By Professor Lucinda Becker
In the very first scene of the play , why does Cordelia not just speak up and declare her love for her father, King Lear, and gain her rightful share of the kingdom? It seems like an obvious question to ask. Given that she cares for him so lovingly, we might even suggest that she deserves more than her third – if the decision rests on daughterly love. The first answer to that question is equally obvious: ‘Because there would be no play if she did that.’ Yet Shakespeare rarely offers us the necessary conditions for a plotline without making the most of the opportunity; there is much more to Cordelia’s silence.
Before we explore further, let’s take a moment to look at the plotline. A dramatic plot frequently rests on expectations confounded or plans that are disrupted. At the opening of the play, we might presume that Lear has divided his kingdom equally: ‘...Know we have divided/In three our kingdom’ (I.1.37–8). Indeed, the play is sometimes performed with a huge map of his kingdom shown on stage, neatly divided for his daughters: the expected storyline could not be clearer. We know that the tragedy needs a broken narrative arc, but is there more to it than that? The simple answer is ‘yes’ (this is Shakespeare, after all!), and we are free to speculate on why Cordelia says so little. We cannot rely on her femininity being the root of her silence: her sisters are happy to praise their father and declare their love fulsomely. Shakespeare offers us female characters who are equally happy to speak out in public. Think of Titania standing up to Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (however, she is a fairy queen...) or Portia speaking up in court in defence of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice (but then she is dressed as a man at the time...). Desdemona speaks up very publicly and at length to defend her love for Othello, and Beatrice is certainly not shy in Much Ado about Nothing.
We know that Shakespeare’s female characters can speak out, yet Cordelia seems to be reluctant, as if she begrudges every word. Yet, if we take a look at what is actually said, we can see that not all is as it seems. Lear looks not to who might rule well, or how he can secure prosperity for his kingdom, but instead removes his decision from the public realm entirely by asking his daughters to earn their share by declaring the extent of their love:
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge... (I.1.51–3)
Either Lear has already made his decision and is simply expecting to enjoy some gratitude and flattery, or he has lost his sense of kingship and has moved from public responsibility to private need. Whichever the case, as long as his daughters all play ball, nothing will be lost. The kingdom is already divided on a map, and all they have to do is claim their prize.
Shakespeare helps us out here by giving us the pattern of flattery that wins a kingdom (or at least part of it). Goneril declares that she loves:
As much as child e'er lov'd, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (I.1.59–61)
It is lyrical, persuasive and so hyperbolic that it can take time to grasp the enormity of her claims. It does the trick, and Goneril is rewarded with a share of the kingdom. Regan, not to be outdone, makes clear that she can do even better:
Sir, I am made
Of the selfsame metal that my sister is,
And prize me at her worth… (I. 1. 69–70)
She too earns her share through her expressions of love. Yet, running alongside this, as so often in Shakespeare’s plays, is another drama directed at the audience and holding our attention as much as the central action. The first time we hear Cordelia is in an aside to us after that speech by Goneril: ‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.’ How very strange! Why would she say this? Why not just speak up? And again, after Regan's declaration, she adds another aside: ‘Then poor Cordelia!/And yet not so; since I am sure my love's/More richer than my tongue.’ (I. 1. 43-80) Now we are getting nearer to her purpose: she will not speak her love because she has shown her love, and she also perhaps judges her father as a gull for flatterers.
When pushed even further by her father, she twice responds with the word ‘nothing’. We might recall another famous character who sticks with silence. Iago, at the end of Othello, at the moment when we are most desperate to learn why he spread so much poison throughout the play, gives us, literally, nothing:
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word. (I. 1. 78–80)
Cordelia, unlike Iago, is pushed beyond her declaration of ‘nothing’, but she is clearly determined not to play this game:
I yet beseech your Majesty,
If for I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not, since what I well intend,
I'll do't before I speak…. ( I. 1. 243–6)
So, now we see sibling rivalry and disdain as another cause of her silence, but we also see the reward she gains. As if in a fairy tale, one of her suitors, the King of France, takes her as his queen; not in spite of her lack of words and her honesty but because of these qualities. In her final exchange with her sisters, before she sweeps off stage with her successful suitor, you might well be reminded of Cinderella enjoying her farewell to her sisters. Except that Cinderella has her happy ending: Cordelia is not so blessed.
Towards the end of the play, we see her aged father carry her body onto the stage; we even see him believe for a moment that she might still live. It is the very essence of tragedy. It is also perhaps too much tragedy for some audiences, given that the play was performed for around 150 years in a variation by Nahum Tate in which all the leading characters survive.
Between Cordelia’s departure from Lear’s court and her doomed return, there is another form of silence: the silence of her absence. That silence is destructive. Lear runs mad, at least in part because her steady hand is not supporting him. Her return could herald a chance for redemption and a happier future for Lear and his kingdom and yet what Shakespeare gives us instead is her death.
So why does she have to die? Why did Shakespeare choose to deviate from his source material in this way? Is she being punished for her early silence or perhaps her outspoken moments? Maybe Shakespeare is allowing her to suffer for deserting her father, or could it be that she is too good to live in such a corrupt land? It could be more than (or none of) these things. It might be the nature of tragedy: a genre that Shakespeare had mastered by this point in his career, knowing that he could take audiences to the point of despair.
At the outset of the play, Cordelia’s father sets up a clear narrative path for her and she simply refuses to walk it; her silence condemns her. At the close of the play, Lear’s own tragic narrative takes over: Cordelia’s character, her very existence, is sacrificed to help create the tragic hell into which Lear has sunk. This is essentially his story, his tragic downfall, and whilst Cordelia may play her part in it, her story remains subservient to his. Like Ophelia, who is left singing lewd songs as she makes her way to her drowning point, so, too, Cordelia is finally silenced by her death.
- Shakespeare, William, 1564–1616. King Lear. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1877.
Professor Becker teaches Shakespeare and Shakespeare on Film in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading.