How does Cordelia die?
October 4, 2012
In Act 5 Scene 3 of King Lear, Shakespeare wrote arguably one of the most powerful of his few stage directions.
'Enter Lear with Cordelia in his arms' has given us one of the key on-stage images associated with the play - a moment so moving and powerful that, for over a hundred years, it was considered too unbearably painful to be performed.
But how does Cordelia actually die? Shakespeare relies on his audience to be quite attentive on this point. When Edmund orders her death, it is in the form of a note that is never read aloud. This is presumably to preserve the suspense for the moment when Edmund, having been mortally wounded himself, reveals to Albany that a captain 'hath commission from thy wife and me to hang Cordelia in the prison', but it also means that if you've never seen the play, you don't know what the note is about.
When Lear enters with his dead daughter, he confirms her cause of death but (perhaps slightly confusingly) uses a term of endearment; 'my poor fool is hanged'. Amid the din of all the double-crosses and deaths of the climax, it's possible to miss this vital info - especially if it's the first time you've seen a Shakespeare play and your bum's gone a bit numb.
This week in Cornwall, we were, for the first time, asked how Cordelia died. Initially, this question really troubled me. We want the story to be clear to our younger audience members, so this seemed a bit worrying. How had we failed to get this bit of the plot across?
But then this hasn't happened often and it is, as I say, a plot point that requires a bit of piecing together. So, whilst I have since taken pains to make sure I'm extra-clear when I deliver the line quoted above, I've also realised that it's probably quite helpful to introduce new audiences to this side of Shakespeare's work.
It's a good example of the fact that it isn't just about what is shown, powerful though those images can be, but also what is said. The language is that final crucial ingredient. I guess it's okay if sometimes the performance leaves people with questions as well as answers.
And some of the questions we've heard this week during Q&As have been so fantastic that there are no easy answers. In Bodmin (where they did actually used to hang people) a young girl asked whether there was any underlying message behind Cordelia's death, or whether it was simply a bleak and senseless waste. I don't know the answer to that - but the question alone demonstrates that, painful though this moment of the play may be, you'd be mad to cut it.
by Ben Deery
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