By Jenni Carey, School of the Ozarks
In Act I of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Goneril and Regan, Lear’s eldest daughters, choose to humor their aged father with embellished, empty expressions in order to gain wealth. Cordelia, however, sets her speech apart from the flattery of her sisters by speaking simply and honestly from her heart. For this, she loses her inheritance and suffers the wrath of her father. Why can’t she express her love in the fashion which her father longs for? Does Cordelia show prudent judgement in this instance and throughout the play?
When the king expects Cordelia to dote on him with words of love, she explains, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth.” At a time when her inheritance and the good graces of her father hang in the balance, Cordelia chooses to forego ornate speech. She refuses to feed her father’s sin of delighting in empty flattery, and separates herself from those seeking their own selfish gain. This is not a display of pride, but an adherence to wisdom, a word defined as “marked by deep understanding, keen discernment, and a capacity for sound judgment.” Cordelia shows deep understanding of the heart in her reaction to her father’s sinful request by recognizing the sincerity of her own heart as well as the corruption of her father’s. It is certainly no accident that her name is “Cordelia.” The temptation of receiving “a more opulent” portion of land by way of “mending her speech” is great. She knows her choice will result in the sacrifice of her land and her father’s adoration. Still, Cordelia shows keen discernment in recognizing that she would be hurting Lear more by feeding his misled notions of love than by expressing the truth that he requires for his own correction.
Proverbs 17:27-28 states: “He who has knowledge spares his words…when he shuts his lips he is considered perceptive.” Even before Cordelia’s departure to France, we see evidence that she recognizes the wisdom of holding her tongue. Before she is called upon by her father to express her love, she witnesses her sisters’ display of insincerity and wrestles with what to say when it is her turn: “What shall Cordelia speak?” she asks herself. “Love and be silent,” is her answer. She knows that in order to best serve her father, her love should be action, not words. Her self-assurance that her love is “more ponderous than her tongue,” shows her recognition that excess speech is foolish when truth comes from the heart. Not only do we see silence being compared to wisdom in Cordelia’s deliberation, but also with her absence throughout the middle of the play. She could have chosen to try and contact her father or sisters, speaking to them of how she was righteous and they were not. She could have sent messages condemning Goneril and Regan of their wrongdoings or entreating Lear to change his mind for his own good, but she is silent. Shakespeare uses this absence of speech to once again highlight the virtue of love over words. Out of love, Cordelia stays silent rather than being accusatory even though it becomes evident early on that she behaved righteously and her family acted foolishly.
Upon Cordelia’s return to the play, she continues to exhibit wisdom by remaining true to her father despite his mistakes. The shedding of her tears as she reads the letter informing her of the king’s sad affairs and her sisters’ treachery is not words, but an act that shows her love, as is her decision to take back England for her father. She returns to the story with sincere actions, not vain speeches. Her loyalty has not waivered. She remains true to her father’s well-being right up to the end, sacrificing not just her land and her happiness, but ultimately her life.
Cordelia’s selfish sisters claim that they are about their father’s business. Their empty words provide a stark comparison of Cordelia’s true actions of self-sacrifice. Shakespeare uses Cordelia’s obedience in action to draw our minds to the book of I John: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.”
Jenni Carey is Lower School Curriculum Director and Middle School Humanities Teacher at School of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, MO.
Holy Bible, The. The New King James Version. (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers), 1996.
Merriam Webster Dictionary, The. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated), 2016.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster), 1992.
 William Shakespeare, King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster), 1992. (1.1.100-102).
 The Merriam Webster Dictionary, (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated), 2016.
 The Latin stem for heart is (cor, cors)
 William Shakespeare, King Lear. (1.1.95).
 Ibid., (1.1.103).
 Holy Bible. King James Version, (Proverbs 17:27-28)
 William Shakespeare, King Lear. (1.1.68).
 Ibid., (1.1.86-87).