The tragedy of Shakespeare’s King Lear is made far more tragic and painful by the presence and suffering of the king’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. While our sympathy for the king is somewhat restrained by his brutal cruelty towards others, there is nothing to dampen our emotional response to Cordelia’s suffering. Nothing, that is, at first glance. Harley Granville-Barker justifies her irreconcilable fate thus: “the tragic truth about life to the Shakespeare that wrote King Lear… includes its capricious cruelty. And what meeter sacrifice to this than Cordelia?”5 Yet in another passage Granville-Barker has come much closer to touching on the real explanation. I quote the passage at length.
It will be a fatal error to present Cordelia as a meek saint. She has more than a touch of her father in her. She is as proud as he is, and as obstinate, for all her sweetness and her youth. And, being young, she answers uncalculatingly with pride to his pride even as later she answers with pity to his misery. To miss this likeness between the two is to miss Shakespeare’s first important dramatic effect; the mighty old man and the frail child, confronted, and each unyielding… If age owes some tolerance to youth, it may be thought too that youth owes to age and fatherhood something more–and less–than the truth…6
Again he sums it up:
Pride unchecked in Lear has grown monstrous and diseased with his years. In her youth it shows unspoiled, it is in flower. But it is the same pride.7
As in his portrayal of Desdemona, here too Shakespeare has presented a woman of beauty and culture. Her demeanor is gentle and refined though not lacking in strength or determination. Her emotions are deep, pure, loyal and e…
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound
When majesty falls to folly. (I.i.144-8)
The immediate result is the order for his own exile from the kingdom and his donning a disguise so that he may continue his service to Lear.
It is noteworthy that none of the truly evil characters in the drama have yet taken a conscious initiative. Up to this point everything centers around the interaction of Lear, Cordelia and Kent and all the terrible sufferings which follow have their source in this encounter. To rightly comprehend King Lear, we must see the true significance of the court and the direct relationship between it and the tragedy that follows. We must discover the source of the great intensity and direction which finds expression in the action of the drama, and carries it to its inexorable conclusion.