In Act 1, scene I of King Lear, there is an obvious divide between surface meaning and substance. Gongeril and Regan speak decorative words of flattery to Lear in order to “tell him” they love him. Cordelia, on the other hand, speaks “Nothing” because she understands love is confessed through action, not speech. Gonoril states, “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter;/ Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty”… “A love that makes breath poor and speech unable (1.1.53-58). Gonoril is clearly exaggerating her love for her father. She goes so far as to claim she loves him more than her own freedom, which doesn’t even seem humanly possible. She desperately speaks in clichés. Claiming she loves the king so much she can’t even speak about it, yet she is clearly able to speak about it now. Following, Regan states, “I am made of that self mettle as my sister” (67). Regan has nothing genuine or original to say because she is on the same page as Gonoril, who used up all the flattery and stretched it as far as it goes. Unlike her sisters, Cordelia does not reply to the King with false flattery. She says, “I cannot have my heart in my mouth” (1.1.89-90) and “You have begot me, bred me, loved me./ I return those duties back as are right fit–/ Obey you, love you, and most honour you.” Cordelia implies that the depth and sincerity of her feelings cannot be expressed in words because words cannot do them justice. Instead, she points out that she has obeyed, loved, and honoured her father in the same way he has her. Instead of ornamental speech, she lists actions (proof that is stronger than shallow CLAIMS of love) that exemplify her love for her father.
Later on in the scene, Kent says, “Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,/ Now are those empty-hearted whose low sounds/Reverb no hollowness” 1.1.150-152). This quote highlights an important message: you cannot judge the quality of a person’s character based off of surface traits (what they say, what they look like). Just like how you cannot judge someone’s intelligence by how much they talk. The King does not value anything beneath the surface. He says, “But now her price is fallen” (194) when her suitors come. He is angry and hurt by Cordelia’s choices, but instead of saying something about her character, he only knows how to speak of her financially, because money is a material item. At this point, Lear identifies with his two older daughters and would rather be told how loved he is than witness actions that show love.