WE wish that we could pass this play over,
and say nothing about it. All that we can say
must fall far short of the subject; or even of
what we ourselves conceive of it. To attempt
to give a description of the play itself or of its
effect upon the mind, is mere impertinence: yet
we must say something.--It is then the best
of all Shakespear's plays, for it is the one in
which he was the most in earnest. He was here
fairly caught in the web of his own imagination.
The passion which he has taken as his subject
is that which strikes its root deepest into the
human heart; of which the bond is the hardest
to be unloosed; and the cancelling and tearing
to pieces of which gives the greatest revulsion
to the frame. This depth of nature, this force
of passion, this tug and war of the elements of
our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and
the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the
thoughts at finding this prop failing it, the
contrast between the fixed, immoveable basis of
natural affection, and the rapid, irregular starts
of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its
accustomed holds and resting-places in the soul,
this is what Shakespear has given, and what
nobody else but he could give. So we believe.--The
mind of Lear staggering between the
weight of attachment and the hurried movements
of passion is like a tall ship driven about
by the winds, buffetted by the furious waves,
but that still rides above the storm, having its
anchor fixed in the bottom of the sea; or it is
like the sharp rock circled by the eddying whirlpool
that foams and beats against it, or like the
solid promontory pushed from its basis by the
force of an earthquake.
The character of Lear itself is very finely conceived
for the purpose. It is the only ground
on which such a story could be built with the
greatest truth and effect. It is his rash haste,
his violent impetuosity, his blindness to every
thing but the dictates of his passions or affections,
that produces all his misfortunes, that
aggravates his impatience of them, that enforces
our pity for him. The part which Cordelia
bears in the scene is extremely beautiful:
the story is almost told in the first words she
utters. We see at once the precipice on which
the poor old king stands from his own extravagant
and credulous importunity, the indiscreet
simplicity of her love (which, to be sure, has a
little of her father's obstinacy in it) and the
hollowness of her sisters' pretensions. Almost
the first burst of that noble tide of passion,
which runs through the play, is in the remonstrance
of Kent to his royal master on the injustice
of his sentence against his youngest
daughter--"Be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is
mad!" This manly plainness which draws down
on him the displeasure of the unadvised king
is worthy of the fidelity with which he adheres
to his fallen fortunes. The true character of
the two eldest daughters, Regan and Gonerill
(they are so thoroughly hateful that we do not
even like to repeat their names) breaks out in
their answer to Cordelia who desires them to
treat their father well--"Prescribe not us our
duties"--their hatred of advice being in proportion
to their determination to do wrong, and to
their hypocritical pretensions to do right. Their
deliberate hypocrisy adds the last finishing to
the odiousness of their characters. It is the
absence of' this detestable quality that is the
only relief in the character of Edmund the Bastard,
and that at times reconciles us to him.
We are not tempted to exaggerate the guilt of
his conduct, when he himself gives it up as
a bad business, and writes himself down "plain
villain." Nothing more can be said about it. His
religious honesty in this respect is admirable.
One speech of his is worth a million. His father,
Gloster, whom he has just deluded with a forged
story of his brother Edgar's designs against his
life, accounts for his unnatural behaviour and
the strange depravity of the times from the late
eclipses in the sun and moon. Edmund, who
is in the secret, says when he is gone--"This
is the excellent coppery of the world, that when
we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our
own behaviour) we make guilty of our disasters
the sun, the moon, and stars: as if we were
villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion;
knaves, thieves, and treacherous by spherical
predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers
by an enforced obedience of planetary
influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine
thrusting on. An admirable evasion of
whore-master man, to lay his goatish disposition
on the charge of a star! My father compounded
with my mother under the Dragon's tail, and my
nativity was under Ursa Major: so that it follows,
I am rough and lecherous. I should have been
what I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament
twinkled on my bastardizing."--The
whole character, its careless, light-hearted villainy,
contrasted with the sullen, rancorous
malignity of Regan and Gonerill, its connection
with the conduct of the under-plot, in which
Gloster's persecution of one of his sons and the
ingratitude of another, form a counterpart to the
mistakes and misfortunes of Lear,--his double
amour with the two sisters, and the share which
he has in bringing about the fatal catastrophe,
are all managed with an uncommon degree of
skill and power.
