Cordelia’s actions are a catalyst for much of the action in the play, her refusal to take part in her father’s ‘love test’ results in his furious impulsive outburst where he disowns and banishes his otherwise faultless daughter.
Lear’s treatment of Cordelia and subsequent empowerment of Regan and Goneril (false flatterers) leads to the audience feeling alienated towards him – perceiving him as blind and foolish. Cordelia’s presence in France offers the audience a sense of hope – that she will return and Lear will be restored to power or at least her sisters will be usurped.
Some might perceive Cordelia to be a little stubborn for refusing to take part in her father’s love test; and vengeful to marry the King of France as a retaliation but we are told that she has integrity by other characters in the play and the fact that the King of France is willing to take her on without a dowry speaks well for her character; she also has little other choice than to marry France.
“Fairest Cordelia, that art most rich, being poor; Most choice, forsaken; and most loved, despised: Thee and thy virtues her I seize upon.” France, Act 1 Scene 1.
Cordelia’s refusal to flatter her father in return for power; her response of; “Nothing”, further adds to her integrity as we soon discover those who have a lot to say cannot be trusted. Regan, Goneril and Edmund in particular all have an easy way with words.
Cordelia’s expression of compassion and concern for her father in Act 4 scene 4 demonstrates her goodness and an assurance that she is not interested in power unlike her sisters but more in helping her father get better. By this time the audiences’ sympathy for Lear has also grown, he appears more pathetic and in need of Cordelia’s sympathy and love at this point and Cordelia offers the audience a sense of hope for the future for Lear.
“O dear father, It is thy business that I go about; Therefore great France My mourning and importuned tears hath pitied. No blown ambition doth our arms incite, But love dear love, and our aged father’s right. Soon may I hear and see him.” Act 4 Scene 4
In Act 4 Scene 7 When Lear is finally reunited with Cordelia he redeems himself by fully apologizing for his actions towards her and his subsequent death is therefore even more tragic. Cordelia’s death finally hastens the demise of her father first to madness then death. Cordelia’s portrayal as a selfless, beacon of hope makes her death more tragic for the audience and allows Lear’s final act of revenge – killing Cordelia’s hangman to appear heroic adding further to his terrible tragic downfall.
Lear’s response to Cordelia’s death finally restores his sense of good judgment for the audience and he is redeemed – he has finally learned the value of true emotion and his depth of grief is palpable.
“A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all. I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever. Cordelia, Cordelia stay a little. Ha? What is’t thou sayst? Her voice was ever soft, Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.” (Lear Act 5 Scene 3)
Shakespeare’s decision to kill off Cordelia has been criticized as she is such an innocent but perhaps he needed this final blow to bring about Lear’s total downfall and to confound the tragedy. All of the characters in the play are dealt with harshly and the consequences of their actions are well and truly punished. Cordelia; offering only hope and goodness could therefore be considered the real tragedy of King Lear.