Cordelia is King Lear's favorite daughter until she refuses to flatter the old man and gets booted out of the kingdom without a dowry. Soon after, she marries the King of France and raises an army to fight her wicked sisters and win back her father's land.
Cordelia is one of the few genuinely principled people in King Lear. Compared with her two sisters, she's a saint. Regan and Goneril flatter their father and then throw him out of the house once they've got his money. Cordelia, on the other hand, refuses to make a big public deal about her love for Lear and easily forgives her father when Lear comes to his senses. Cordelia's honesty and integrity contrast with her sisters' selfish insincerity.
Because of all this, it's easy for Cordelia to seem like a Cinderella figure and Regan and Goneril to seem like the wicked stepsisters. But Cordelia's character isn't one-dimensional; she's more than just "the good daughter." For one, she certainly shares her father's stubborn streak. Despite losing everything, she refuses to back down or give in during that first scene. Some critics have agreed with Lear and blamed Cordelia for being too proud. Cordelia claims that she "cannot heave / [her] heart into her mouth" –and claims that she is simply incapable of describing her love for her father (1.1). But considering how easily this girl criticizes her sisters, and later defends herself in front of the men she wants to marry, fear of public speaking is clearly not her problem.
So why does Cordelia refuse to go along with Lear's little game show-like love test? Seriously – an old man wants a little flattery – why not just go along with it?
The basic answer is that Cordelia is simply too principled – indeed, too authentic – to take part in something so tacky and so fake. In this way, Cordelia's behavior registers the play's concern with the fact that words can never accurately convey human feeling, which we talk about more in our theme discussion of "Language and Communication."
We also want to point out that a lot of Cordelia's motivation in the scene comes not from frustration with her father, but from anger at her sisters' insincerity. There's some serious sibling rivalry going on among the three of them, and it's not pretty. (Check out our discussion of "Family" for more on the significance of all the domestic drama in the play.) Cordelia tears into them at the end of the scene in a very unsaintly way.
Yet after the scenes of blinding, torture, and madness, there's something almost holy about Cordelia's reunion with Lear. Though such a contrast is essential, that doesn't mean their reunion is all sweetness and light. Cordelia may be brave enough to raise an army to bring to her father's defense, but when it comes to finally greeting her father, she hesitates. "He wakes; you speak to him," Cordelia tells the doctor (4.7). Only when the doctor tells her no does Cordelia try to speak to her father. Why is she hesitant? Is she afraid that Lear is still angry with her? Is she upset at having her father recognize that she is in a position of power over him?
At this point to we'd like interrupt and bring you some Scholarly Interpretations, chief among them the Christian interpretation of Cordelia's character. Cordelia does seem to demonstrate Christian virtues of mercy, charity, and honesty. Some have even argued that Cordelia is a Christ-figure, since she is an innocent who is put to death, and since Lear emerges carrying her, an obvious reference to the Pietà. (That's the familiar image of the Virgin Mary, Christ's mother, holding her dead son in her arms. Jesus and Cordelia are similar images, with the genders switched.) It's unclear, however, what Cordelia's death redeems – some scholars argue that her loss redeems Lear, but that's a rather controversial interpretation.
Feminist scholars, on the other hand, think that Cordelia is an unrealistic character. She's little more than a male fantasy, they argue. At the beginning, Cordelia resists her father's demands and asserts her own identity. She refuses to give all her love to her father and withholds some of it to bestow on her future husband. But by the end of the play, however, Cordelia's independence has disappeared. Lear's initial dream of having his daughter's love all to himself is realized when Lear and Cordelia go to prison together.
Lear's looking forward to "sing[ing] alone like birds'i'the'cage" is, by feminist interpretation, less a symbol of Lear's personal growth than proof that Lear hasn't changed at all (5.3). He wanted to monopolize Cordelia's love, and in prison, he will get to. Feminist scholars point out that Cordelia barely speaks at all during her last scene alive, and dies by strangulation – a symbolic representation of the fact that she no longer has a voice of her own.