DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
There is complication pertaining to the answer as to which ending among the versions of “King Lear” is best, as the stories in their entireties that lead up to the ending, when it concerns Cordelia, would also have to be taken into consideration. So what will be written would be a comparison of the roles of Cordelia in various versions of the play and seeing which works best as a tragedy and ultimately which ending is better. If it can be postulated that Cordelia would live in the original Quarto version, then it would be just as appropriate to postulate how Cordelia would have to fit in to that what-if storyline.
In King Leir, Cordella’s voice is quite witty which adds to the head-strong personality (Anon 352, Scene 3, Line 631). She is also willing to pressure her husband, the Gallian King, to disguise themselves as pilgrims in order to return to Leir and seek his approval (Anon 351-2, Scene 7, Lines 582-620). She also seems to have more adaptability by assuming the roles Edgar and Kent would have in Shakespeare’s King Lear of being in disguise. It is when she is finally reunited with a forgiving Leir that her sub-plot continues to proceed (Anon 389-90, Scene 24, Lines 2142-59). Although the language in King Leir is superfluous, it comes at the expense of the dialogue, which consists of winded speeches.
For Shakespeare’s part, he turned King Leir on its head by morphing it from a fanciful adventure to a tragedy. It also would have indicated a change in national identity as England viewed itself as part of Great Britain (Shapiro 38-9). This is why France is treated in a lesser role in the Shakespearean version than in the King Leir version. He also decides to make it grittier, with violence and misanthropic meanderings. Shakespeare may have intended for Cordelia to die in order to surprise the audience, who were originally used to Cordelia, or Cordella, living in the original play (Shapiro 62).
There is credit to give for Tate’s version for giving Cordelia a more expansive role in the story. A crucial role for her in Tate’s version is when she has the intelligence to persuade. She pleads and persuades Gloucester to take in Lear (Tate 48). She also tries to persuade an officer to not kill Lear (Tate 110). Her role is also shown as being attempted to be kidnapped by two ruffians before Edgar scares them off, which shows Cordelia in danger (Tate 58-9).
Where Tate and the authors of King Leir did not give Kent his characterization is when they downplay his character. In the original Shakespeare play, he provides a critical role in communicating between two countries and about Cordelia. There are brief scenes of Kent and the Gentleman receiving news about her, which can pinpoint how Cordelia is affected by the dukes’ civil war (Quarto 96-7, Act IV.3a, Lines 3-33). Although a minor character without even a name, the Gentleman is the important link between France and the British kingdom, as he has the monopoly on how people receive their information which Kent receives. When he discovers Lear, he even expresses grief at the sight of a former king who had only one good daughter, which was Cordelia (Quarto 110, Act IV.5, Lines 194-7).
Although Shakespeare did use the Kent-Gentleman scenes to explain where the information comes and goes, it came at the expense of giving Cordelia her own scene in the middle of the play where the reader or observer in the audience might actually see her side. We do not actually witness her crying profusely upon hearing of her sisters’ tyranny, going so far as to state that she will not pity them (Quarto 97, Act IV.3a, Lines 26-33). This was Cordelia’s reaction to seeing the culpability of her sisters in banishing their own father.
For a story that gives Cordelia a voice, it can be argued that Tate’s version would be the best play. However, as far as the ending, it would have to be Shakespeare’s version. This can only be possible when Lear’s reconciling with Cordelia and its build-up finally happens in the worst possible moment. Lear admits to Cordelia that it is not she who wronged him but her sisters just before getting captured (Quarto 118, Act V.1, Lines 70-4). He would have to have lot of regret at chastising Cordelia, sending her off, and giving her portion of the land to her sisters (Quarto 98, Act IV.3a, Lines 39-48). So the tragedy would have to involve the family dispute that becomes beyond irreparable.
