The Significance of Cordelia’s Self-Confidence
In the first scene of the first act of King Lear Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, is banished from his sight forever. As per his decree, she does not return to the stage until the end of the drama. Yet Cordelia’s actions and attitude reverberate throughout the play, revealing Lear’s motivations and conveying Shakespeare’s message to the audience. Specifically, her character is used to illustrate the importance of being self-assured. Contrasted with Cordelia’s confident perseverance, it becomes clear that Lear’s self-doubt is responsible for his inability to rule and his eventual downfall. The actions taken by the king and his daughter clearly show their sharply contrasting levels of confidence. The implications of this divide are manifest in the reactions of other characters and in the unexpected transfer of power from Lear to Cordelia. This emphasis on attitude also speaks to one of the play’s larger themes; the ultimate importance of internal motivation and individual action.
King Lear opens with Lear preparing to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. But when Cordelia refuses to indulge her father in his request for a verbal qualification of her love she is banished. The lands and the power are subsequently divided between the two remaining daughter, both of whom are more than willing help bolster their father’s ego. But at soon as Cordelia leaves Lear’s world begins to fall apart. The daughters to whom he gave everything oust him, and subsequently Lear goes mad. By the time Cordelia returns to rescue her father the kingdom is in a state of totally chaos. Through everything Cordelia remains strong and self-confident, holding fast in the wind of her fathers rage and her sisters hate. It is her personal empowerment that allows her to keep on in the face of adversity so powerful it drives the insecure king mad.
As they follow this plot the audience is forced to wonder why such powerful adversity is surmounted by a little girl rather than a mighty sovereign. Indeed, it seems very strange that Lear’s “last and least” should turn out to be a woman of such strength (I.i.82) The answer is that Shakespeare purposefully ascribes this quality to the most insubstantial character in the play, to illustrate just how important attitude is. Cordelia’s station could not be more trivial: she is a woman, she is the youngest of her siblings, and she is repeatedly described as being physically small. The self-confidence that she displays is the only power that she possesses. Because she is able to endure so much with only that power it is clear to the audience that the question of self-belief is one of absolute importance.
Cordelia’s empowered attitude is most vividly displayed in the first scene of the play. King Lear tells his daughter that he wants to each of them to tell him how much they love their father so that he can divide his kingdom accordingly. It is vital to note that at this point Cordelia has more at stake than either of her sisters. For Goneril and Regan the portion they receive from the king is simply a matter of power and material possession. Conversely, the land Cordelia will receive is her dowry. This fact is made quite apparent when Lear who points out that Cordelia’s suitors are both come to the kingdom to seek her hand in marriage. But even with this added incentive Cordelia is not compelled to placate the king with false flattery. Because she has nothing to gain by not telling Lear what he wants to hear, we can only assume that Cordelia is motivated by her integrity. In fact, Cordelia is in faces great peril, because of her defiance. Unlike her sisters, she is yet unmarried, and would therefore have nowhere to go if cast out of the kingdom. Cordelia’s willingness to risk so much in order to uphold her ideals shows the audience that she is truly a self-confident individual.
Her poise is highlighted again at the end of this first scene when Cordelia and her husband to be are left alone with her two wicked sisters. Though she is younger than they are, smaller than they are, and now disfavored and powerless in their realm she is not intimidated by them. In fact she offers the a thinly veiled threat, “who cover faults, at last shame derides.” (I.i.281) Once again, Cordelia shows that she is not a puppet of circumstance; she is confident regardless of the situation that finds herself in.
Lear’s contrasting lack of confidence is all too clear in this first scene. His decision to make his daughters verbalize their love in return for their portion of the kingdom is nothing more than a royal ego-trip. Similarly, the severe reaction Lear has to Cordelia’s silence can only be explained by a negative self-image that leaves him dependent on outside approval. This dependence leaves him vulnerable to those around him, crippling his ability to lead effectively.
