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Examination Questions on King Lear

Question: What do you think of Cordelia's refusal to respond to Lear's desire for flattery? And had she probably made any further choice between France and Burgundy than appears on the surface?

Answer: From this and her subsequent action in the play we decide that firm adherence to duty and tender, watchful, self-sacrificing love were Cordelia's characteristic traits. She had observed her father's proneness to yield to flattery the morbid desire for outward manifestations of love becoming a disease, so completely had it taken possession of the springs of his action.

She has already read the selfish, unscrupulous hearts of her sisters, and feels that she must strive to counteract their influence. Then, too, she is indignant at the idea of the holiest, most unselfish feelings being dragged forth to gratify a whim, to stand as a measure for worldly interest. Following the impulse of her heart (though she "cannot heave her heart into her mouth," for the simple reason that she has so much of it), and doing what she thinks to be her duty, Cordelia displays a degree of daring and firmness which almost amounts to reckless obstinacy.

But there are other considerations which if they do not explain the refusal to sacrifice truth to interest serve to soften the appearance of undue strictness in the performance of filial duty. There is a lack of fore-thought in all her actions, but here we cannot believe that her calm resistance to her father's will was without hope in the future, should the worst come to the worst. France had won even Lear's respect (see I. i. 212) by his noble behavior, and it is not strange that Cordelia had learned to trust him. Endowed with an organization which rather felt than perceived the innate peculiarities of those with whom she was associated, no doubt she has long since made choice between France and Burgundy, and given to France the esteem which the pure accord to the pure. She places herself in circumstances beneath which so delicate a nature would have succumbed had there been nothing to sustain it but the trust in its own truth. France's faith in her is so firmly rooted that to believe her guilty of any heinous sin
"Must be a faith that reason without miracle
Could never plant in me." I. i. 225.
And I. i. 261,
"Not all the dukes of waterish Burgundy
Can buy this unprized precious maid of me."
I think Cordelia must have reciprocated this trust. She does not foresee the dethronement of her father, but thinks (I. i. 283) -
"Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides.
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides."
She only fears their influence on his mind. Her surprise at the contents of Kent's letter (IV. iii. 26-30) carries us back to this scene, and we can interpret her action only in one way; "half her love" was already given to France. Although in this case it was
"Love, dear love and our aged father's right"
that prompted her action as well as in IV. iv. 28, we must think that her persistence was due, in a measure, to the fact that she believed though she may not have known that France loved her and would remain true.


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How to cite this article:
Williams, Maggie. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/kinglear/examq/mnine.html >.
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