The power of language is a major theme of the Henriad, and particularly powerful are the King’s words, which can perform all sorts of amazing feats, such as “altering” time and winning battles. In the first scene of King Lear, the power of language is on display again, as the Lear intends to dole out his property and wealth according to which of his daughters can profess their love most persuasively. Instead of the King’s language being deified here, it is his extreme susceptibility to language which sets the plot of this tragedy in motion.
1.1 deals in particular with language’s ability to convey love. Goneril’s speech in response to her father’s demand ironically begins “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter,” (1.1.53) and yet in spite of this disclaimer she promptly uses words to, well, “wield the matter.” She professes that she loves Lear, “Dearer than eye-sight, space, and liberty;/ Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” (1.1.54-55). I think we are made to feel that there is something vulgar or deceitful in such a confession. Goneril says that her love is beyond valuation, but in language, perhaps, there is a kind of concrete valuation of abstract things, which amounts, in this case, to a kind of vulgarization.
When Cordelia realizes that she is going to have to prove her love with her “tongue,” (1.1.76) she immediately recognizes the vanity and falseness of this practice, yet consoles herself in saying, “My love’s/ More ponderous than my tongue” (1.1. 76-77). Cordelia does not believe that any amount of florid description can convey true feeling, and resolves to merely speak “Love, and be silent” (1.1.60). Her distrust of language’s ability to express emotion is so profound that, after her sisters have rattled off lines of boisterous verse in praise of the love their bear towards their father, Cordelia will only allow herself to say: “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.86). This “nothing” may refer to the absence of fixed or inherent meaning in language. “What’s in a name,” Juliet famously asks, and Cordelia might agree with her, “nothing.” Unfortunately, Lear is so sensitive in this situation that he cannot tolerate Cordelia’s unwillingness to participate in his bequeathment process. This process strikes me almost as an imaginary, even insane, game (one which Cordelia and Regan are willing to insincerely participate in) set up by the King, wherein language takes on an extraordinary power of suggestion. He wants Cordelia to play the game by explaining her love, when what really matters is not what she says in this one moment, but her acts of love, her “duties” (1.1.96) to her father, which she presumably would have performed throughout her whole life. Cordelia’s sanity in this scene, as she cites the love, honor and obedience she bore towards Lear in the past is in stark contrast to the childish old man, who is so profoundly wounded by his best daughter’s inability to be fake.
Also like Juliet, who is reluctant to swear any oaths of love or demand any oaths be sworn by Romeo, Cordelia represents a heroine whose love we do not for an instant doubt, despite the fact, or even because of the fact that she declines to reduce her feeling to a verbal representation. It is so ironic that Shakespeare, who’s entire art depends on verbal representation, seems to demean the expressive capabilities of the word so frequently. His work seems to be a monument to the power and influence of language, and yet he calls into question the legitimacy of the tools with which he built that monument so frequently.