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Analysis of the Death of Cordelia
The play subverts the genre of tragedy by offering a promise of fulfillment and
yet delivering the opposite.(Epstein)
As it is defined, a tragedy is a drama or literary work in which the main character
is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw,
a moral weakness, or an inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances. Clearly, upon
review of this definition, it can be accurately asserted that King Lear is a tragedy, and by
all means, it is, yet there is something different about this tragedy, something more
painful. For some reason, the death of Cordelia slaps the reader across the face in a more
painful way then the death of any other Shakespearean character. When Romeo & Juliet
die, the reader understands why, when Hamlet dies, the reader understands why, but when
Cordelia dies, the reader is forced to question the meaning of her death. Simply, the
reader finds him or herself saying, as a three year old would say, that s not fair! As
Lear enters on stage holding the dead Cordelia in his arms, we immediately begin to
question the meaning of her death.
In King Lear, as in all tragedies, the death of each character is marked by a tragic
flaw. Lear s flaw is his inability to make the right decision, and his lack of clear vision.
This can be seen immediately, when he decides that he will divide his kingdom among
his three daughters based on the degree to which they express their love. Gloucester s
tragic flaw is also portrayed in the first scene of the play, when we find out that he has an
illegitimate son. The fact that he was unfaithful lead to the birth of Edmund, which
eventually would come back to kill him. Cordelia s tragic flaw, on the other hand, is
made a lot less clear. In fact, some would argue that she does not have a tragic flaw, and
therefore, her death is not justified. And while is it certain that Cordelia did not
deserve such an ending, an analysis of her character can show some justification for her
When listening to her two sisters claim their utmost love for their father, Cordelia
knew that her sisters were speaking superficially. She understood that her sisters cared
more about getting something from Lear than they did about actually loving their father.
And this was a good thing, for it showed that Cordelia was able to see through her sisters,
an ability her father lacked. It was also a good thing that Cordelia decided to do
something about it, because had she not done anything, she would be just as cowardly as
her sisters. However, the way she went about it is where her tragic flaw lies.
In response to Goneril s speech, Cordelia says aside to herself, What shall
Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.( I. i. 68) Then, after Regan tells of her love for
Lear, Cordelia again speaks aside, Then poor Cordelia! And yet not so, since I am sure
my love s/ More ponderous than my tongue.( I. i. 85-87) It is here that the reader begins
to understand Cordelia, and at first, it is thought that she is doing the right thing when she
decides not to speak. But, at this point, the reader knows little about the character of Lear
as both a king and a father. Cordelia, on the other hand, Lear s daughter, should have
been able to foresee the manner in which her father would respond to her silence.
Cordelia made a mockery of her father in public, and this was not only a threat to him as a
person, but it also threatened his integrity as King. Had Lear not banished Cordelia, he
would have given off a weak impression, something a King cannot afford to do. Cordelia
should have been able to see through this, after all, she was able to see through her sisters.
And while it was a good thing that she didn t fraudulently claim her utmost love for her
father, she could have spoken something; something that would have prevented her
Clearly, when one examines Cordelia s statements and decisions throughout the
play, her tragic flaw is recognized. Cordelia s flaw is that she is too idealistic, and
therefore, she refuses to say things that will compromise a situation. Rather, she always
speaks the extreme, or does not speak at all, something even more extreme. In King Lear,
Shakespeare portrays a dark view of the world, and Cordelia s unfortunate death marks
this darkness with an exclamation point.
1. Epstein, Paul. The Purgation of the Hero in Shakespearian Tragedy
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