It has been said, and we think justly, that the
third act of Othello and the three first acts of
LEAR, are Shakespear's great master-pieces in
the logic of passion: that they contain the highest
examples not only of the force of individual
passion, but of its dramatic vicissitudes and
striking effects arising from the different circumstances
and characters of the persons speaking.
We see the ebb and flow of the feeling, its
pauses and feverish starts, its impatience of opposition,
its accumulating force when it has
time to recollect itself, the manner in which it
avails itself of every passing word or gesture, its
haste to repel insinuation, the alternate contraction
and dilatation of the soul, and all "the dazzling
fence of controversy" in this mortal combat
with poisoned weapons, aimed at the heart,
where each wound is fatal. We have seen in
Othello, how the unsuspecting frankness and
impetuous passions of the Moor are played
upon and exasperated by the artful dexterity
of Iago. In the present play, that which
aggravates the sense of sympathy in the reader,
and of uncontroulable anguish in the
swoln heart of Lear, is the petrifying indifference,
the cold, calculating, obdurate selfishness
of his daughters. His keen passions
seem whetted on their stony hearts. The contrast
would be too painful, the shock too great,
but for the intervention of the Fool, whose well-timed
levity comes in to break the continuity of
feeling when it can no longer be borne, and to
bring into play again the fibres of the heart just
as they are growing rigid from over-strained
excitement. The imagination is glad to take
refuge in the half-comic, half-serious comments
of the Fool, just as the mind under the extreme
anguish of a surgical operation vents itself in
sallies of wit. The character was also a grotesque
ornament of the barbarous times, in
which alone the tragic ground-work of the story
could be laid. In another point of view it is
indispensable, inasmuch as while it is a diversion
to the too great intensity of our disgust, it
carries the pathos to the highest pitch of which
it is capable, by strewing the pitiable weakness
of the old king's conduct and its irretrievable
consequences in the most familiar point of view.
Lear may well "beat at the gate which let his
folly in," after, as the Fool says, "he has made
his daughters his mothers." The character is
dropped in the third act to make room for the
entrance of Edgar as Mad Tom, which well accords
with the increasing bustle and wildness of
the incidents; and nothing can be more complete
than the distinction between Lear's real
and Edgar's assumed madness, while the resemblance
in the cause of their distresses, from the
severing of the nearest ties of natural affection,
keeps up a unity of interest. Shakespear's
mastery over his subject, if it was not art, was
owing to a knowledge of the connecting links of
the passions, and their effect upon the mind,
still more wonderful than any systematic adherence
to rules, and that anticipated and outdid
all the efforts of the most refined art, not inspired
and rendered instinctive by genius.
One of the most perfect displays of dramatic
power is the first interview between Lear and his
daughter, after the designed affronts upon him,
which till one of his knights reminds him of
them, his sanguine temperament had led him to
overlook. He returns with his train from hunting,
and his usual impatience breaks out in his
first words, "Let me not stay a jot for dinner;
go, get it ready." He then encounters the faithful
Kent in disguise, and retains him in his
service; and the first trial of his honest duty is
to trip up the heels of the officious Steward
who makes so prominent and despicable a figure
through the piece. On the entrance of Gonerill
the following dialogue takes place:--
"Lear. How now, daughter? what makes that frontlet on?|
Methinks, you are too much of late i' the frown.
Fool. Thou wast a pretty fellow, when thou had'st no
need to care for her frowning; now thou art an O without
a figure: I am better than thou art now; I am a fool, thou
art nothing.----Yes, forsooth, I will hold my tongue; [To
Gonerill.] so your face bids me, though you say nothing.
He that keeps nor crust nor crum,
Weary of all, shall want some:----
That's a sheal'd peascod! [Pointing to Lear.
Gonerill. Not only, sir, this your all-licens'd fool,
But other of your insolent retinue
Do hourly carp and quarrel; breaking forth
In rank and not-to-be-endured riots.
I had thought, by making this well known unto you,
To have found a safe redress; but now grow fearful,
By what yourself too late have spoke and done,
That you protect this course, and put it on
By your allowance; which if you should, the fault
Would not 'scape censure, nor the redresses sleep,
Which in the tender of a wholesome weal,
Might in their working do you that offence,
(Which else were shame) that then necessity
Would call discreet proceeding.
