Cordelia (King Lear)

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Creator William Shakespeare
Play King Lear

Cordelia is a fictional character in William Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear. She is the youngest of King Lear’s three daughters, and his favourite. After her elderly father offers her the opportunity to profess her love to him in return for one third of the land in his kingdom, she refuses and is banished for the majority of the play.


Shakespeare had numerous resources to consult while writing King Lear. The oldest source in print was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, c.1136.[1] This is the earliest written record of Cordelia. Here she is depicted as Queen Cordelia.

Role in play[edit]

Ford Madox Brown, Cordelia's Portion


In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Cordelia is briefly on stage during the first act, to return only in Act 4, scene 4. Her exile by Lear is the result of her honest, yet unacceptable response when he asks for professions of love from his three daughters in Act 1, scene 1, while he is determining how to divide the lands of his kingdom between the three of them. Cordelia's sisters, Goneril and Regan, give deceitfully lavish speeches professing their love, a demonstration in which Cordelia will not partake, seeing right through her sister's feigned professions. She will not give a superfluous answer, the one she presents ("Love, and be silent" 1.1.62) being deemed too simple, notwithstanding its depth.[2] Lear asks her, “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.” (1.1.84-5). Cordelia replies, “Nothing, my lord.” (1.1.86). She continues, “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty / According to my bond; no more nor less.” (1.1 90-2). Cordelia’s ability to differentiate love from property is far different from her father’s ability to do so. Feeling outraged and humiliated, Lear banishes Cordelia from the kingdom.[3]

Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911) Cordelia's Farewell, King Lear, Act I, Scene I

The ending[edit]

King Lear mourns Cordelia's death, James Barry, 1786–1788

Cordelia was always Lear’s favorite daughter. After Lear is rejected by Goneril and Regan, the wicked sisters, he goes mad. Cordelia returns at the end of the play with the intentions of helping him, ultimately reversing her role as daughter to that of mother.[4] But when she arrives, Lear does not even recognize her in his state of madness. Nevertheless, she forgives him for banishing her. By the time Lear finally regains his reason and realizes who Cordelia is, they have little time to talk and reconcile, for Edmund arrives and sends them to prison, where Cordelia is ultimately hanged. In Nahum Tate's "happy-ending" revision The History of King Lear (1681), which replaced Shakespeare's original version on stage for decades, Cordelia marries Edgar and becomes ruler of the kingdom.[5]

Performance on screen[edit]

  • Romola Garai. King Lear (2009) PBS Dir. Sir Trevor Nunn and Chris Hunt
  • Phillipa Peak. King Lear (1999) Dir. Brian Blessed & Tony Rotherham
  • Victoria Hamilton. Performance King Lear (1998) Dir. Richard Eyre
  • Anna Calder-Marshall. King Lear (1983) (TV) Dir. Michael Elliott
  • Brenda Blethyn. King Lear (1982) (TV) Dir. Jonathan Miller
  • Wendy Allnutt. King Lear (1976) (TV) Dir. Tony Davenall
  • Lee Chamberlin. King Lear (1974) (TV) Dir. Edwin Sherin
  • Anne-Lise Gabold. King Lear (1971 UK Film) Dir. Peter Brook
  • Valentina Shendrikova. Korol Lir (1971 USSR Film) Dir. Grigori Kozintsev & Iosif Shapiro
  • Natasha Parry. King Lear (1953) (TV) Dir. Andrew McCullough

Further reading[edit]

  • Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. Ivy Books, 1996. Print.
  • Fischlin, Daniel and Fortier, Mark. Adaptations of Shakespeare. Feinstein, Elain and the Women’s Theatre Group. Lear’s Daughters. 215-232. Routledge, 2000. Print
  • Hamilton, Sharon. "Shakespeare's Daughters". 151-175. McFarland & Company, 2003. Print


  1. ^ Milton, John. The History of Britain. Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Volume V. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1648-1671.
  2. ^ Milard, Barbara C. Virago with a Soft Voice: Cordelia’s Tragic Rebellion in King Lear. Philosophical Quarterly 68.2 (1989): Gale Literature Resources Center. Web 25 March 2010.
  3. ^ Shakespeare, William. King Lear. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. Ed. Greenblatt, Cohen, Howard, Maus. W.W Norton and Company, 1997. pp. 707-781.
  4. ^ McFarland, Thomas. The Image of Family in King Lear. Shakespearean Criticism Vol. 73. 2003. Gale Literature Resources Center, Web. 25 March 2010.
  5. ^ Spencer, Christopher. Five Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare. Tate, Nahum. The History of King Lear. University of Illinois Press, 1965. pp. 203-274.

External links[edit]