“Speak!”: Cordelia, Mended Speech, and the Necessity of Language


King Lear and Cordelia, Bernard Partridge.

King Lear is a play fascinated with language. In it, styles come into conflict as much as do people, voices proliferate, language fragments and reforms, and words control the fates of people and kingdoms. However there is nothing and no one more central to the question of language in the play than she who rejects it from her first line: Cordelia, plainspoken lover of deeds, not words. In rejecting language, Cordelia raises the problem of representation, of the gap between the thing itself and the language which seeks to describe, capture, and convey it. In her conception of the world, there are concepts and things which escape expression, defy utterance and, rather than attempting to pin them down with half-right words, she rejects outright the medium which fails her as limited. Language, for Cordelia, is simply not good enough because it cannot always fit an exact word or set of words to a feeling, a thing, a person and so, unwilling to compromise, she chooses silence. When her silence, though, is misinterpreted, Cordelia is pushed back into the realm of language, forcing her to confront the problem she had rejected. Thus, Cordelia’s aim becomes to seek a solution to the problem of language, a quest which leads her to the attempted creation of a reductive form of language which tries to render language the closest thing possible to physical deed. For Cordelia, language becomes gesture, word becomes silence, silence becomes action. In this creation of a reductive language based in plainness and physicality, she attempts to excise from language the problem of the gap between object and referent, the problem of imprecision, which she so mistrusts. 

That King Lear is a play concerned with language is evident from the very first scene and Lear’s infamous “love-test,” which, it turns out, is not a test of love at all, but of language—and his daughters’ ability to wield it. Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters according to the degree of their love for him, but rather than testing that love through observation, action, or past experience, he determines to do it via speech right at that moment in court. His command to each of his daughters is to “Speak!” (I.i.53, 67, 86) and when he is dissatisfied with Cordelia’s answer, he does not ask her to love more and better (though that is ostensibly—though not actually—what is at stake), but to “mend [her] speech a little” (I.i.94). His test is not of their love, but of their language. Even did we live in a world without lies, this would not be a fair test of his daughters’ love, for it is a test of rhetoric, not feeling—a test to see which daughter can best bend language to her will. Lear, though, does not realize this because he has a skewed relation with language by virtue of his kingship. Having been king so long, he is used to his word literally being law. His commands are carried out, his will, once verbalized, is made a reality as soon as possible. This power of his kingly language to make what is said reality, he now takes to be the nature of all language: he thinks that whatever is spoken is true, is reality. Thus it seems natural to him to test his daughters’ love for him by asking for expressions of that love. He conflates the expression of the thing for the thing itself.

Cordelia, though, knows language for precisely what it is: a medium riddled with pitfalls, no perfect friend to authenticity nor representation. She determines immediately, in her first line in the play, to seal herself off linguistically: she will reject language (and with it rhetoric and theatricality), answering her own question “What shall Cordelia speak?” (I.i.61) not negatively (she might easily have answered “nothing” here), but positively: “love, and be silent” (I.i.61). This answer, while rejecting language and speech, already evinces Cordelia’s attempts to solve the problem presented by language through recourse to action. She will not speak, but she will love and let that action speak for her. Silence takes on the physicality of action here in conjunction with her injunction to herself to love. What is it though that makes Cordelia throw off language so quickly and so completely? Presumably she knows her sisters’ natures and knows their speeches to be empty rhetoric, however she never criticizes the inauthenticity of their language until after Lear has decided her fate, when she begs him to make it known that it was through no wrong action of her own that she fell out of favor, but merely because she did not possess “that glib and oily art / to speak and purpose not” (I.i.226-27)—implying that this is precisely what her sisters do possess. However, her initial decision to keep silent is not to highlight the inauthenticity of Goneril’s protestations of love; indeed, she hardly seems to be listening to her sister as she puzzles her problem out to herself, wondering how best to carry out her father’s command to speak and express verbally her love for him. Her silence is the conclusion of these thoughts. She decides love cannot be put into words—quite literally. Cordelia thinks language inadequate to convey her love so, instead, she will opt for silence rather than cheapen her love with unfit words. Silence, she thinks, will better convey the extent of her love for her father and, what’s more, she hopes it will surpass her sister’s claim because it is a literalization of it: where Goneril had claimed to love Lear “more than words can wield” (I.i.54) and then preceded to wield the words anyway, Cordelia means through her silence to proclaim the same thing entirely honestly.

Following Regan’s speech, Cordelia momentarily doubts her decision to “love, and be silent.” She has heard Goneril’s words and their effect on her father and now she has heard Regan surpass Goneril and can anticipate Lear’s response. There is no indication here that Cordelia feels any resentment towards her sisters nor that she feels the need to expose any emptiness of their rhetoric. Her worry, instead, is for herself and how her expression of love will be received. “Then poor Cordelia!” she cries, thinking that Lear will judge her love least worthy and give her the smallest portion, before consoling herself, saying “And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s / More ponderous than my tongue” (I.i.76-78). Cordelia remains convinced that her love for her father is inexpressible, beyond the scope of language, and that the best way to convey this inexpressibility is to avoid trying and to let the inexpressibility speak for itself. The weight of her love, she assures herself, is far greater than her tongue could ever begin to express—and since her tongue, judging by her sisters’ tongues, can probably express a lot if it chooses to, her love must be great indeed. It is this logic which comforts Cordelia and determines her to be steadfast in her silence when her turn comes, for she trusts her father to follow the same logic, recognizing the potential of her tongue and the subsequent implication for the magnitude of her love for him.