Fool. For you trow, nuncle,
The hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had its head bit off by its young.
So out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
Lear. Are you our daughter?
Gonerill. Come, sir,
I would, you would make use of that good wisdom
Whereof I know you are fraught; and put away
These dispositions, which of late transform you
From what you rightly are.
Fool. May not an ass know when the cart draws the
horse?----Whoop, Jug, I love thee.
Lear. Does any here know me?----Why, this is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus?--Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargy'd----Ha! waking?----'Tis not so.----
Who is it that can tell me who I am?--Lear's shadow?
I would learn that: for by the marks
Of sov'reignty, of knowledge, and of reason,
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.----
Your name, fair gentlewoman?
Gonerill. Come, sir:
This admiration is much o' the favour
Of other your new pranks. I do beseech you
To understand my purposes aright:
As you are old and reverend, you should be wise:
Here do you keep a hundred knights and squires;
Men so disorder'd, so debauch'd, and bold,
That this our court, infected with their manners,
Shews like a riotous inn: epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern, or a brothel,
Than a grac'd palace. The shame itself doth speak
For instant remedy: be then desir'd
By her, that else will take the thing she begs,
A little to disquantity your train;
And the remainder, that shall still depend,
To be such men as may besort your age,
And know themselves and you.
Lear. Darkness and devils!----
Saddle my horses; call my train together.----
Degenerate bastard! I'll not trouble thee;
Yet have I left a daughter.
Gonerill. You strike my people; and your disorder'd rabble
Make servants of their betters.
Lear. Woe, that too late repents--O, sir, are you come?|
Is it your will? speak, sir.--Prepare my horses.---- [To
Ingratitude! thou marble-hearted fiend,
More hideous, when thou shew'st thee in a child,
Than the sea-monster!
Albany. Pray, sir, be patient.
Lear. Detested kite! thou liest. [To
My train are men of choice and rarest parts,
That all particulars of duty know;
And in the most exact regard support
The worships of their name.----O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia shew!
Which, like an engine, wrench'd my frame of nature
From the fixt place; drew from my heart all love,
And added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at the gate, that let thy folly in, [Striking his head.
And thy dear judgment out!----Go, go, my people!
Albany. My lord, I am guiltless, as I am ignorant
Of what hath mov'd you.
Lear. It may be so, my lord----
Hear, nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen: that it may live,
To be a thwart disnatur'd torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother's pains, and benefits,
To laughter and contempt; that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!----Away, away! [Exit.
Albany. Now, gods, that we adore, whereof comes this?
Gonerill. Never afflict yourself to know the cause;
But let his disposition have that scope
That dotage gives it.
Lear. What, fifty of my followers at a clap!|
Within a fortnight!
Albany. What's the matter, sir?
Lear. I'll tell thee; life and death! I am asham'd
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus: [To
That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them.----Blasts and fogs upon thee!
The untented woundings of a father's curse
Pierce every sense about thee!----Old fond eyes
Beweep this cause again, I'll pluck you out;
And cast you, with the waters that you lose,
To temper clay.----Ha! is it come to this?
Let it be so:----Yet have I left a daughter,
Who, I am sure, is kind and comfortable;
When she shall hear this of thee, with her nails
She'll flee thy wolfish visage. Thou shalt find,
That I'll resume the shape, which thou dost think
I have cast off for ever. [Exeunt Lear, Kent, and Attendants."
This is certainly fine: no wonder that Lear
says after it, "O let me not be mad, not mad,
sweet heavens," feeling its effects by anticipation:
but fine as is this burst of rage and indignation
at the first blow aimed at his hopes and
expectations, it is nothing near so fine as what follows
from his double disappointment, and his
lingering efforts to see which of them he shall
lean upon for support and find comfort in, when
both his daughters turn against his age and
weakness. It is with some difficulty that Lear
gets to speak with his daughter Regan, and her
husband, at Gloster's castle. In concert with
Gonerill they have left their own home on purpose
to avoid him. His apprehensions are
first alarmed by this circumstance, and when
Gloster, whose guests they are, urges the fiery
temper of the Duke of Cornwall as an excuse
for not importuning him a second time, Lear
"Vengeance! Plague! Death! Confusion!|
Fiery? What fiery quality? Why, Gloster,
I'd speak with the Duke of Cornwall and his wife."
