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King Lear

Comments on Act 4 Scene 7

“This scene ranks as one of the most remarkable, heartfelt reunions in all literature. This is Cordelia’s first contact with her father since Act 1 when Lear banished her and she went off with France. We may infer from Act 1. sc. 5 that Lear has been going over that scene in his mind and is vexed by what he has done. We must also assume that Cordelia has reexamined her role, else she could not be so affectionate in this scene. She starts her speech by honoring Kent who was also spurned by Lear. She then asks about her father, and asks the gods to heal ‘the great breach in his abused nature’ [referring primarily to his mental state, but these words also may suggest the unnatural breach which has come between them]. Now she addresses Lear, and it is as if the breach had never occurred: ‘How does my royal Lord? How fares your Majesty?’ This is astonishing! How has this change in Cordelia come about? How has this miracle of healing occurred? Obviously she too has been thinking and rethinking what transpired in Act 1 and at some level she has forgiven Lear, or else she could not speak in the heartfelt way that she does. And the impact these lines must have had on Lear! Imagine what it must have been like for Lear to waken to the sound of Cordelia’s voice and hear these words which must be among the sweetest ever uttered. This play, so often taken as pessimistic and nihilistic, seems rather to declare the power of healing, that even the deepest wounds can heal” (Ralph Johnson, email comments, June 2015).

Leggatt describes the sensitivity of Olivier’s reading of this scene. He speaks the name “Cordelia,” dwelling on each syllable, as if hearing it for the first time. His previous feelings of self-assurance have given way to a time of new discoveries, almost a second childhood; as he wakes, his eyes are searching the room, his hands touch his face and feel the loss of his beard. We witness the affection that they shared at their first entrance together, seemingly so long ago, but these old comforts are short-lived, and he will suffer at their loss more deeply than he did the loss of his kingdom (142).

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