King Lear

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Cordelia Character Analysis

Lear's youngest daughter, whom he disowns when she refuses to flatter him, as her sisters do, during the ceremony in which he hands over power. Cordelia remains loyal to Lear despite his unjust harshness to her at the beginning of the play and even seems prepared to forgive her treacherous sisters at the end. Other characters who do not betray Lear—particularly Kent—admire Cordelia for her virtue and mildness.

Cordelia Quotes in King Lear

The King Lear quotes below are all either spoken by Cordelia or refer to Cordelia. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of King Lear published in 2004.
Act 1, scene 1 Quotes
"I want that glib and oily art
To speak and purpose not."
Related Characters: Cordelia (speaker)
Page Number: 1.1.258-259
Explanation and Analysis:

Lear announces to France and Burgundy that Cordelia has lost her dowry. Pleading, she observes that she is unskilled at the flattery practiced by her sisters.

Though contemporary readers might interpret “I want” here to mean that Cordelia desires the art of speech, in Shakespearean English it means something closer to “I lack.” This distinction is relevant to making sense of Cordelia’s character: she does not wish to abandon her principles, but rather affirms that she cannot deviate from them. Describing speech as “glib” highlights how it is superficial and insincere, while “oily” connotes a slimy or over-flattering type of language. Though she does not directly criticize her sisters, Cordelia implies that their language is “glib and oily” in a way that hers cannot be. Intriguingly, Cordelia’s words are themselves quite eloquent here. They may not be obsequious, but they are concise and effective—thus showing that she possesses linguistic skill, but simply not the art of flattery.

More broadly, Cordelia differentiates between speech and intention when she juxtaposes “to speak” with “purpose not.” Unlike Lear, who assumes that the “nothing” of her speech implies a “nothing” of emotional attachment, Cordelia is able to recognize the difference between words and things. This insight, however, does not necessarily aid her in the play—for while it may grant her an effective moral compass, it also denies her inheritance and leaves her open to others’ manipulative behaviors.

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Act 5, scene 3 Quotes
"No, no, no, no. Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds in the cage."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.9-10
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lear and Cordelia are sentenced to prison, Cordelia wonders if they could find a way out of their fate. Lear instead chooses to idealize their time in prison. 

To do so, he uses the provocative image of "birds in the cage." Lear romanticizes the experience of prison not as one that restricts freedom but as a way for him and Cordelia to be safe from external harm. They would be birds singing--performing enjoyable melodies instead of unhappily bemoaning their fate. Lear's earlier insistence that humans are no more special than wild beasts clarifies that he would see no particular issue in being treated as a bird. Indeed, that role would finally fulfill his hope at the play's onset to offload responsibilities to his daughters and live with little concern in his old age. 

This is a somewhat unconventional tactic in Shakespearian tragedy: we have a character who accepts his tragic fate instead of rebelling against it. Lear's acceptance comes from a combination of existential rumination and insanity, which allow him to reach that conclusion. Lunacy thus offers a weird psychological route to beautify and escape his fate. 

"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone forever."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: The Stars, Heavens, and the Gods
Page Number: 5.3.308-310
Explanation and Analysis:

Just as Edmund sends a messenger to halt his plans to kill Cordelia and Lear, Lear enters with his daughter’s body. He exclaims these lines of intense remorse.

Though Lear’s language has become increasingly difficult to parse, it continues to hold meaning if examined carefully. Lear’s invocation—“Howl, Howl, Howl”—recalls his earlier expressions during the storm. Here, he mimics the environmental sounds, becoming himself an expression of natural catastrophe rather than of rational human logic. Calling others “men of stones” implies that he finds them emotionless and cold in the face of the catastrophe he has witnessed. As a result, Lear finds their verbal responses lacking.