Afterwards, feeling perhaps not well himself;
he is inclined to admit their excuse from illness,
but then recollecting that they have set his messenger
(Kent) in the stocks, all his suspicions
are roused again, and he insists on seeing them.
"Enter CORNWALL, REGAN, GLOSTER, and Servants.
Lear. Good-morrow to you both.|
Cornwall. Hail to your
grace! [Kent is set at liberty.
Regan. I am glad to see your highness.
Lear. Regan, I think you are; I know what reason
I have to think so: if thou should'st not be glad,
I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb,
Sepulch'ring an adultress.----O, are you free? [To Kent.
Some other time for that.----Beloved Regan,
Thy sister's naught: O Regan, she hath tied
Sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here---- [Points to his
I can scarce speak to thee; thou'lt not believe,
Of how deprav'd a quality----O Regan!
Regan. I pray you, sir, take patience; I have hope
You less know how to value her desert,
Than she to scant her duty.
Lear. Say, how is that?
Regan. I cannot think my sister in the least
Would fail her obligation; if, sir, perchance,
She have restrain'd the riots of your followers,
'Tis on such ground, and to such wholesome end,
As clears her from all blame.
Lear. My curses on her!
Regan. O. sir, you are old;
Nature in you stands on the very verge
Of her confine: you should be rul'd, and led
By some discretion, that discerns your state
Better than you yourself: therefore, I pray you,
That to our sister you do make return;
Say, you have wrong'd her, sir.
Lear. Ask her forgiveness?
Do you but mark how this becomes the use?
Dear daughter, I confess that I am old;
Age is unnecessary; on my knees I beg,
That you'll vouchsafe me raiment, bed, and food.
Regan. Good sir, no more; these are unsightly tricks:
Return you to my sister.
Lear. Never, Regan:
She hath abated me of half my train;
Look'd blank upon me; struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart:----
All the stor'd vengeances of heaven fall
On her ungrateful top! Strike her young bones,
You taking airs, with lameness!
Cornwall. Fie, sir, fie!
Lear. You nimble lightnings, dart your blinding flames
Into her scornful eyes! Infect her beauty,
You fen-suck'd fogs, drawn by the powerful sun,
To fall, and blast her pride!
Regan. O the blest gods!
So will you wish on me, when the rash mood is on.
Lear. No, Regan, thou shalt never have my curse;
Thy tender-hefted nature shall not give
Thee o'er to harshness; her eyes are fierce, but thine
Do comfort, and not burn: 'Tis not in thee
To grudge my pleasures, to cut off my train,
To bandy hasty words, to scant my sizes,
And, in conclusion, to oppose the bolt
Against my coming in: thou better know'st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude;
Thy half o' the kingdom thou hast not forgot,
Wherein I thee endow'd.
Regan. Good sir, to the
purpose. [Trumpets within.
Lear. Who put my man i' the stocks?
Cornwall. What trumpet's that?
Regan. I know't, my sister's: this approves her letter,|
That she would soon be here.--Is your lady come?
Lear. This is a slave, whose easy-borrow'd pride
Dwells in the fickle grace of her he follows:----
Out, varlet, from my sight!
Cornwall. What means your grace?
Lear. Who stock'd my servant? Regan, I have good hope
Thou did'st not know on't.----Who comes here? O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway|
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause; send down, and take my part!--
Art not asham'd to look upon this beard ?-- [To
O, Regan, wilt thou take her by the hand?
Gonerill. Why not by the hand, sir? How have I offended?
All's not offence, that indiscretion finds,
And dotage terms so.
Lear. O, sides, you are too tough!
Will you yet hold?--How came my man i' the stocks?
Cornwall. I set him there, sir: but his own disorders
Deserv'd much less advancement.
Lear. You! did you?
Regan. I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
If, till the expiration of your month,
You will return and sojourn with my sister,
Dismissing half your train, come then to me;
I am now from home, and out of that provision
Which shall be needful for your entertainment.
Lear. Return to her, and fifty men dismiss'd?
No, rather I abjure all roofs, and choose
To be a comrade with the wolf and owl----
To wage against the enmity o' the air,
Necessity's sharp pinch!----Return with her!
Why, the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took
Our youngest born, I could as well be brought
To knee his throne, and squire-like pension beg
To keep base life afoot.----Return with her!
