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The story of King Lear and his Three Daughters was originally told by Geffrey of Monmouth, from whom Holinshed transcribed it; and in his Chronicle, Shakspeare had certainly read it; but he seems to have been more indebted to the old anonymous play, entitled The True Chronicle Hystorie of Leire, King of England, and his Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella ; 1605. A play with that title was entered on the Stationers' books by Edward White, May 14, 1594 ; and there are two other entries of the same piece, May 8, 1605, and Nov. 26, 1607. From the Mirror of Magistrates, Shakspeare has taken the hint for the behavior of the steward, and the reply of Cordelia to her father concerning her future marriage. The episode of Gloucester and his sons must have been borrowed from Sidney's Arcadia, no trace of it being found in the other sources of the fable. The reader will also find the story of King Lear in the second book and tenth canto of Spenser's Faerie Queene, and in the fifteenth chapter of the third book of Warner's Albion's England. Camden, in his Remaines, under the head of Wise Speeches, tells a similar story to this of Lear, of Ina, king of the West Saxons; which, if the thing ever happened, probably was the real origin of the fable. The story has found its way into many ballads and other metrical pieces; one ballad will be found in Dr. Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, vol. i. 3d edit. The story is also to be found in the unpublished Gesta Romanorum, and in the Romance of Perceforest. The whole of this play could not have been written till after 1603. Harsnet's Declaration of Popish Impostures, to which it contains so many references, and from which the fantastic names of several spirits are
borrowed, was not published till that year. It must have been produced before the Christmas of 1606; for, in the entry of Lear on the Stationers' Register, on the 26th of November, 1607, it is expressly recorded to have been played, during the preceding Christmas, before his majesty at Whitehall. Malone places the date of the composition in 1605; Dr. Drake in 1604.
“Of this noble tragedy, one of the first productions of the noblest of poets, it is scarcely possible to express our admiration in adequate terms. Whether considered as an effort of art, or as a picture of the passions, it is entitled to the highest praise. The two portions of which the fable consists, involving the fate of Lear and his daughters, and of Gloster and his sons, influence each other in so many points, and are blended with such consummate skill, that whilst the imagination is delighted by diversity of circumstances, the judgment is equally gratified in viewing their mutual coöperation towards the final result; the coalescence being so intimate, as not only to preserve the necessary unity of action, but to constitute one of the greatest beauties of the piece.
“Such, indeed, is the interest excited by the structure and concatenation of the story, that the attention is not once suffered to flag. By a rapid succession of incidents, by sudden and overwhelming vicissitudes, by the most awful instances of misery and destitution, by the boldest contrariety of characters, are curiosity and anxiety kept progressively increasing, and with an impetus so strong as nearly to absorb every faculty of the mind and every feeling of the heart.
“ Victims of frailty, of calamity, or of vice, in an age remote and barbarous, the actors in this drama are brought forward with a strength of coloring, which, had the scene been placed in a more civilized era, might have been justly deemed too dark and ferocious, but is not discordant with the earliest heathen age of Britain. The effect of this style of characterization is felt, occasionally, throughout the entire play; but it is particularly visible in the delineation of the vicious personages of the drama; the parts of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cornwall, being loaded not only with ingratitude of the deepest dye, but with cruelty of the most savage and diabolical nature: they are the criminals, in fact, of an age where vice may be supposed to reign with lawless and gigantic power, and in which the extrusion of Gloster's eyes might be such an event as
not unfrequently occurred. Had this mode of casting his characters in the extreme, been applied to the remainder of the dramatis persona, we should have lost some of the finest lessons of humanity and wisdom that ever issued from the pen of an uninspired writer; but, with the exception of a few coarsenesses, which remind us of the barbarous period to which the story is referred, and of a few incidents rather revolting to credibility, but which could not be detached from the original narrative, the virtuous agents of the play exhibit the manners and the feelings of civilization, and are of that mixed fabric which can alone display a just portraiture of the nature and composition of our species.
“ The characters of Cordelia and Edgar, it is true, approach nearly to perfection; but the filial virtues of the former are combined with such exquisite tenderness of heart, and those of the latter, with such bitter humiliation and suffering, that grief, indignation, and pity, are instantly excited. Very striking representations are also given of the rough fidelity of Kent, and of the hasty credulity of Gloster; but it is in delineating the passions, feelings, and afflictions of Lear, that our Poet has wrought up a picture of human misery which has never been surpassed, and which agitates the soul with the most overpowering emotions of sympathy and compassion.
“The conduct of the unhappy monarch having been founded merely on the impulses of sensibility, and not on any fixed principle or rule of action, no sooner has he discovered the baseness of those on whom he had relied, and the fatal mistake into which he had been hurried by the delusions of inordinate fondness and extravagant expectation, than he feels himself bereft of all consolation and resource. Those to whom he had given all, for whom he had stripped himself of dignity and power, and on whom he had centred every hope of comfort and repose in his old age, his inhuman daughters, having not only treated him with utter coldness and contempt, but sought to deprive him of all the respectability, and even of the very means of existence,—what, in a mind so constituted as Lear's, the sport of intense and ill-regulated feeling, and tortured by the reflection of having deserted the only child who loved him, what but madness could be expected as the result? It was, in fact, the necessary consequence of the reciprocal action of complicated distress and morbid sensibility; and, in describing the approach of this dreadful infliction, in
tracing its progress, its height, and subsidence, our Poet has displayed such an intimate knowledge of the workings of the human intellect, under all its aberrations, as would afford an admirable study for the inquirer into mental physiology. He has, also, in this play, as in that of Hamlet, finely discriminated between real and assumed insanity ; Edgar, amidst all the wild imagery which his imagination has accumulated, never touching on the true source of his misery; whilst Lear, on the contrary, finds it associated with every object and every thought, however distant or dissimilar. Not even the Orestes of Euripides, or the Clementina of Richardson, can, as pictures of disordered reason, be placed in competition with this of Lear; it may be pronounced, indeed, from its truth and completeness, beyond the reach of rivalry."
An anonymous writer, who has instituted a comparison between the Lear of Shakspeare and the Edipus of Sophocles, and justly given the palm to the former, closes his essay with the following sentence, to which every reader of taste and feeling will subscribe :—“There is no detached character in Shakspeare's writings which displays so vividly as this the hand and mind of a master; which exhibits so great a variety of excellence, and such amazing powers of delineation ; so intimate a knowledge of the human heart, with such exact skill in tracing the progress and the effects of its more violent and more delicate passions. It is in the management of this character, more especially, that he fills up that grand idea of a perfect poet, which we delight to image to ourselves, but despair of seeing realized.” |
In the same work from whence this is extracted, will be found an article, entitled “ Theatralia,” attributed to the pen of Mr. Charles Lamb, in which are the following striking animadversions on the liberty taken in changing the catastrophe of this tragedy in representation :-" The Lear of Shakspeare cannot be acted. The contemptible machinery with which they mimic the storm he goes out in, is not more inadequate to represent the horrors of the real elements, than any actor can be to represent Lear. The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of his passions are terrible as a volcano ; they are storms turning up, and disclosing to the bottom, that rich sea, his
* Drake's Shakspeare and his Times, vol. ii. p. 460.