The tragedy of Shakespeare’s King Lear is made far more tragic and painful by the presence and suffering of the king's youngest daughter, Cordelia. While our sympathy for the king is somewhat restrained by his brutal cruelty towards others, there is nothing to dampen our emotional response to Cordelia's suffering. Nothing, that is, at first glance. Harley Granville-Barker justifies her irreconcilable fate thus: "the tragic truth about life to the Shakespeare that wrote King Lear... includes its capricious cruelty. And what meeter sacrifice to this than Cordelia?"5 Yet in another passage Granville-Barker has come much closer to touching on the real explanation. I quote the passage at length.
It will be a fatal error to present Cordelia as a meek saint. She has more than a touch of her father in her. She is as proud as he is, and as obstinate, for all her sweetness and her youth. And, being young, she answers uncalculatingly with pride to his pride even as later she answers with pity to his misery. To miss this likeness between the two is to miss Shakespeare's first important dramatic effect; the mighty old man and the frail child, confronted, and each unyielding... If age owes some tolerance to youth, it may be thought too that youth owes to age and fatherhood something more--and less--than the truth...6
Again he sums it up:
Pride unchecked in Lear has grown monstrous and diseased with his years. In her youth it shows unspoiled, it is in flower. But it is the same pride.7
As in his portrayal of Desdemona, here too Shakespeare has presented a woman of beauty and culture. Her demeanor is gentle and refined though not lacking in strength or determination. Her emotions are deep, pure, loyal and enduring. Her mind is clear and idealistic. Desdemona is more of the heart, softer and more graceful, while Cordelia combines emotional goodness with a stoical will and courage born of idealism. Desdemona inherited from her father a certain narrowness and rigidity of mental outlook and an inability to see how others are affected by her actions. Likewise Cordelia has inherited from her father, who is a far more powerful figure than Brabantio, a very limited mental outlook which expresses itself because of her goodness as doctrinaire idealism and an inflexible will functioning in accordance with those ideals.
As Granville-Barker has pointed out, Cordelia possesses the same pride and obstinacy we find in Lear, only her emotions are purer, more cultured and refined than his. We have already quoted Lear's response rejecting and cursing his best loved daughter. In eloping with Othello, Desdemona infuriated her father to the point where he refused to have her re-enter his home and died of grief shortly thereafter. Though her intention was never to hurt him it comes as a mortal blow. Desdemona is only following the promptings of her heart and mind. When Cordelia refuses to make public protestations of love to her...