Persuade me rather to be slave and sumpter
To this detested groom. [Looking on the Steward.
Gonerill. At your choice, sir.
Lear. Now, I pr'ythee, daughter, do not make me mad;
I will not trouble thee, my child; farewell:
We'll no more meet, no more see one another:----
But yet thou art my flesh, my blood, my daughter;
Or, rather, a disease that's in my flesh,
Which I must needs call mine: thou art a bile,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood. But I'll not chide thee;
Let shame come when it will, I do not call it:
I did not bid the thunder-bearer shoot,
Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove:
Mend, when thou canst; be better, at thy leisure:
I can be patient; I can stay with Regan,
I, and my hundred knights.
Regan. Not altogether so, sir;
I look'd not for you yet, nor am provided
For your fit welcome: Give ear, sir, to my sister;
For those that mingle reason with your passion
Must be content to think you old, and so----
But she knows what she does.
Lear. Is this well spoken now?
Regan. I dare avouch it, sir: What, fifty followers?
Is it not well? What should you need of more?
Yea, or so many? Sith that both charge and danger
Speak 'gainst so great a number? How, in one house,
Should many people, under two commands,
Hold amity? 'Tis hard; almost impossible.
Gonerill. Why might not you, my lord, receive attendance
From those that she calls servants, or from mine?
Regan. Why not, my lord? If then they chanc'd to slack you,
We would controul them: if you will come to me
(For now I spy a danger) I entreat you
To bring but five-and-twenty; to no more
Will I give place, or notice.
Lear. I gave you all----
Regan. And in good time you gave it.
Lear. Made you my guardians, my depositaries;
But kept a reservation to be follow'd
With such a number: what, must I come to you
With five-and-twenty, Regan! said you so?
Regan. And speak it again, my lord; no more with me.
Lear. Those wicked creatures yet do look well-favour'd,
When others are more wicked; not being the worst,
Stands in some rank of praise:----I'll go with thee; [To
Thy fifty yet doth double five-and-twenty,
And thou art twice her love.
Gonerill. Hear me, my lord;
What need you five-and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house, where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
Regan. What need one?
Lear. O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st;
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.----But, for true need----
You heavens, give me that patience which I need!
You see me here, you gods; a poor old man,
As fun of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters' hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger!
O, let no woman's weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man's cheeks!----No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall----I will do such things----
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think, I'll weep:
No, I'll not weep:----
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or e'er I'll weep:----O, fool, I shall go mad!
[Exeunt Lear, Gloster, Kent, and Fool."
If there is any thing in any author like this
yearning of the heart, these throes of tenderness,
this profound expression of all that can be
thought and felt in the most heart rending situations,
we are glad of it; but it is in some author
that we have not read.
The scene in the storm, where he is exposed
to all the fury of the elements, though grand
and terrible, is not so fine, but the moralising
scenes with Mad Tom, Kent, and Gloster, are
upon a par with the former. His exclamation
in the supposed trial-scene of his daughters,
"See the little dogs and all, Tray, Blanch, and
Sweetheart, see they bark at me," his issuing his
orders, "Let them anatomize Regan, see what
breeds about her heart," and his reflection when
he sees the misery of Edgar, "Nothing but his
unkind daughters could have brought him to
this," are in a style of pathos, where the extremest
resources of the imagination are called in to lay
open the deepest movements of the heart, which
was peculiar to Shakespear. In the same style
and spirit is his interrupting the Fool who asks,
"whether a madman be a gentleman or a yeoman,"
by answering "A king, a king!"--
The indirect part that Gloster takes in these
scenes where his generosity leads him to relieve
Lear and resent the cruelty of his daughters, at
the very time that he is himself instigated to
seek the life of his son, and suffering under the
sting of his supposed ingratitude, is a striking
accompaniment to the situation of Lear. Indeed,
the manner in which the threads of the
story are woven together is almost as wonderful
in the way of art as the carrying on the tide of
passion, still varying and unimpaired, is on the
score of nature. Among the remarkable instances
of this kind are Edgar's meeting with
his old blind father; the deception he practices
upon him when he pretends to lead him to the
top of Dover-cliff--"Come on, sir, here's the
place," to prevent his ending his life and miseries
together; his encounter with the perfidious
Steward whom he kills, and his finding the letter
from Gonerill to his brother upon him which
leads to the final catastrophe, and brings the
Wheel of Justice "full circle home" to the guilty
parties. The bustle and rapid succession of
events in the last scenes is surprising. But the
meeting between Lear and Cordelia is by far the
most affecting part of them. It has all the wildness
of poetry, and all the heartfelt truth of nature.
