as it is useless in his position after his ‘semi-abdication’. This knowledge does however allow him to be reconciled with Cordelia, if only for the very short while between their meeting and her death. The change in Lear shows us that there is a parental link at the source of Cordelia’s compassion, but the unloving coldness of Goneril and Regan lead us to believe that it must be a weak one. That Cordelia can be strong and yet compassionate is a major factor in determining our liking for her.
Unlike Cinderella, who was in effect an innocent bystander while predestined events shaped her life and her fortune, Cordelia’s existentialist attitude combined with her strong sense of duty and honour are key in determining the course of events, which amplifies the tragedy of her fate. Cordelia is a tough character, strong willed and somewhat self-centred like her father, but ultimately she is a better person than he at the beginning of the play, being insightful, loving and pure where he is blind, vain and corrupted by power. Indeed Cordelia is the only character with true power (she is Queen of France) that that power does not corrupt, and therefore the sole prospect for future peace and diligent rule in England. Edgar is too weak and stupid, and although he has improved to an extent by the end of the play, and shows that he can act quickly when he appears to slay Edmund, he lacks the insight required to make a truly effective ruler. His descent into a false ‘madness’ is the Shakespearean equivalent of burying his head in the sand, a tendency that does not bode well for his rule to come. This is yet another element of the tragedy of Cordelia’s death. It is the death of hope.
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“Cordelia is about as far from being a Cinderella figure as it is possible to imagine. She is one tough, ruthless cookie, and utterly her father’s daughter.” Explore and discuss. […]