Though, Cordelia does attempt to repair her relationship with her father in her “special cause” (Quarto 111, Act IV.5, Line 206). She was even willing to leave France in order to find him (Quarto 100, Act IV.4, Lines 23-9), showing that the love for her own father outweighs her marriage to a powerful monarch. Although Lear does spend much of the play ranting and making obscene jokes, he still seems to have warm considerations for his youngest daughter. When visiting Regan, Lear declared in a fit of anger that he would rather kneel to Cordelia’s husband than dismiss his own knights (Quarto 59, Act II.4, Lines 187-90). His outburst may have been not just out of spite, but an indicator that he would choose Cordelia as the daughter he prefers to live with while his other daughters can barely tolerate him. This preference would answer where exactly Lear would live now that he relinquishes his power, since he is left to wander with his Fool, Edgar, and Kent (both of the latter are in disguise). When Lear is discovered by Edgar and Gloucester, he has more grievances with Goneril and Regan and would even legitimize Edmund since, as he sees it, he loves his own father more than Lear’s daughters love their father (Quarto 106-7, Act IV.5, Lines 96-113).
The machinations that exist between family and government become a blurred mess, when the overthrow and blinding of Gloucester was directly incited by the fact that France is married to Cordelia and can now enter her family’s lands by accessing ports through “secret feet” (Quarto 83, Act III.7, Lines 1-5). Although France is barely heard from in the play, his role is important in escalating the war between the husbands of Lear’s daughters. Part of Edmund’s plan in delegitimizing Edgar in the letter was claiming that he wanted to kill his father on behalf of France (Quarto 77, Act III.5, Lines 8-12).
Although it is important to detail how there are consequences to war, it would be interesting to analyze how “The History of King Lear” would continue to function as a tragedy without Cordelia dying. For this to happen, Edmund’s captain would have been prevented from assassinating Cordelia by Edmund, which he attempted to do in his final moments, by sending Kent and Edgar to stop him (Quarto 134-5, Act V.3, Lines 251-5). In the Tate version, Lear does manage to kill two bodyguards (Tate 111), whereas in the Quarto version, he kills one but not before Cordelia dies (Quarto 135, Act V.3, Line 273). What if he manages to kill sooner?
Since her death is one of the reasons that causes Lear to die from heartache, it could be argued that if Cordelia continues to live, Lear would also. It may even be possible that they would both live, without their power however, in France’s kingdom, slightly similar in the original King Leir (Anon 402, Scene 32, Lines 2649-64). Lear does attempt to comfort Cordelia while they are held as prisoners of war, so there would also be the chance that father and daughter would settle their disputes by the time Albany is the only competent duke left to rule (Quarto 124, Act V.3, Lines 8-19).
Cordelia and Lear would have to adjust themselves to live in this new world. Their tragic roles would be emphasized by their witnessing of the destruction of the kingdom they knew and took advantage of for so long. Not only would they be powerless, but would have been traumatized by a civil war excited by foreign powers. They would also be weary of trust since even if Cordelia lived, every character that is involved in the civil war would still be “murderous traitors all” (Quarto 135, Act V.3, Line 268).
Considering how Cordelia and Lear would live, the issue of the love test could be brought up in order to bring a sense of closure to this reformed play. Lear would have to live with the consequence of implementing his love test on his three daughters, who, considering how well-versed and rehearsed their praises are, would have already been squabbling amongst themselves to begin with (Quarto 5, Act I.1, Lines 48-72). He would realize, through his regained sanity, that his abetting of this interfamilial problem destroyed his entire kingdom.
In the case of Cordelia, by default she would have won the love test. However, what would make this Pyrrhic victory tragic is not what she did not win, but what she did win but is not worth anything in the end nor all of the people who were killed or maimed. She would be the only living daughter of the fallen king and would have to remember with “clamor-moistening” recollection the reality that not even a foreign power but her own sisters destroyed the family and the kingdom (Quarto 97, Act IV.3a, Lines 26-33).
It is possible for “The History of King Lear” to remain a tragedy even if Cordelia lives, however it would require serious alterations in the ending. Although compared to the other versions of the play, it did not have as much detail about Cordelia and how she grapples with the civil war, but the ending of “The History of King Lear” does give a very bleak outlook on the future of her kingdom and is the direct consequence of what war creates. It also requires a close examination of how the other characters play into this narrative leading up to the deaths of Cordelia and Lear and how they are altered.