Tag Archives: character: cordelia

Parents, siblings, and pronouns

(I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but between grading, recovering from grading, attending friends’ weddings, and going to a conference, I never quite managed it.)  

When I cast my eye back over 1.1 of King Lear, I was surprised to find – given how slightingly he speaks of his illegitimate son Edmund – that Gloucester doesn’t resort to the informal or familiar pronoun “thou,” which would be appropriate from a father to a son. Instead, in the only sentence in 1.1 that requires him to choose between the two pronouns (only two of his sentences here are addressed to Edmund, and the other is a command with no pronoun), he opts for the unmarked “you”: “Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” (1.1.23-4). 

As king, however, Lear marks distinctions more clearly. He uses the formal “you” when addressing Albany, Burgundy, and the King of France, but, as one might expect, chooses “thou” and “thee” when speaking to his daughters – up to a point. As I’m sure others have noted, Lear speaks to Cordelia at first using “you,” setting her apart from her sisters: “what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters?” (1.1.85-6, my emphasis). With pronouns, context is everything: since it’s Lear’s prerogative to use “thou,” and because he does use it to address Goneril and Regan, his use of “you” here speaks to the special relationship he has with Cordelia. Even when she fails to flatter him as he expects her to, he clings to the unmarked pronoun a little longer: “How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, / Lest you may mar your fortunes” (1.1.94-5). But after this point, Lear’s switch to “thou” reads as contemptuous: “Let it be so, thy truth then be thy dower!”; “And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this forever” (1.1.109; 1.1.116-7).

Between love and contempt, though, there’s one more use of the informal pronoun. “But goes thy heart with this?” (1.1.105), Lear asks Cordelia, giving her one more chance to recant her statements of dutiful love and replace them with something more fulsome (or more appropriate to the occasion, depending on how you see Lear’s demands for proof of affection). How should we read this moment? Is Lear pleading with Cordelia, switching to “thy” to call up an even closer intimacy? Is he reminding Cordelia that she is his daughter and his subject, and as such should demonstrate a double obedience to his desires? Or does this pronoun mark the very beginning of the boiling rage that will see Lear banish his youngest daughter? What I love about the shifts in early modern pronoun use is that often, it’s not entirely clear how we should read these moments; they can be messy and indeterminate, just like the emotions they represent. These pronouns highlight social relationships, but don’t prescribe them – leaving open possibilities for interpretation and performance.

One negotiation between pronouns in Lear, though, is much more purposeful in its effects. When Edmund plots to take his brother Edgar’s land, he does so by convincing their father that Edgar planned to murder him, and tried to enlist Edmund’s help in the affair. To do this, he recounts a supposed dialogue between himself and Edgar, in which Edgar readily insults Edmund: 

When I dissuaded him from his intent

And found him pight to do it, with curst speech

I threatened to discover him. He replied,

Thou unpossessing bastard, dost thou think,

If I would stand against thee, would the reposal

Of any trust, virtue, or worth in thee

Make thy words faithed?’…   (2.1.64-70, my emphasis) 

This speech reveals again to us that Edmund is a canny, consummate liar; he even remembers to manipulate pronoun use in addition to using direct insult (“Thou unpossessing bastard”). Because, of course, Edgar never actually speaks to Edmund in such a way. In fact, he insists on the familial connection between them in his first line in the play: “How now, brother Edmund; what serious contemplation are you in?” (1.2.138-9). Not “bastard,” but “brother”; and never “thou,” but always “you.” (Edmund, unsettlingly chameleon-like, responds in kind; Edgar addresses him twice as “brother” in 1.2, and both times Edmund parrots the word back in the next line – allowing Edgar to believe that he reciprocates the apparent affection that Edgar freely gives.) 

Edmund’s sly declarations have their desired effect, and Gloucester promises that he will find a way for Edmund to inherit instead of Edgar: “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable” (2.1.84-5). And here, we get the familiar pronoun from Gloucester that we didn’t get in the first scene – remarkably, only his second use of the familiar pronoun to Edmund, and the other instance similarly deals with the offer of some kind of reward. When he asks Edmund to investigate the “plot” against him in 1.2, he begs, “Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall lose thee nothing” (1.2.115-6). One wonders, at this point in the play, whether Gloucester possesses a language of affection that doesn’t involve payment of some kind – though of course, he seems to share that lack with his sovereign as well. 


