Tell vs. Show

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.

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4 thoughts on “Tell vs. Show

  1. Dylan Gerety

    You make a good point here about Cordelia's actions speaking louder than words. While we have no evidence of her actually acting lovingly to her father, she tells us as best as she can (for flattering words do not seem to be her forte) that she loves him as much as she can. While for the occasion, it is not enough for Lear to appreciate, others, like Kent, see the value in her meaning. Although Cordelia was not outwardly flattering and seemed almost insulted by her father's request and responded with equal offense, Kent sees through the hurt feelings and damaged prides that this situation created. Kent knows that Cordelia loves her father and didn't intentionally insult him and that perhaps both Lear and Cordelia have too great of pride to be compatible in a situation like this.

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  2. Dylan Gerety

    You make a good point here about Cordelia's actions speaking louder than words. While we have no evidence of her actually acting lovingly to her father, she tells us as best as she can (for flattering words do not seem to be her forte) that she loves him as much as she can. While for the occasion, it is not enough for Lear to appreciate, others, like Kent, see the value in her meaning. Although Cordelia was not outwardly flattering and seemed almost insulted by her father's request and responded with equal offense, Kent sees through the hurt feelings and damaged prides that this situation created. Kent knows that Cordelia loves her father and didn't intentionally insult him and that perhaps both Lear and Cordelia have too great of pride to be compatible in a situation like this.

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  3. Cyrus Mulready

    Your nice post raises an implicit question, Natalie–whether or why we trust Cordelia over her sisters? We take honesty to be a sign of internal truth, but should we? We didn't read _Othello_ this semester, but Iago is a good character to bring up in this context. Shakespeare shows that honesty, even, is not always what it appears to be. Cordelia, unlike Iago, *is* completely sincere. like Iago, Goneril and Regan know how to use flattery and deceit to get what they want. I think this reinforces your underlying point–we can't "know" the inner truth of a person based on appearance. This is a destabilizing truth that is told over and again throughout Shakespeare.

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  4. Ray Kelly

    Lear is a very foolish character. He gives up his kingdom so that he will have time to relax and enjoy himself. I think shows that he is very self centered because he does not care what happens to his kingdom as long as he is happy. This would relate to why he chooses to only give his land up to the children who can flatter him. He needs to hear their confessions of love for him, but can not actually see that it is Cordelia who truly loves him the most. He rewards the daughters who lie to get their way, but he can not understand this because he is so focused on himself. Lear is so upset over what Cordelia says that he banishes her and strips her of her inheritance when all she did was love her father as much as any daughter should.

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