Power, Gender, and Cordelia in King Lear

Out of all the characters in King Lear, Cordelia seems to hold the most consistent power. She is always righteous, speaking the truth to her father and being the only one of her sisters that truly respects and cares for him. She is looked to as the head of the French invasion, as her husband, the King of France, is only represented in the play to a small extent. Others respect her and look up to her, like Kent and the Gentleman. However, her role in the greater story still supports the idea that women play a lesser role in society than men, or are at least not suited to hold real power.

Goneril and Regan, Cordelia’s sisters, directly demonstrate the underlying idea in the play that women should not hold power. They are portrayed as corrupt, evil characters taking over their households. They are emotional and rash, which ends up leading to their demise. And they are still acting as they do in the context of another man, as their obsession with Edmund becomes a central part of their motivations. Furthermore, the specific ways their demonic nature is described relates to their roles as women, making it clear that women cannot hold power because they are not rational enough for it. Yet, the same does not hold true Cordelia. She has power while also being rational and respected. But her portrayal in the play still underscores the powerlessness of women, just in a different way than Goneril and Regan. 

The main reason for this is that she is portrayed as unreal. She is not present for almost all of the play, only appearing at the end with her father. Furthermore, both her actions and how she is described make her seem like a femine goddess. For example, the Gentleman’s description of her in act four focuses on her physical features and her overall otherworldliness. The way she acts only emphasizes this. This makes her power, though she does have it, seem unreal, devaluing any possible message about how women can have any power in society. And it also makes it seem like she has power because she is the perfect femine character, not because she tries to take it or is suited to have it like the male characters.

The end of the play further shows how Cordelia, even with her power, plays a lesser role in society. She tragically dies, killed by Edmund’s orders, which appears to serve as a way to make Lear’s downfall more tragic. This makes it seem like her entire purpose in the play is to tragically die, again devaluing the power she has. Therefore, even though Cordelia does have power, her character does not demonstrate the idea that women can hold power. Instead, it is another example of women being portrayed as lesser compared to men.