The Death Of Cordelia In William Shkespeare

’s King Lear Essay, Research Paper

The Death of Cordelia in William Shakespeare’s King Lear

King Lear is a tragedy unlike any other written by William Shakespeare. It focuses

on the psychological downfall of a powerful King. It proves that as long as a nation has a

king on the throne all is well, but as soon as a king steps off the throne nothing but chaos

transpires. The downfall of the king results in the downfall of the kingdom. More

importantly, it focuses on the relationship between parent and child. This is proven in

two plots with the most important being the relationship between Cordelia and King Lear.

Lear goes through a period of great mental instability in which he gives up his throne,

gives up his daughter Cordelia, and also gives up his sanity. When this happens all hell

breaks loose among the characters, and the evil persona Edmund takes control of the plot.

In most cases love is thought to shine through all evil, however it is not the case in King

Lear. Cordelia must die to illustrate that good does not always conquer evil, and this is

shown no matter how painful it may be for the audience. This is stated in an essay by

Northrop Frye called King Lear who says that this reflects “the principle that the evil men

do lives after them” (148) no matter what good may try to do to defeat it.

Cordelia is the epitome of a true person. Unlike her sisters, she is sweet, honest,

loving, and good. From the start Cordelia speaks the truth even though it hurts her

father’s feelings, and sends him spinning into an eventual rejection of her. Her sisters

Goneril and Regan are hypocritic wenches who profess their undying love for Lear

without an ounce of truth to back it up. Cordelia tries to show this to her father, but he is

completely blind to it, and cannot see that Cordelia loves him the best of all three of his

daughters. When Lear asks Cordelia how much she loves him she simply replies “I love

your Majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less”; (Act 1, Scene1, 94-5) plainly she

loves him as much as a daughter should love her father without over or understepping her

bounds. The reader instantly takes a liking to Cordelia for her truthfulness, and feels

nothing but sorrow for her when Lear disowns her because of what seems to be a

redeeming quality. Cordelia never loses her love for her father even after he has disowned

her, and this is yet another reason it is so hard to see her die.

Lear’s downfall begins when he gives up his kingdom to his daughters. He is no

longer the ruler of the kingdom, and has no real authority left. When he breaks his crown,

the powers of evil burst through and take over everything virtuous they come across. Evil

is directly connected to the downfall of the kingdom. This can be compared to a wheel

rolling down a hill; when the wheel of evil starts rolling it gains momentum crushing

everything in its path until it reaches the bottom. Nothing is spared, and nothing can stop

it. Cordelia is not spared, and love can not stop it. Lear does not begin to regain his

sanity until he overcomes his blindness towards his daughters. Even after he finds out that

Regan and Goneril only used him for his land and title, Lear does not blame himself for

falling into their trap. He still puts the blame on everybody else saying “I am a man/ More

sinned against than sinning” (Act 3, Scene 2, 58-9). He does not realize that he cannot

start healing until he takes responsibility for his own actions.

One reason that for Cordelia’s death is to punish Lear for thinking that Cordelia did

not love him. It takes Lear a very long time to realize that his two seemingly precious

daughters have swindled him, and it is this long time period that allows evil to penetrate

into all the characters including the faultless Cordelia. By the time Lear regains his sight

and sees Regan and Goneril as “a disease that’s in [his] flesh” (Act 2, Scene 4, 221) the

worst has already been done, and there is no way that anything can change what has come

to pass. His blindness in the end costs him all three of his daughters, Cordelia being the

most moving of all for the audience.

Lear and Cordelia are finally reconciled late in the play, and as Simon O. Lesser

states in a work titled Act One, Scene One, of Lear “their love-reappears in its original

intensity, if not in heightened intensity” (171) which leads the reader to believe that the

world will end up as it should be. As the play continues the notion of love being a healing

redemptive force is quickly shattered. One reason that Cordelia’s death so painful is this

reuniting of father and daughter where Lear seems to be perfectly sane and at peace.

When he and Cordelia are being taken to jail he tells her to go with him, and to have no

fear. He tells her that they will “live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh”

(Act5, Scene 3, 11-2) because no matter where they are, as long as they are together they

shall be happy. Now that Lear has regained sanity, and once again found love for Cordelia

it seems the pain and destruction will end. This cannot happen though, because Lear is no

longer the king of the country, and as there is not yet a king the world has not yet been

restored to its rightful place.

The final blow from evil’s wretched hand comes with the sentencing of Lear and

Cordelia. The head of all the disaster Edmund, sentenced Lear and Cordelia to be hung

while he was acting as King. When he is finally defeated all the attention is focused on his

collapse, and Lear and Cordelia’s impending dooms are all but forgotten. When finally

they are remembered Edmund renounces the sentencing, and it seems as though their lives

will be spared. But it is too late; Cordelia has already vanished from existence at the end

of a noose. It is dreadful to imagine Lear’s reaction to this as he cries “Howl, howl, howl,

howl,! O, you are men/of stones:” (Act 5, Scene 3, 258-9) as he has again lost his dear

daughter. It proves what no one wants to believe, that “this destruction of the good

through the evil of others is one of the tragic facts of life” (212) as stated in an essay titled

King Lear by A.C. Bradley. Love as a redemptive quality in King Lear is nonexistent.

On the surface it seems utterly needless for Cordelia to die. She does nothing

wrong or evil to deserve such a horrible fate. Once Lear overcomes his blindness and can

see again it is too late to stop Cordelia’s death. The evil has been given too much time to

take over and conquer, and even finds its way to the most innocent of all characters. The

wrath of evil can be shown in no better way than in the destruction of Cordelia “an

innocent victim swept away in the convulsion caused by the error or guilt of others”

(Bradley, 212) which is a heart wrenching end to a tragic play. As painful as it is for the

audience to read of Cordelia’s death it completes the cycle of the wheel barreling down the

hill. It does not stop unil it reaches the bottom, and unfortunately at the bottom is the

helpless Cordelia who cannot get out of the way to be saved from the hand of evil.


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