In particular, he wishes he possessed their “tongues and eyes” because he could speak and see with greater vigor the horror of his daughter’s death. That Lear demands the senses of others is particularly evocative considering the role that blindness and insanity have played in the work: even as he descends into a lack of proper sensation, he demands the sensory capacities of others. His goal would be “that heaven’s vault should crack,” which develops the previous imagery of celestial bodies. Here Lear implies that something could “crack” or change course in the pre-destined role of the heavens were he given sufficient power—a point that notably deviates from his earlier adherence to fate and the heavens. Thus in Lear’s more remorseful moments, he both imitates and seeks to overcome the power of nature, all while demanding that the other unmoved humans grant him their sensations.

"No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never."
Related Characters: King Lear (speaker), Cordelia
Related Symbols: Animals
Page Number: 5.3.369-372
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lear’s life draws to a close, he speaks these final lines. He ends with abject denial of himself and of human nature.

His tone in this passage is actually quite soft and surprised. The repetition of “No, no, no” combined with the phrasing as a question, cast Lear as quite hesitant, even infantile. His next line comparing the lives of animals to that of dead Cordelia is similarly innocent: Lear seems to not be able to make sense of basic human injustices, believing naively that his daughter simply deserves to be alive because other things are. In this way, he completes the narrative spelled out by Regan and Goneril earlier in which old age reverts him to an infantile state.

The obsessive repetition of negation words recalls his original rejection of Cordelia’s “nothing.” Here, then, we see how far that denial has carried the both of them—from one faulty sentence to a complete denial of life with three “no”s and five “never”s. Shakespeare ends this tragedy, then, not exactly with overwhelming bloodshed, but rather with a exploration of how one small bit of misplaced language multiplied into a broad and permanent nihilistic denial.

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Cordelia Character Timeline in King Lear

The timeline below shows where the character Cordelia appears in King Lear. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Old Age Theme Icon
Lear enters with Albany, Cornwall, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and their attendants. Having sent Gloucester to fetch Cordelia's suitors, the lords of France and... (full context)
Act 1, scene 2
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
...observed disorder in the skies that predicts all the chaos that has happened with Lear, Cordelia, Kent, and now him: "these late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good... (full context)
Act 1, scene 4
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...Lear sends the Knight to fetch his Fool. Both Knight and Lear observe that since Cordelia's departure for France the Fool has been melancholy and sad. Oswald enters again. Lear summons... (full context)
Act 2, scene 2
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
...on stage, Kent takes out a letter, which, he explains to the audience, is from Cordelia. "Nothing almost sees miracles but misery" (180-1). The letter says that Cordelia has been informed... (full context)
Act 3, scene 1
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...real identity, he gives the Gentleman his purse, containing a ring, which he should show Cordelia who will be at Dover. Kent says she will recognize it. (full context)
Act 4, scene 3
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
In the French war camp, Kent asks a Gentleman about Cordelia's reaction to the letter that he sent in 3.1. The Gentleman reports that she was... (full context)
Act 4, scene 4
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Cordelia, attended by the Gentleman from 4.3 and a Doctor sends out a search party of... (full context)
Act 4, scene 6
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Fooling and Madness Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...and calls out to him, asking to kiss the king's hand. Lear, however, continues raving. Cordelia's gentleman and a group of attendants enter. Spotting Lear, they entreat him to come to... (full context)
Act 4, scene 7
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
Back in the French camp, Cordelia thanks Kent for all the service that he has shown her father and asks him... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...further reveals that, if the British are victorious, although Albany wishes to spare Lear and Cordelia, he never will. (full context)
Act 5, scene 2
Fathers, Children, and Siblings Theme Icon
Blindness and Insight Theme Icon
...Edgar appears onstage again. He reports that the French forces have lost and Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. Gloucester says that he would like to die and rot on... (full context)
Act 5, scene 3
Authority and Order Theme Icon
Disintegration, Chaos, Nothingness Theme Icon
Edmund orders that the captured Lear and Cordelia be taken away to prison. Cordelia, speaking with Lear, wonders if they should ask to... (full context)