Cordelia: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave…”
King Lear. Arguably Shakespeare’s greatest work and considered by many to be one of the finest pieces of English literature and it’s certainly a gift for any actor. This epic tragedy begins to unravel from the very first scene, and unlike some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies King Lear is completely to blame for what happens. So before I start ripping into the old man let’s take a look at how we can better understand and nail Cordelia’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 1.
King Lear Synopsis
If you are working on any monologue from a Shakespeare play it is imperative to read the play. And yes I get it, King Lear is over 3 hours long. Suck it up and get yourself a copy, a cup of tea, and get reading. That said, even having read a Shakespeare play you can often still feel a little clueless. I always love to watch one of these quick overviews to make sure I have the story under control.
Cordelia Monologue (Act 1 Scene 1 ) – Original Text
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour 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.
Haply: perhaps, maybe, by chance, with luck
Bond: duty, obligation
Begot: bring a child into existence
Plight: pledge, promise, marriage vow
Unhappy as I am, I can’t express in words the emotions that are in my heart. I love your Majesty according to my duty as a daughter. No more, no less.
My honourable lord, you have conceived me, raised me up and loved me. I return those duties as is fair – obey you, love you, and honour you entirely.
Why do my sisters have husbands if they say they love you exclusively? If with luck I get married, that man who takes my hand in marriage will get half my love, half my care and duty. Certainly, I’ll never marry like my sisters to love my father totally.
Notes on Performance
Cordelia is not willing to play along with the love contest her father is trying to play. Unlike her sisters, who are willing to flatter their father to no end to get their inheritance, Cordelia will not play along. This offers some choices for actors. Why doesn’t Cordelia simply give her father the compliments he is asking for? She is known to be the favourite daughter, but is risking her inheritance ( one third of the kingdom) by not playing along. We know from the evidence in the play that Cordelia is much more honourable, and loving than her sisters, and so my advice is to see this as a sincere and honest appeal to her father. Her answer is fair and balanced.