Text: King Lear, ed. Stephen Orgel (Penguin, 1999).


How not to introduce your children to strangers

Last week’s meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, as always, inspired me: I saw old friends and met new ones, and saw and heard much that will fuel my thinking and teaching for some time to come. In particular, two stimulating talks on the weight of greetings in Shakespeare, by Lynne Magnusson and David Hillman, have made me want to revisit the very beginning of King Lear, and the way Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, is introduced to us in the play. He enters with Gloucester and Kent, but we don’t know how he might be related to either of the two men until Kent hazards, “Is not this your son, my lord?” (1.1.7). A perfect opening for an introduction and a greeting – and yet Gloucester completely fails to take it, instead forcing Edmund to stand by while he makes bawdy jokes about Edmund’s conception and illegitimacy. Kent tries again to get the script back on track with an awkward return to Edmund’s actual presence – “I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper” (1.1.16-17) – but Gloucester again dodges his social responsibility, talking instead about his elder (and legitimate) son Edgar, then cracking yet more jokes about Edmund, until finally arriving at the tactless segue, “…and the whoreson must be acknowledged. Do you know this noble gentleman, Edmund?” (1.1.22-24). (Really, I shudder to think what Gloucester would be like at parties.)

The brief interaction between the three men, even after such unpromising beginnings, is perfectly decorous, but also revealing:

EDMUND                  No, my lord.

GLOUCESTER          My lord of Kent: remember him hereafter, as my honourable friend.

EDMUND                  My services to your lordship.

KENT                         I must love you, and sue to know you better.

EDMUND                  Sir, I shall study deserving.                (1.1.25-30)

The modal verb in Kent’s gracious reply (“I must love you, and sue to know you better”) speaks eloquently – as the rest of the scene, with Lear’s love test, will go on to do – of the ways in which love is a social obligation: not just a fickle, fleeting passion, but part of the bedrock of interaction. Love is a duty, not a mere feeling – a concept that might be foreign to many of us raised on the idea that love should always be based in individual, private feeling. We should love because we want to, not because we have to. [1] But this exchange of compliments attempts, at least, to create a different kind of love – one that will bring Edmund in out of the cold and into the community’s fold, as Kent tries to solidify Edmund’s status as Gloucester’s son, however inappropriately he might have come into the world.

That moment of community, however, is all too brief, as Gloucester dismisses Edmund as perfunctorily as he introduced him, telling Kent, “He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again” (1.1.31-2). Edmund is by no means one of my favorite Shakespeare characters, or even my favorite of Gloucester’s two sons (my heart belongs to Edgar, thanks to that stunning soliloquy of his), but that sentence still reads to me like a slap in the face, every time. Gloucester seems not even to care where Edmund has been, or where he’ll return to, sparing only the vaguest words “out” and “away” with which to dispose of his son. And in introducing him only to send him away again, he denies even the possibility that Edmund might be able to build sustained, long-term connections with his father’s friends, men like Kent.

A tiny detail later in the play constructs exactly the opposite picture of Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar. As Edmund schemes to convince Gloucester and the court to believe that Edgar had designs to kill his father and inherit his lands, Lear’s daughter Regan exclaims in shock, “What, did my father’s godson seek your life? / He whom my father named, your Edgar?” (2.1.91-2). In those two lines, we realize that Edgar has been closely knit into this society from birth, that his ties of kinship are far-ranging – that whereas Edmund is all but unknown to his father’s friends and barely even given a proper greeting before being packed off, Edgar’s name – that is, his greeting into the world, and his introduction ever after  – was given to him by the king himself. Which must make the wrench of Edgar’s sudden and undeserved severing from that world even more shocking for him – but I hope to have more to say about that in a future post.


Text: King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997).


[1]This is not the place, perhaps, for a lengthy defense of Cordelia’s actions during the love test – though I have one – but I think it is worth noting that when she describes her love for her father, her language is perfectly in keeping with this language of love as social obligation:

                               Good my lord,

You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I

Return those duties back as are right fit,

Obey you, love you, and most honor you. (1.1.95-98)

This is not an alien tongue in the world of King Lear, even if Lear refuses to understand it for what it is, and how much it matters.