Study Guide

King Lear Language and Communication

By William Shakespeare

Language and Communication

Act 1, Scene 1
Cordelia

CORDELIA, aside
What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent. (1.1.68)

Cordelia doesn't know how to respond to Lear's love test, especially since her sisters are full of empty flattery. Here, she decides she won't even try to give voice to her love for her father.

CORDELIA, aside
And yet not so, since I am sure my love's
More ponderous than my tongue. (1.1.86-87)

After Goneril and Regan bicker about who loves Lear the "most," Cordelia decides that her "love's more ponderous than [her] tongue." In other words, while Goneril and Regan talk as though their love is something quantifiable, Cordelia determines that her love for Lear cannot be measured with words.

Earl of Kent

KENT
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverb no hollowness.
KING LEAR
Kent, on thy life, no more.
KENT
My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose
   it,
Thy safety being the motive.
KING LEAR
Out of my sight! (1.1.171-179)

Kent is the only one who stands up to Lear after the king disowns Cordelia for refusing to flatter Lear. When Kent points out that Cordelia (not Goneril and Regan) loves Lear the most, he's told to shut his mouth, or else. But Kent won't be silenced—he's worried about Lear's safety so he speaks what's on his mind. His reward for being so blunt? Lear banishes him, of course.

Regan

REGAN
I am made of the self-same metal that my sister,
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love;
Only she comes too short, that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys
Which the most precious square of sense
   possesses,
And find I am alone felicitate
In your dear Highness' love. (1.1.76-84)

Here, Regan claims Goneril's profession of love for Lear falls "too short." Hmm. We seem to be detecting a pattern here. Both Goneril and Regan seem pretty determined to measure their so-called love for Lear, as if love is something quantifiable. We wonder how Cordelia will respond to all this. Keep reading…

King Lear

KING LEAR
[…] what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters'? Speak.
CORDELIA
Nothing, my lord.
KING LEAR
Nothing?
CORDELIA
Nothing.
KING LEAR
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.
CORDELIA
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, nor more nor less.
KING LEAR
How, how, Cordelia! Mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes. (1.1.94-104)

Although Cordelia is clearly Lear's most loving daughter, she refuses to participate in Lear's love test. Instead of professing her love and obedience like her two-faced sisters, Cordelia insists that she "cannot heave [her] heart into [her] mouth." In other words, Cordelia insists that her love for Lear is literally unspeakable. Brain Snack: Shakespeare seems to make a similar point in Sonnet 18, which is all about whether or not the poet can find words to convey how he truly feels about his beloved.

LEAR
Tell me, my
   daughters—
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state—
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest born, speak first. (1.1.52-59)

Now this is weird. According to an earlier conversation between Gloucester and Kent, King Lear has already decided how he'll divide his kingdom among his daughters. So, what's the point of Lear staging a love test to determine which woman will get the "largest bounty" (piece of land)? 

We might say there is no point—King Lear just wants his daughters to flatter him. Here, we see Lear isn't really interested in knowing who truly loves him most, he wants his daughters to express their feelings for him in a very public way.

Goneril

GONERIL
Sir, I love you more than words can wield the
   matter,
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty,
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare,
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable.
Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (1.1.60-67)

Goneril sure does lay it on thick, doesn't she? Even though she says her love for her father leaves her breathless and "unable" to speak, she still manages to find a bunch of empty, meaningless words to flatter him with.

Act 1, Scene 2
Edmund

EDMUND
[…] if this letter speed
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper. (1.2.20-22)

Notice any parallels between Edmund and Lear's wicked daughters, Goneril and Regan? Each character uses deceptive words to fool their fathers. When Edmund forges a letter in order to frame his brother and fool his father, it becomes pretty clear that language simply can't be trusted. FYI—Shakespeare uses a forged letter in his play, Twelfth Night, to make a similar point.

Act 1, Scene 4
King Lear

LEAR
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
FOOL
Lear's shadow. (1.4.236-237)

When Lear asks "who is it can tell me who I am?" it is his Fool who responds in an interesting and provocative way. The Fool's answer ("Lear's shadow") can be read in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it could mean the person who can tell Lear who he "is" is Lear's Fool (who is thought of as Lear's "shadow" because he follows or shadows Lear around the countryside).

Alternatively, we can read the line thus: Lear is nothing but a shadow, which suggests that Lear is merely a shadow of his former self now that he's given away all his land. In other words, the Fool is saying that Lear, (whose status has changed since retirement) is nothing without his former power and title. This is pretty ballsy, don't you think?

However we decide to read this passage, one thing is certain—Lear's Fool is one of the few people who ever tell it like it is.

Act 2, Scene 2
Earl of Kent

KENT
Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain:
I have seen better faces in my time
Than stands on any shoulder that I see
Before me now at this instant. (2.2.96-99)

Ooh, burn! After Kent strikes Oswald (because he doesn't like Oswald's face), he explains to Cornwall that it's just his personality to be blunt ("plain"), which is why he's being honest with Cornwall now when he says that he doesn't like the looks of Cornwall's face either. (What? Who says Shakespeare can't indulge himself by writing a little trash talk into his scenes?) 

For Kent, being completely honest and speaking the truth is a matter of pride, even if his big mouth gets him into trouble. So, even if we fault Kent for being so ridiculously loyal to King Lear, we've got to give him props for being so truthful.

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