Cordelia’s downfall, then, is an overconfidence in the bond between herself and her father and a misunderstanding of his own relation to language—which is so different from her own. Lear, lover of language, cannot read the message coded in her silence and privileges the “fact” he reads in her refusal to verbally profess her love for him over the years of their relationship. She, like he, imagines everyone around her to have the same relationship to language she does—hyperawareness of its limitation—and so is shocked when her plan to outdo her sisters backfires and she is not even given the smallest portion of land, but is written out of her father’s life.

And yet, ironically, it is just the literal relation to language which her father mistakenly has and which brings Cordelia down that she seeks to achieve in the creation of her new form of language once she is forced back into a verbal sphere following the misinterpretation of her silence. Her father has asked her to “mend [her] speech a little” and she takes him literally, though rather than simply attempt to mend her speech, she attempts to mend all speech by removing from it that which she finds futile about it: its indirectness and imprecision. It is these two qualities which Cordelia’s idea of language’s limitations boil down to and which her attempt to render language action seeks to redress. Following Lear’s verdict on Cordelia’s future, she begins to condemn the actions of her more successful sisters, pointing out their glib oiliness as noted above and suggesting their cunning and duplicity. In casting these aspersions, Cordelia says that she lacks the verbal cunning of her sisters “since what I well intend, / I’ll do’t before I speak” (I.i.227-28), highlighting once again her preference for action over word and essentially setting out a framework for the style of language she will cultivate over the rest of the play:  language which will attempt to function as deed, rather than as language, giving it a quality of immediacy and literality which she hopes will bridge—or at least bypass—the gaps caused by language’s imprecision and indirection.

Cordelia’s language, which is not plainness, the style which characterizes Kent, is  nevertheless essentially reductive. In creating it, she rejects the rhetoric and theatricality which characterize the language of the court scenes and of Lear in the first two acts and attempts to create a language which acts, as often as possible, as physical deed (it is for this reason that most of Cordelia’s speeches in the play consist of sentences composed of only about one to three lines, each of these sentences serving an immediate purpose), but, when it cannot, operates in imitation of action, privileging immediacy and literality. The creation of this language begins even before she has need of it, in her first direct line of the play, “Nothing, my lord” (I.i.87). This “nothing” is the verbal correlative of the silence with which she has determined to answer her father. It is a word which functions not as a word, but as a deed, an action, and it sets the tone for the hybrid action-language she attempts to create throughout the rest of the play. In the recognition scene, Cordelia’s language is characterized by repetitions of stark phrases which, in their repeating, gain the immediacy of actions. As she repeats “And so I am, I am” and “No cause, no cause” (IV.vii.73,77) to her father, the words lose their immediate signification and become gestures, the verbalization of her reaching towards him, in comfort and love. Language becomes action, becomes immediate. The problem of linguistic signification’s inability to satisfactorily represent the described is avoided through the elision of the signification, rendering the words literal speech acts.

This is not to say that all of Cordelia’s language can be characterized under the umbrella of her linguistic experiment of trying to create a type of language free from the problems of representation. There are, of course, exceptions in her language, most obviously in her lyrical descriptions of Lear’s madness (which are, perhaps, largely due to her own frenzied grief), and these exceptions gently point to the inevitable impossibility of her project. As we shall see by the play’s end, linguistically, there are no exits in King Lear. Cordelia’s attempt can remain only an attempt; she cannot succeed because, in attempting to recuperate language by removing from it its imprecision, indirection, and representational problems, she attempts to deny its nature. That she dies is the seal of condemnation on her project.

Indeed, Cordelia dies far from blameless, which she recognizes to some degree in her very last speech, saying of herself and her father, “We are not the first / Who, with the best meaning, have incurred the worst,” (V.iii.3-4). Though she acknowledges some share of the blame, she has still not successfully identified the problem that caused her blame, that is, her mistrust of language (even with the best intentions), which proved the catalyst of the tragedy. Cordelia, in her constant quest to eliminate from language what she initially (and groundlessly) feared in it, never achieves the sort of self-knowledge that Lear does as a result of his experiences on the heath (experiences which, among many things, are highly linguistic). Her attempt to “mend” language and turn it into a paradoxical denial of itself can only ever be a partial palliative for language and its nature—imprecise, indirect, fluid, and in flux—cannot be denied. Even her rejection of the rhetoric and theatricality of the court language cannot be successful, as her creation of a different language is merely the adoption of another style, a different rhetoric. One of the deepest ironies of Cordelia’s self-blindness is the fact of her spectacular theatrical upstaging of her two sisters at the play’s very start, stealing the show with that very word symbolic of her attempt at a new language, “Nothing.”

Thus, despite Cordelia’s best efforts, language refuses to be mended. As the play ends and bodies fill the stage, it is language which—in its many various forms—has emerged triumphant. No one form has won out, proved itself “best,” but it, in its cacophony, has proved itself necessary and ineradicable, whether “broken” or not. As Edgar delivers his—and the play’s—parting remarks, embedded within them is a condemnation of Cordelia’s early failing: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” (V.iii.324) he enjoins us. Too quick a reading of this makes it sound an endorsement of Cordelia’s decision at the beginning of the play, but it is not. Essential in Edgar’s advice is that first word “speak,” that very action which Cordelia is so reluctant to embrace. Cordelia would wish to act what she feels and by her silence and her establishing of a verbal correlative of silence she does just that—avoiding and condemning speech and language. But in these last lines, Edgar and Shakespeare (and it is hardly surprising that a playwright of all people should come down on speech and language thus) entreat the reader, the viewer, not to make the same mistake. Speak, they tell us, embrace language in all its imperfections, verbalize our feelings, lest we risk the vital disconnections and misinterpretations with which the play is rife.


Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. 1251-1339. Print. Vol. B of The Norton Anthology of English Literature.


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