The Controversial Case of Cordelia’s Death
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the titular ruler undergoes multiple trials in his wish to pass the kingdom on to his three daughters and their betrotheds. After the disownment and banishment of his youngest daughter Cordelia, Lear’s elder daughters Goneril and Regan soon begin attempting to overthrow their father and usurp his power. In the midst of this unfolding plot, Lear’s debilitating mental illness brings his mind spiraling further and further into madness. In the latter half of the play, a brief scene of reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia seems to bring the king to a more clear-minded state. However, Cordelia is then sent to her death by hanging soon after, and Lear fails to save her. Thus, during the play’s dramatic conclusion, Lear dies not as a mad king but a heartbroken father, howling with Cordelia’s body in his arms.
Across the four selected historical copies of King Lear—the Quarto (1608), the First Folio (1623), the Fourth Folio (1685), and the Works Pope version (1725)—the passage following Lear’s entrance with Cordelia’s corpse in 5.3 undergoes several minor adjustments. While the content of Lear’s short proclamation has remained mostly the same, there are noticeable variations in spelling, arrangement, and punctuation. The title of the play changes throughout the different versions as well, beginning with “Historie” (1608), before moving on to “Tragedie” (1623) and “Tragedy” (1685), and settling on “The Life and Death of King Lear” (1725). The play is thus no longer tied to a single, constrictive genre, creating a greater feeling of realism. In turn, the events, characters, and various motives in King Lear seem more authentic, therefore adding to the growing sense of ambiguity in every scene and allowing for more freedom of interpretation by its readers and audiences.
The earliest referenced version, Quarto I, published “The Historie of King Lear” in 1608. The aforementioned scene occurs in the upper third of the page, swiftly following the Duke’s prior line. Lear then enters with Cordelia in his arms and 4 consecutive animalistic “howle[s]” (1608). While this four-fold repetition completes the meter of the line, it equally lengthens its duration, as two utterances of a monosyllabic word are read differently from an iamb. Yet, the meter is disrupted by an extra syllable in Lear’s next line about how “[he] would” (1608) use the others’ tongues and eyes. In addition to this, the main punctuation marks found in this passage are commas. Periods are only used twice: when Lear finishes his speech and Kent subsequently wonders if this is “the promist end” (1608). In the other three versions, Kent’s line stands alone and is posed as a question. In the Quarto, however, it rides on the coattails of Lear’s final line as a statement, thereby limiting the emotional depth of this moment in the play.
The First Folio publication from 1623 named this play “The Tragedie of King Lear” and arranged the text in adjacent, divided columns. Lear’s entrance with Cordelia’s body occurs near the bottom of the page, following a break after Albany’s line and splitting the passage across two pages. This draws further attention to this tragic moment, functioning almost like a brief cliffhanger. Two typos are also present in this folio: the page number printed as 38 instead of 308, and the mistyped line “O your are men of stones” (1623). These mistakes are a reminder of the handwork involved in printing texts with the possibility of human error. In this version of the play, Lear “howle[s]” (1623) 3 times instead, and what was “I would” in the Quarto is contracted into “Il’d” (1623). This reverses the Quarto’s issue: the former line now has one syllable too few, while the next line adheres to iambic pentameter, similar to the Fourth Folio. Variations in capitalization and punctuation—colons in particular, 3 to be exact—come into play as well, stepping away from the monotonous tone and presentation of the Quarto. As a result, the First Folio retains certain elements found in the Quarto, particularly in the metrical arrangement of the lines, whilst establishing new, distinctive stylistic qualities of its own.
In the Fourth Folio, published in 1685, the “Tragedy of King Lear” returns to a bi-columnar format, harkening back to the First Folio. Lear’s entrance once again occurs in the right column, now placed at the top of the page. This adds a sense of transition to the scene and differentiates from the events prior to this moment. Lear “howl[s]” (1685) 3 times, and the slightly altered contraction of “I’ld” (1685) is used, mirroring the same metrical discrepancy found in the First Folio. Similarly, there are once again 3 colons in the text, like the First Folio. However, more words are emphasized with capitalization, almost creating paired opposites with “Tongues” and “Eyes,” “Heavens Vault” and “Earth,” perhaps even “Lend” and “Looking-Glass”—whether something borrowed can still depict an accurate reflection of oneself—hence matching the paired columns of the page format, too. The dynamic arrangement of the passage in this version sheds light on both Lear’s tumultuous emotions, as well as the significant comparisons brought up in his words.
Finally, the Works Pope version provides an entirely new take on King Lear’s tale, as its title features neither “History” nor “Tragedy.” Published in 1725, the first page of the text declares “The Life and Death of King Lear,” shortened to simply “King Lear” in its page headings. The selected passage exists as a completely new scene, Scene X, located in the bottom third of page 108. In this text, Lear “howls” (1725) 4 times and addresses the noblemen present as “men of stone” (1725), rather than “stones” as printed in previous versions, paralleling his later line “If that her breath will mist or stain the stone” (1725). The contraction of “I’d” also appears, evening out and regulating the meter in Lear’s first two lines. With the added combination of dashes, semicolons, and exclamations, the extra syllable in the line “That heaven’s vault should crack; she’s gone for ever!”—a feature kept throughout all four versions—becomes all the more evident and powerful, especially when considering Lear’s despondent state of mind. Moreover, the first word of the next page appears in the bottom right corner of this publication. In this case, Kent’s name is printed as he speaks next. This perhaps points to how, while Lear lost his most pious and devoted daughter, he still has the Earl of Kent, his most loyal servant, by his side. Unfortunately, Lear fails to realize this. As a result, although Lear realizes how much he valued Cordelia’s honest loyalty, he is essentially as blindsided as ever to the other staunchly devoted people in his life. This is thus his greatest folly of all.
In conclusion, throughout the four historical copies of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear’s reactions to Cordelia’s death remain mostly the same in terms of content. Apart from minor differences in spelling, repetition, and punctuation, he still enters bearing Cordelia in his arms alone, following Albany’s line and preceding Kent’s line, uttering an abundance of caesurae. While it seems as though the minute differences between each version bear no importance, two of the greatest commonalities across the four versions have been the lack of specification regarding whether Cordelia was dead or alive, and whether the other characters actually present Lear with the mirror he so desperately wanted. It is painful to see a father clutching his child’s corpse as well as a king madly rambling about a living person being dead, regardless of whether he has the looking-glass to prove his point. For these reasons, Shakespeare’s King Lear has nimbly steered itself beyond the constraints of a historical play and tragedy. Instead, it has found itself a home containing components of both genres, but ultimately features plenty of ambiguity to allow for its content to be renewed and reinterpreted, time and time again.
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