In Act I, scene 4 of William Shakespeare's King Lear, what does Lear mean when he says that a small fault in Cordelia "like an engine wrenched my frame of nature / From the fixed place, drew from my heart all love"?
In Act 1, scene 4 of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear, Lear expresses his anger toward his daughter Goneril and regrets his earlier treatment of Cordelia, the daughter who, he now realizes, truly loved him:
O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!
Which, like an engine, wrench'd my frame of nature
From the fix'd place . . . .
Lear means that Cordelia’s minor act of disobedience appeared very unattractive to him. That minor act of disobedience was like a lever or some other kind of mechanism (“an engine”) that had the ability to overturn or topple Lear’s usual disposition – his natural and proper temperament (“frame of nature”) – thereby making it fall or shift from foundations that had seemed secured or “fixed.” It is as if Lear’s mind were a building that was knocked off its foundations by some mechanism.
This is just one of many moments in the play in which we sense that order has collapsed, that what seemed strong and reliable has crumbled in the face of unusual pressure. Archimedes was said that if he had a lever, he could move the world, and Lear feels as if his entire mental universe has been shaken from the ground up.
Some editions of the play suggest that the word “engine” here does not refer to a “siege engine,” the kind of gigantic mechanisms sometimes built and employed in battles to assault heavily fortified positions, such as castles. Yet it is hard to hear Lear’s reference to “an engine” and not think of siege engines, and so perhaps siege engines were in the minds of many of the listeners who first heard these words when the actor playing Lear first uttered them.