But nowhere is Lear’s insecurity more conspicuous and unsettling then in his monologue of Act II, scene iv. Stripped of his entourage and his power to command Lear falters:
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall I will do such things
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth! (II.iv.275)
Suddenly Lear is drowning in his anger; helplessly flailing about a sea of frustration and confusion. His threats are overblown, so overblown that they seem child-like. Indeed, like a child, Lear cannot even complete his sentences. After this speech there can be no question that without the trappings kingship Lear is totally powerless. Once again the audience must ask how a man so vulnerable could ever have reigned over a kingdom.
***Kent & France react to Cordelia proving that she acts out of self-confident pride***
Shakespeare emphasizes the importance of self-confidence through a series of role reversals that see young, small, feminine Cordelia attain much of the power that is lost to her father, the king. In these examples the audience is shown how will power and strength of character can overcome natural determinism. In scene one Lear informs his Regan and Goneril that he will maintain one hundred knights in his service once he has passed on the crown. In the early parts of the play such attendants surround Lear constantly, ready to act on his command. But no sooner has Lear passed on his crown then his entourage is taken away from him. The two daughters to whom he gave everything take away his last vestiges of sovereignty. Lear’s insecurity lead him to give power to the daughters who stroked his ego, rather than to the one that truly loved him. With that in mind it is easy to see how Lear’s insecurity contributed to his loss of power. When Cordelia comes to retrieve he lost father she commands, “A century send forth” that they may look for Lear (IV.iv.6) It is no coincidence that she commands a battalion of one hundred men. On the contrary, Shakespeare is telling the audience that the power Lear once had has been transferred to Cordelia. What Lear’s self-doubt had lost his young daughter’s self-confidence has won.
A more touching image, which conveys the same idea, takes place at the end of act four, when Lear has returned to his senses. Here Lear stops Cordelia from bowing to him and instead he lowers himself before her. The aged king willingly bows to his littlest daughter. Though it is done on a much more personal, and emotionally significant level, this scene also conveys the power of Cordelia’s self-belief. By never compromising her integrity, even when there was much to be lost, Cordelia has earned the respect and admiration of her father the king. Here he has finally realized that his ego is to blame for all of his problems; in bowing to her he acknowledges that she had what was needed to reign successfully all along.
The notion that self-confidence leads to triumph seems, thus far, to be a compelling one. Yet, one might be tempted to think that the murder of Cordelia undermines the entire theory. After all, if Cordelia and Lear both end up dead what compels us to think that her attitude was better in the first place? One might easily conclude that Shakespeare contrasts Lear and Cordelia, only so show the audience that regardless of anything actions they take the characters are merely pawns of fate. But why then does the playwright bother to illustrate the prominent differences in self-image and its divergent effects? The answer to this question can be found in act five scene two, where Cordelia speaks of confronting her evil sisters, until Lear convinces her that they are not worth thinking about. In this exchange the audience sees a subdued battle between Cordelia’s confrontational self-assurance and Lear’s passive timidity. When Cordelia acquiesces, going quietly with her father as a prisoner, Lear’s self-doubt has won. Though they are happy, Cordelia is no longer in full possession of the sense of personal empowerment that characterizes her throughout the play. With this scene is mind it is clear that Cordelia’s death supports, rather than undermines, the theme that power and success require confidence.
The theme brought out by Cordelia’s character implies that self-assurance is more powerful than any natural state, be it age, size, or rank. This notion supports the larger thesis – that self-determination is more powerful than fate – which runs throughout the tragedy. As Edmund proclaims in act one, scene two, “I should have been that I am (rough and lecherous) had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” Here he rejects fates power to control him, asstering himself as the master of his own fate. Edmunds tendency to evil in spite of his birth is much like Cordelia’s rise to authority despite the position that she was born into. Though she is a young female,
Cordelia’s actions illustrate Shakespeare’s message, that every man can and must take responsibility for their own destiny.
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