One of the greatest tragedies of Shakespeare’s canon is that of Cordelia and her Father Lear, the King. They are separated at the beginning of the play due to what is essentially a misunderstanding and an attempt on Cordelia’s behalf to be honest and true to her Father. Right at the end of the play, Act 4 Scene 7, they are reunited, but it is bitter sweet. Lear at this stage has been so destroyed by age, his family’s actions and by tempestuous storms that his mind is now all but completely broken. Tragically, Father and daughter are unable to be fully reunited at this moment, and the play ends with the death of both characters before either is able to make their peace. This is a tragic and heartfelt monologue requiring great dedication and emotional commitment from the actor. Let’s take a look!
We begin the play by being introduced to King Lear’s illegitimate son, Edmund being introduced to the Earl of Kent, by the Earl of Gloucester.
Cut to: King Lear elderly and wanting to retire decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters; the two eldest, Goneril and Regan who flatter him and banishes Cordelia who loves him but doesn’t simply want to flatter him.This action by the king divides the kingdom, both figuratively and literally. Cordelia’s suitor, the Duke of Burgundy, rejects her once she is dowerless, but the King of France values her honesty and takes her as his wife. Lear’s kingdom is shared between Goneril and Regan and their suitors (the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, respectively). Lear plans to alternate living with each of them.
As we did in Act 1, we begin act 2 with Edmund who is determined to be recognised as a rightful son of Gloucester. So he persuades his father that his legitimate brother, Edgar, is plotting against Gloucester’s life. He then goes to tell Edgar that he is in grave danger, and so Edgar flees and disguises himself as a beggar. Edmund becomes a courtier to Goneril. Goneril meanwhile grows increasingly exasperated by the behaviour of Lear’s hundred mates who are making her life at Albany’s castle a pain in the neck, and reads her dad the riot act. Politely of course.
Soon after, Kent has returned from exile in disguise and manages to become a servant to Lear. Kent accompanies Lear when, still upset from her telling him off, curses Goneril and leaves. Lear goes, unannounced, to live with Regan and Cornwall who, it turns out, ain’t home and have gone out to visit Gloucester. When Lear arrives at Gloucester’s house to find Regan, she spurns him and his followers, namely his devoted companion, the Fool.
And so at the start of Act 3 we find Lear in a state. He’s in a deep regret about the decisions he’s made in regards to all three of his daughters. and where they’ve led him. And so, wandering out into a violent storm, he goes mad. Lear and his Fool run around in the storm until Gloucester takes them into a hut for shelter. He then seeks the aid of Kent to get them away to the coast, where Cordelia has landed with an army to fight for her father against her sisters and their husbands. Meanwhile, Edmund learns that Gloucester is aware of France’s impending invasion and betrays his father to Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril. Once Edmund leaves with Goneril to warn Albany about the invasion, Gloucester is arrested, and Regan and Cornwall gouge out Gloucester’s eyes. As they do this, a servant is overcome with rage and attacks Cornwall, mortally wounding him. Regan kills the servant and tells Gloucester that Edmund betrayed him. Then, just as she did to her father, she sends Gloucester out to wander the heath.
Edgar, in his disguise, meets his blinded father on the heath. Gloucester, sightless and failing to recognise Edgar’s voice, begs him to lead him to a cliff at Dover so that he may jump to his death. Now alone with Lear, Kent leads him to the French army, which is commanded by Cordelia. But Lear is half-mad and embarrassed by his earlier follies. At Regan’s instigation, Albany joins his forces with hers against the French. Meanwhile Edgar pretends to lead Gloucester to a cliff, then changes his voice and tells Gloucester he has miraculously survived a great fall. Lear appears, by now, completely mad. He rants that the whole world is corrupt and runs off.
Oswald appears, still looking for Edmund. On Regan’s orders, he tries to kill Gloucester but is killed by Edgar. Kent and Cordelia take charge of Lear and she says…
O you kind Gods,
Cure this great breach in his abused nature!
Th’untuned and jarring senses, O! wind up
Of this child-changed father.
Be govern’d by your knowledge, and proceed
I’th’sway of your own will. Is he array’d?
O my dear father! Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips, and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!
