Please explain Cordelia as a tragic figure in King Lear.

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As he grew older, wiser, and more experienced, successful, and confident as a playwright, Shakespeare learned he could express his own views and feelings through his characters. Cordelia here is telling the truth about human nature, evolution, and parent-child--especially father-daughter--relations. Little girls typically adore their fathers up to a certain age, but evolution has programmed them to turn their attentions and affections away to young and unrelated males. In modern life we see adolescent girls develop an interest in actors, rock stars, and others they used to call "those horrid boys!" Fathers, like Lear, continue to love their children as before, but they find themselves quarreling with their sons and have to realize that their daughters no longer consider them handsome, or wise, or funny. 

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honor you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Cordelia is stating the simple fact that when girls reach adolescence they develop interests in males other than their fathers--although their fathers hopefully may serve as models of the kind of husbands the girls would like to have. 

Goneril and Regan have long since seen through their dad and have completely broken away from him emotionally--but Lear still had hopes for Cordelia.

I loved her most, and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery

He is a selfish old man. He wouldn't mind keeping her beside him until he died and she was too old to get married. One of the many things he has to learn through his coming ordeal is concern for other people.

Since Juliet was only thirteen in Romeo and Juliet, we might suppose that Cordelia is not much older. Lear is astonished by her apparent change, although he is only experiencing what most fathers will have to accept in their little girls when the time comes:

So young, and so untender?

Cordelia still seems as candid as a child. This seems to be the only way of explaining why she is so uncompromisingly honest. She speaks the truth because she doesn't know how to lie. This takes age and experience--but we all have to learn what the Fool tells Lear:

Truth's a dog must to kennel.

Cordelia's candor costs her one-third of a kingdom and eventually her life.

parkerlee eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As she was the only "true" daughter of Lear but was punished for her virtue instead of her vice, Cordelia is NOT a typical tragic figure per se. (No character weakness untimately leads to her downfall.) However, in the more ancient Greek viewpoint of "hubris," she could indeed be considered a tragic hero in that she refused to play the role of the subservient and fawning daughter and then suffered the consequences. The idea in the latter is that it is useless to strive against destiny or fate, and when one does indeed do so, he or she is punished for having defied the "will of the gods" (in this case the will of her ageing father). Ironically, it its Lear and not Cordelia who is guilty of pride, but in the outcome and denouement of events, they both have to "pay."

kc4u | Student

In Shakespeare's dramatisation of the story of King Lear and his three daughters, Cordelia is the youngest and the most loved of the three daughters of the old king. Cordelia seems to be a Cinderella figure, with Regan & Goneril as the wicked step-sisters. She is the 'good daughter' who refuses to quantify her love for her father while the other two sisters flatter their father to get their shares of kingdom. Cordelia is banished by Lear from the kingdom for her stubborn repetition of 'nothing', and she leaves as the bride of the king of France. Later in the play, when the old king is abused by his two 'Pelican daughters' and driven out into the open, storm-tossed heath, it is Cordelia who raises an army to land in Dover for her father's rescue. But unfortunately, Lear's 'good daughter' is intercepted and hanged to death by the wicked daughters and their accomplices.

Cordelia's banishment from the kingdom of her father's love, her failed attempt to rescue her wronged father from the tyranny of her wicked sisters, her pathetic death--all make her a tragic figure. Her refusal to flatter Lear with false rhetoric of love and loyalty must have been Cordelia's tragic flaw/error. Some regard her rigid iteration of the word 'nothing' as a sign of stubborn pride which leads to her banishment and tragic death. There are others who see Coredelia's refusal to appease her father in a game show of love as a mark of her authentic and truthful character. Why should a daughter stand up to the foolish indignities of an oral test of love?

Cordelia represents the Christian virtues of mercy, charity & honesty. She could even be seen as a Christ-figure, an innocent lamb sacrificed. Codelia is defeated and dead, but she transcends her traditional female role, and emerging as a moral hero upholding the virtues of loyalty and truth.