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Shakespeare's Characters: Cordelia (King Lear)

From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.

In the trial of professions, there appears something of obstinacy and sullenness in Cordelia's answer, as if she would resent the old man's credulity to her sisters' lies by refusing to tell him the truth. But, in the first place, she is considerately careful and tender of him; and it is a part of her religion not to feed his dotage with the intoxications for which he has such a morbid craving. She understands thoroughly both his fretful waywardness and their artful hypocrisy; and when she sees how he drinks in the sweetened poison of their speech, she calmly resolves to hazard the worst rather than wrong her own truth to cosset his disease. Thus her answer proceeds, in part, from a deliberate purpose of love, not to compete with them in the utterance of pleasing falsehoods.

In the second place, it is against the original grain of her nature to talk much about what she feels, and what she intends. They love but little who can tell how much they love, or who are fond of prating about it. Love is apt to be tongue-tied, and its best eloquence is when it disables speech. It is the beautiful instinct of true feeling to embody itself sweetly and silently in deeds, lest from showing itself in words it should turn to matter of pride and conceit. A sentimental coxcombry is the natural issue of a cold and hollow heart.

It is not strange, therefore, that Cordelia should make it her part to "love and be silent." Yet she is not one whom it is prudent to trifle with, where her forces are unrestrained by awe of duty. She has indeed a delectable smack of her father's quality, as appears in that glorious flash of womanhood when she so promptly switches off her higgling suitor:

Peace be with Burgundy!
Since that respects of fortune are his love,
I shall not be his wife. [I, i, 241-243.]

Mrs. Jameson rightly says of Cordelia that "everything in her lies beyond our view, and affects us in such a manner that we rather feel than perceive it." And it is very remark able that, though but little seen and heard, she is nevertheless a sort of ubiquity. All that she utters is but about a hundred lines, yet her speech and presence seem to fill a large part of the play. It is in this remoteness, this gift of presence without appearance, that the secret of her power mainly consists. Her character has no foreground; she is all perspective, self-withdrawn, so that she comes to us rather by inspiration than by vision. Even when she is before us we rather feel than see her; so much more being meant than meets the eye, that we almost lose the sense of what is shown, in the interest of what is suggested. Thus she affects us through finer and deeper susceptibilities than consciousness can grasp, as if she at once both used and developed in us higher organs of communication than the senses, or as if her presence acted in some mysterious way directly on our life, so as to be most operative within us when we are least aware of it. The effect is like that of a voice or a song kindling and swelling the thoughts that prevent our listening to it.

What has been said of Cordelia's affection holds true of her character generally. For she has the same deep, quiet reserve of thought as of feeling, so that her mind becomes conspicuous by its retiringness, and draws the attention by shrinking from it. What Cordelia knows is so bound up with her affections that she cannot draw it off into expression by itself; it is held in perfect solution, so to speak, with the other elements of her nature, and nowhere falls down in a sediment, so as to be producible in a separate state. She has a deeper and truer knowledge of her sisters than any one else about them; but she knows them by heart rather than by head, and so can feel and act, but not articulate, a prophecy of what they will do. Ask her, indeed, what she thinks on any subject, and her answer will be that she thinks, nay, she cannot tell, she can only show you what she thinks. For her thinking involuntarily shapes itself into life, not into speech ; and she uses the proper language of her mind when, bending over her "child-changed father," she invokes restoration to "hang his medicine on her lips"; or when, kneeling before him, she entreats him to "hold his hands in benediction o'er her." She remembers with inexpressible sorrow the curse he had pronounced upon her, for a father's curse is a dreadful thing to a soul such as hers, and her first concern is to have that curse replaced with a benediction.

All which shows a peculiar fitness in Cordelia for the part she was designed to act, which was to exemplify the workings of filial piety, as Lear exemplifies those of paternal love. To embody this sentiment, the whole character in all its movements and aspects is made essentially religious. For filial piety is religion acting under the sacredest of human relations; and religion is a life, and not a language; and life is the simultaneous and concurrent action of all the elements of our being. Which is perfectly illustrated in Cordelia, who never thinks of her piety at all, because her piety keeps her thoughts engaged upon her father.


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