Cordelia, painted by John Rogers Herbert in 1850.

Cordelia, painted by John Rogers Herbert in 1850.


Cordelia: Purity and strength in a Shakespearean tragedy

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.
– Cordelia (lines 90-93, King Lear)

Cordelia has been described as the purest and strongest of Shakespeare’s characters. In the quote above, taken from Shakespeare’s tragic play King Lear, Cordelia refuses to tell her father how much she loves him in order to receive a third of his kingdom when he dies. While her two sisters take this opportunity to impress their father (and win as much of his kingdom as possible), Cordelia states that she loves her father the king, but will not do as he asks. Enraged, the King banishes Cordelia from the kingdom. The other sisters scheme and plot in her absence, throwing the king off his throne and out of his palace. As the king stumbles around his kingdom, going increasingly mad, Cordelia returns to look after her father. Sadly they are captured, imprisoned and sentenced to death by Cordelia’s sisters.

While Cordelia speaks only about a hundred lines, her words and presence seem to fill the play, making her one of the most powerful characters, a quiet but potent power established with her refusal at the beginning of the play to compete with her sisters for her inheritance, and setting into motion a tragic story of betrayal and greed. Cordelia can be seen as an idealised woman: virtuous, modest and sacrificing herself for what is right, avoiding the competitive, scheming and greedy nature of her sisters who, in the end, destroy the peace of the kingdom. While this side of her character could be seen as man’s idea of ‘heavenly beauty’ and female modesty, she is a complex character, inheriting her father’s stubborn nature, demanding independence from both her father and suggested husbands–a brave and steadfast woman, standing by what she believes is right yet in the end forgiving her father for his weakness and arrogance.

-Sarah Raine
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

Pin It on Pinterest