’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.