The previous account of her reception of
the news of his unkind treatment, her involuntary
reproaches to her sisters, "Shame, ladies, shame,"
Lear's backwardness to see his daughter, the
picture of the desolate state to which he is reduced,
"Alack, 'tis he; why he was met even
now, as mad as the vex'd sea, singing aloud,"
only prepare the way for and heighten our expectation
of what follows, and assuredly this expectation
is not disappointed when through the
tender care of Cordelia he revives and recollects her.
"Cordelia. How does my royal lord? How fares your majesty!|
Lear. You do me wrong, to take me out o' the grave:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead.
Cordelia. Sir, do you know me?
Lear. You are a spirit I know: when did you die?
Cordelia. Still, still, far wide!
Physician. He's scarce awake; let him alone awhile.
Lear. Where have I been? Where am I?--Fair daylight?----
I am mightily abus'd.--I should even die with pity,
To see another thus.--I know not what to say.----
I will not swear these are my hands:--let's see;
I feel this pin prick. 'Would I were assur'd
Of my condition.
Cordelia. O, look upon me, sir,
And hold your hands in benediction o'er me:----
No, sir, you must not kneel.
Lear. Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward;
Not an hour more, nor less: and, to deal plainly,
I fear, I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks, I shou'd know you, and know this man;
Yet I am doubtful: for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is; and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments; nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night: do not laugh at me;
For, as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.
Cordelia. And so I am, I am!"
Almost equal to this in awful beauty is their
consolation of each other when, after the triumph
of their enemies, they are led to prison.
"Cordelia. We are not the first,|
Who, with best meaning, have incurr'd the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.----
Shall we not see these daughters, and these sisters?
Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too--
Who loses, and who wins; who's in, who's out;--
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God' spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
Edmund. Take them away.
Lear. Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense."
The concluding events are sad, painfully sad,
but their pathos is extreme. The oppression of
the feelings is relieved by the very interest we
take in the misfortunes of others, and by the reflections
to which they give birth. Cordelia is
hanged in prison by the orders of the bastard
Edmund, which are known too late to be countermanded,
and Lear dies broken-hearted, lamenting over her.
"Lear. And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life:|
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!----
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir."----
He dies, and indeed we feel the truth of what
Kent says on the occasion--
"Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him,|
That would upon the rack of this rough world
Stretch him out longer."
Yet a happy ending has been contrived for
this play, which is approved of by Dr. Johnson
and condemned by Schlegel. A better authority
than either, on any subject in which poetry
and feeling are concerned, has given it in favour
of Shakespear, in some remarks on the acting
of Lear, with which we shall conclude this account.
"The LEAR of Shakespear cannot be acted.
The contemptible machinery with which they
mimic the storm which 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 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 rage;
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 daughters
and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we
discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning,
immethodised 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 the voice or the eye to do
with such things? But the play is beyond all
art, as the tamperings with it shew: 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.
Tate has put his hook in the nostrils of this
Leviathan, for Garrick and his followers, the
shewmen 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 worlds 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."
[See an article, called Theatralia, in the second volume
of the Reflector, by Charles Lamb.]
Four things have struck us in reading LEAR:
1. That poetry is an interesting study, for
this reason, that it relates to whatever is most
interesting in human life. Whoever therefore
has a contempt for poetry, has a contempt for
himself and humanity.
2. That the language of poetry is superior to
the language of painting; because the strongest
of our recollections relate to feelings, not to faces.
3. That the greatest strength of genius is
shewn in describing the strongest passions: for
the power of the imagination, in works of invention,
must be in proportion to the force of the natural
impressions, which are the subject of them.
4. That the circumstance which balances the
pleasure against the pain in tragedy is, that in
proportion to the greatness of the evil, is our
sense and desire of the opposite good excited;
and that our sympathy with actual suffering is
lost in the strong impulse given to our natural
affections, and carried away with the swelling
tide of passion, that gushes from and relieves the heart.