The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0333 Thursday, 5 February 2004
From: David Crosby <
Date: Wednesday, 4 Feb 2004 10:58:55 -0600
Subject: 15.0316 Cordelia: Loss of Insolence (Studies in the
Comment: RE: SHK 15.0316 Cordelia: Loss of Insolence (Studies in the
It might be instructive to compare Cordelia's situation in the first
scene of Lear with that of several others who face similar examinations
by authority figures (often fathers or stand-ins for fathers):
Hermia, for example, has to answer before Duke Theseus her father's
charges of undutiful disobedience; Desdemona must face the Duke of
Venice to defend her choice of husband against her father's anger;
Isabella, though fatherless, must face an examination of her virtue from
Angelo, acting on behalf of the Duke of Vienna.
Each of these ingenues faces a rhetorical problem: how to appease an
accuser without giving up her personal will and/or principles. Each
employs certain rhetorical tropes: she makes reference to the weakness
of her position (she is a weak woman, she does not know how to speak in
such an august company or such a perilous situation, she is used to
keeping silence); she then discovers her voice and demonstrates that,
despite her weakness she is able to bandy words and avoid the traps that
have been set for her; finally her eloquence appeals, if not necessarily
to her accuser or judge, then certainly to certain witnesses to the
examination who are impressed with her innocence and her arguments.
King Lear opens with a ritual which demands the expression of filial
piety in exchange for rewards, but turns suddenly into an examination of
Cordelia when she cannot answer in the expected mode. Like Desdemona she
is confronted with a trick question: in the sight and hearing of her
suitors, France and Burgundy, she is asked to outbid her sisters in
expressing that all her love and duty belong to her father, and finds
that she "cannot heave/ [Her] heart into [her] mouth." (91-92).
But unlike Desdemona, she does not craft a clever and diplomatic answer;
instead she blurts out, "Nothing, my Lord" (1.1.87), and when warned
that this answer may cost her, she blunders on, "I love your Majesty/
According to my bond; no more nor less" (1.1.92-93).
By the time she recovers the usually witty and resourceful voice of the
Shakespearean accused, asking "Why have my sisters husbands, if they
say/ They love you all?" (1.1.99-100), and using wordplay against her
father by responding to his, "So young and so untender?", with the
stichomythic "So young, my lord, and true" (1.1.106,107), it is too
late, and Lear has passed sentence.
Like Hermia, she is reminded of the weakness of her position and the
penalty she can pay, when Lear threatens to take away her marriage
prospects: "Let it be so; thy truth then be thy dower" (1.1.101) She
will become a fatherless child. When Kent steps in to protest this
injustice, badgering Lear with strong rhetorical arguments and demanding
that he revoke his threat, he finds himself sharing the role and the
punishment of the accused.
Lear, like almost every other judge in Shakespeare, asserts the conceit
that once a decision is made, he cannot alter it, and he accuses Kent of
seeking to "make us break our vows,/ Which we durst never yet," and of
coming "betwixt our sentence and our power/ Which nor our nature nor our
place can bear" (1.1.168,170-171).
Although we can analyze the character of Cordelia based on her words and
actions in the first scene, we would do well to pay attention to the
conventions of scenecraft that Shakespeare used and reused when one of
his character's is accused before a judge and must defend herself/himself.
For those who are interested, I try to define the conventions
Shakespeare uses to construct "examination scenes" in an essay
forthcoming in the Journal of the Wooden O Symposium 2003, sponsored by
the Utah Shakespearean Festival.
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