« PreviousContinue »
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.
†The Reflector, vol. ii. p. 139, on Greek and English Tragedy.
mind, with all its vast riches: it is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on; even as he himself neglects it. On the stage, we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of age; while we read it, we see not Lear, but we are Lear, we are in his mind; we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of his daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty, irregular power of reasoning, unmethodized from the ordinary purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind blows where it listeth, at will on the corruptions and abuses of mankind. What have looks or tones to do with that sublime identification of his age with that of the heavens themselves, when, in his reproaches to them for conniving at the injustice of his children, he reminds them that 'they themselves are old!' What gesture shall we appropriate to this? What has voice or the eye to do with such things? But the play is beyond all art, as the tamperings with it show; it is too hard and stony; it must have love-scenes, and a happy ending. It is not enough that Cordelia is a daughter, she must shine as a lover too. Fate has put his hook in the nostrils of this leviathan, for Garrick and his followers, the showmen of the scene, to draw it about more easily. A happy ending!—as if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through, the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him. If he is to live and be happy after, if he could sustain this world's burden after, why all this pudder and preparation? why torment us with all this unnecessary sympathy?—as if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station,— as if, at his years, and with his experience, any thing was left but to die."
SCENE I. A Room of State in King Lear's Palace.
Enter KENT, GLOSTER, and Edmund.
Kent. I THOUGHT the king had more affected the duke of Albany, than Cornwall.
Glo. It did always seem so to us; but now, in the division of the kingdom,' it appears not which of the dukes he values most; for equalities are so weighed, that curiosity in neither can make choice of either's moiety.3
Kent. Is not this your son, my lord?
Glo. His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am brazed to it.
Kent. I cannot conceive you.
Glo. Sir, this young fellow's mother could: whereupon she grew round-wombed; and had, indeed, sir, a son for her cradle, ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
1 There is something of obscurity or inaccuracy in this preparatory scene. The king has already divided his kingdom, and yet, when he enters, he examines his daughters to discover in what proportions he should divide it. Perhaps Kent and Gloster only were privy to his design, which he still kept in his own hands, to be changed or performed as subsequent reasons should determine him.
2 Curiosity is scrupulous exactness.
Moiety is used by Shakspeare for part or portion.