In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the aging king decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia. To show that they are worthy of his gift, he asks them to prove their love for him by telling him how much they love him. Whilst Regan and Goneril happily oblige, Cordelia refuses to engage in any kind of flattery by saying, “unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.” She simply states, “I love your majesty according to my bond; no more nor less.”
Lear’s reaction of rage seems unnecessarily irate, harsh and misplaced, given that Cordelia is not saying that she doesn’t love him at all—in fact, she states clearly that she does. By not engaging in sweet talking her father, she is by far the most honest of Lear’s three daughters, but sadly, her father realizes this only when it is too late.
However, the misery that then comes upon Lear as a consequence of his actions seems equally very harsh. To say that he deserves this would be a very cold-hearted statement, void of any empathy or sympathy. Seeking confirmation of love from one's children and not getting it from one of them, at least not to the extent that one had hoped for, would be upsetting for most people.
Cordelia does the right thing by remaining truthful and honest, in contrast to her sisters. Therefore, she cannot be accused of filial impiety, as she treated her father with the respect he deserved by being honest. Unfortunately, Lear failed to recognize that and disowned Cordelia—a reaction which was undoubtedly wrong.
However, it appears that the punishment for Lear's actions is harsh. Experiencing two of his daughters turning away from him upon having received what they wanted was a very painful lesson for Lear. Losing Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loved him, on top of this already very painful experience seems a very horrible and superfluous twist of fate. One can assume that Lear would have already learned his lesson at this point, which makes the additional punishment, the death of Cordelia, unnecessarily cruel.
I therefore come to the conclusion that it is sympathy that should be felt for Lear. He made a mistake and overreacted, and he had to suffer horrible consequences as a result.