Page images
PDF
EPUB

a

In these latter days a fresh interest has been given to an imaginative treatment of the same subject in the pathetic and most original tragedy of the Spanish Gipsy. Yet even this, the last work dwelling on the topic, has not more present life and familiar freshness than King Lear retains, after its life of more than two hundred years, in the eyes of an attentive reader. Not only do critics inspired with the spirit of poetry find in it a mental greatness which renders it almost impossible to represent it upon the stage without detracting from its dignity, but high medical authorities, conversant with all the phenomena of madness which science has only in late years observed in a systematic way, are astonished to find their views anticipated by one who had no particular interest leading him to observe this more than a thousand other kinds of phenomena ; unless, indeed, that to a great mind the mysteries of madness must always have a strong attraction. Never, again, was the contrast greater between the strange and uncouth legend which Shakspere adopted, without materially altering its facts, and the masterpiece of deductive imagination which, out of the dry pages of Holinshed, constructs the great drama of filial undutifulness, and derives it by inevitable sequence from the first absurd surrender of power and authority by a father.

LEAR, an ancient king of Britain, at the age of about sixty years, is foolish enough to break the deepest and firmest-set of all natural laws by giving away his power to his daughters, reserving to himself nothing beyond a mere maintenance. So persuaded is he that the honour, reverence, and affection which he enjoys is personal, and therefore indefectible, that he does not even bargain for a separate household and income. Besides this folly, in mere blind arrogance, he insists on applying to those whom he best loves a kind of spiritual pressure, to force

a

them to disclose their inmost feelings towards him. His two elder daughters have no difficulty in supplying him with any amount of love-professions, ready made to royal order. But CORDELIA, the most gracious and gentle vision that ever floated before a poet's mind, has also strength, will, resolution. It is her woman's right not to be forced to say how much she loves, even by a father and a king. To have to produce her affection at a call, to get it compared with that of her sisters, and paid for in so much coin and so much land, is an outrage to which she would never have submitted at any time. Has she not her rights, as indefeasible as her father's ? But much less can such words as he asks find their way to her lips now. The blast of falsehood which she has heard from her sisters would blow them back upon her if she tried to utter them. The very words would blush for the resemblance in expression which they must needs assume with what is so untrue ; and, if spoken, they would be faltering and suspicious. Silence is the only course she can adopt; and she is silent, in spite of threats. Her third of the territory is 'digested' with her sisters' portions. They are queens in England, she an exile; and the sad story instantly begins its inevitable course towards the ruin and death of all concerned in it: its character and development being necessary in itself, and plainly to be foreseen, because it springs from the violation of so deep a law, and is the unavoidable outcome of the circumstances which LEAR'S act has created.

The horror of the events which follow has often been noticed with surprise. But who will say that it is more than the circumstances imperatively call for? When two daughters combine to hunt to death their father's life, naturally so dear and precious to them, no amount of atrocity is too much for such a crime to produce. Besides this, into what period of the world's history are we transplanted ? Into one, as Gervinus remarks, like that of the Merovingians in France, where fierce unsexed queens, like Brunehaut and Frédégonde, do their passionate and bloody work uncontrolled; where their love is as unbridled as their hate, and where they give their name to the times, their husbands being comparatively unknown. It may be said that Shakspere has rather softened the pictures of such times than aggravated them; for GONERIL dies by her own hand in an access of remorse, instead of heaping crime on crime until, like Brunehaut, she is slain at last by a cruelty as atrocious as her own. Artistically too, the tragedy is an absolute and perfect model in its treatment of physical suffering; since, even in LEAR's utmost distress, everything remains noble, dignified, and natural. The war of the elements, under which he wanders, seems neither more nor less than the natural complement of the fierce mental struggle which he is passing through, and of the moral derangements which have preceded it; and these in turn are dignified by their combination with the most awful phenomena of nature. Shakspere's unapproached excellence in this point will be clearly seen if we compare LEAR, bareheaded beneath the storm, and wishing to cast off the relics of defence which his garments still afford, with the elements of meanness in the misery of Philoctetes or Edipus, as imagined by Sophocles.

( Moreover, the tempest brings to him much more than mere inconvenience, suffering, or terror: he hears in it, like the Psalmist, the voice of God proclaiming His justice, tearing away all dissembling, and revealing all men as they really are. The sublimity of outward suffering as it is thus represented to the imagination can by no possibility rise higher than it does here.

In other tragedies of Shakspere a scene or two is devoted to a kind of outside view of the tragic events, as

[ocr errors]

they are conceived by the vulgar. Such is the celebrated “grave-digger' scene in Hamlet, and those in which the Nurse occurs in Romeo and Juliet. Here this popular and semi-comic view, just toned down into sufficient seriousness, is carried on side by side with the main action, and interwoven with it throughout by means of the marvellously invented character of the Fool. LEAR'S fool, unlike those in several other plays, is really an 'innocent.' His mind is frail, and not under his own control : he takes warning for a moment from GONERIL'S grim look that he had better be silent, but presently is again in full tide of jesting against her; he constantly expresses the thought that is in his mind by something which has a fantastical affinity to it, much as Ophelia does in her madness: he enters with sufficient persuasion of its reality into the trial scene where the defendant GONERIL is represented by a joint-stool; and his perpetual babble, in all kinds of unexpected directions, contrasts in the strongest way with the methodical pretence of madness adopted by EDGAR, which Shakspere collected partly from the Bedlam beggars of his own time, partly from Harsnet's Popish Impostures (quoted repeatedly in the notes), which was published in 1603, just in time to be employed in the composition of King Lear. The Fool's intelligence, fitful and wayward as it is, cannot be denied; but it is exercised chiefly in representing obvious facts in a thousand strange and telling forms. These differ from the coarse and stupid jokes generally recorded of court fools, much as Shakspere's Oberon and Caliban would from the fairies or monsters of earlier authors; and his weakness of intellect is not inconsistent with a touching fidelity which makes him cleave to LEAR, carrying on, as Gervinus says, his jester's part with a heavy heart, careworn, suppressing his own anguish with songs and jokes, and striving to outjest the fury of the elements. Nor should we omit to notice the discretion which makes him disappear altogether after the mock-trial in 111. vi. at which the interest of madness has reached its height, and has to be gradually abated for the rest of the play.

The part of the plot in which GLOUCESTER is concerned, exhibits Shakspere's consummate skill in combining independent circumstances with the main action of his drama. He obtained the main points of this secondary plot from Sidney's Arcadia; but the shadowy tints of the romance become instinct with life under his hand; and the masterly device of making EDMUND become the lover of both REGAN and GONERIL, brings about in a simple and perfectly natural way the catastrophe by which, like sea-monsters, the partners in crime destroy one another.

The death of CORDELIA is only too fiercely true to the character of the times which Shakspere is describing. It is harder to conciliate with our notions than that of LEAR; of whom we can readily understand that to stretch him again on the rack of the world would be to hate him, not to love him. Yet we may reconcile ourselves to it if we think, first, of the patriotic necessity that French troops fighting on English soil should be dramatically defeated, and then that the very idea of all things turning out as well as possible would be at variance with Shakspere's idea of tragedy. Nothing, above all, but a strange and savage conclusion would at all have suited the chaotic times here described. If any one thinks it overstrained, let him read the histories of Clotaire and Childebert, of Brunehaut and Frédégonde.

The Play is almost unrivalled among those of Shakspere in the splendour of its reflective passages, such as LEAR's moralizing on the storm (111. ii.), his regret at not having taken better care, while he was king, of the house

« PreviousContinue »