Had you not been their father, these white flakes
Did challenge pity on them. Was this a face
To be oppos’d against the warring winds?
To stand against the deep dread-bolt thunder?
In the most terrible and nimble stoke
Of quick, cross lightning? To watch – poor perdu! –
With this thin helm? Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire. And wast thou fain, poor father,
To hovel thee with swine and rogues forlorn,
In short and musty straw? Alack, alack!
‘Tis wonder that thy life and wits at once
Had not concluded all. He wakes; speak to him.
Nature: In this speech, nature refers to mind and consciousness, more so than the weather or the world.
Th’untuned: The untuned. Lear’s mind is ‘out of tune’ like a musical instrument
I’th’sway: “In the sway”- As you best see fit.
Perdu: a soldier assigned to extremely hazardous duty
Helm: Hemlet, but in this case Imogen is referring to Lear’s hair
Forlorn: Abandoned and lonely
Please, kind Gods, cure my Father’s madness! His mind is like an untuned instrument. This old man has become like a child in his mind because of the actions done to him by his children.
If you think we should wake him from his sleep, then we shall do so, you’re the doctor, you know best. Is he dressed?
Oh my dear Father, let this kiss restore your health and heal those wounds done to you by my sisters. If you hadn’t been their Father, your white hair would have made them pity you. Should this old face have had to endure that night’s stormy weather? To stay up all night with only this thin hair to keep you warm? Poor soldier. I would have let my enemy’s dog stay in by the fire on that terrible night, even if it bit me! And were you happy, poor father, to sleep on straw with pigs and homeless people? Dear dear! It’s a wonder you’re still alive and conscious at all. Hold on – he’s waking up. Speak to him.
Notes on Performance
The distance in time and relatability between us and this play should not diminish the relatability of this scene. When we strip away all the extraneous circumstances: The monarchy, the disloyal sisters, the castles, the wars, the banishments and the setting, what we are left with is a relationship between a Father and daughter. What’s more, the daughter is sitting by her Father’s bed in hospital and is trying to communicate with him and reconcile their relationship. Those circumstances are the foundation of what the actor needs to connect with in order to play this scene.
Playing Shakespeare sometimes intimidates us into believing we must play one thousand epic circumstances all at once. In reality, what’s far more important is that we connect with the deepest truths of each scene in a way which is relatable to us today. How many people in this day and age, I wonder, are currently nursing a parent who is affected by dementia or another age related degenerative illness? This is an ancient tragedy which is still very present in our society today. This fact of this scene poses a challenge to the actor: how willing are they to connect deeply with the circumstances of this relationship and allow their emotion and vulnerability to shine through it?
This soliloquy can not be self-affecting. Cordelia must constantly be searching for the answers and trying to solve the problem. There is no room in this speech for playing the victim or focusing on the obstacles. Additionally, even though this is a soliloquy, there are several people in the room at this stage and Cordelia is trying to elicit a response from her Father. The actor playing this role needs to be fighting for her objective and expecting a response at all times, not expecting to be given the space to speak.
Another challenge with Shakespeare generally is the risk of making everything grand. The archaic language and the exclamations like ‘O you kind Gods’ make us want to shout to the heavens. This scene demands the opposite. It is incredibly intimate and personal. If it were to be captured on camera it would be done in a whisper. The challenge then is to strive for intimacy and delicate detail whilst still managing to include the audience in the storytelling. This requires skilled voice work in particular: the actor must focus on the consonants in the words and their articulation in order to be heard clearly, rather than the volume of their voice.
Lear is a mammoth play to get your head around. When performing any Shakespearean text, it’s essential to know and understand the story, but for some of his plays this is easier said than done. With a text like Lear, I’d encourage you to read the play aloud with a group of friends. Hearing it out loud makes it a much easier task of understanding what’s happening and who your character is.
Even though you may feel as though Cordelia is a character far removed from you and your life, in reality there are a lot of relatable things to connect with in this moment. She is talking to someone she loves who is sick, and wishes to bring him back to consciousness so she may be able to connect with him fully one last time. The play ends in tragedy for Lear and Cordelia, but at this moment she doesn’t know that will be the case. She is pursuing life in this scene, rather than focusing on all the challenges which surround her.