EDWARD DOWDEN'S 1893 CRITICAL STUDY OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S KING LEAR
by Edward Dowden 1893
King Lear, among the tragedies of passion, is the one in which passions assume the largest proportions, act upon the widest theatre, and attain their absolute extremes. The story of Lear and his daughters was found by Shakspere in Holinshed, and he may have taken a few hints from an old play, The True Chronicle History of King Leir &c. In both Holinshed 's version and that of the True Chronicle, the army of Lear and his French allies is victorious; Lear is reinstated in his kingdom; but Holinshed relates how, after Lear's death, her sisters' sons warred against Cordelia, and took her prisoner, when 'being a woman of manly courage and despairing to recover liberty', she slew herself. The story is also told by Higgins in The Mirror for Magistrates; by Spenser (Fairie Queene, II. x.27-32), from whom Shakespeare adopted the form of the name 'Cordelia'; and in a ballad (printed in Percy's Reliques) probably later in date than Shakespere's play. With the story of Lear Shakspere connects that of Gloucester and his two sons. An episode in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia supplied characters and incidents for this portion of the play, Sidney's blind king of Paphlagonia corresponding to the Gloucester of Shakspere. But here, too, the story had in the dramatist's original a happy ending: the Paphlagonian king is restored to his throne, and the brothers are reconciled.
The date of Shakspere's play is probably 1605 or 1606. It was entered on the Stationers' register, Nov.26, 1607, and the entry states that it had been acted 'upon St. Stephan's day at Christmas last,' i.e. Dec. 26, 1606. The play was printed in quarto in 1608. 'An upward limit of date is supplied by the publication of Harsnet's Declaration of Popish Impostures, 1603, to which Shakspere was indebted for the names of many of the devils in Edgar's speeches.' It has been suggested that Gloucester's mention of 'late eclipses in the sun and moon' (Act I. Sc. ii, L. 112) refers to the great eclipse of the sun, October, 1605, preceded within a month by an eclipse of the moon, and that the words which follow shortly after the mention of eclipses, 'machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves,' had special point if delivered on the stage while the Gunpowder Plot of Nov. 5, 1605, was fresh in men's minds.
Shakspere cares little to give the opening incidents of his play a look of prosaic, historical probability. The spectator or reader is asked, as it were, to grant the dramatist certain data, and then to observe what the imagination can make of the. Good and evil in this play are clearly severed from one another - (more so than in Macbeth or in Othello) - and at the last, goodness, if we judge merely by external fortune, would seem to be, if not defeated, at least not triumphant. Shakspere has dared, while paying little regard to mere historical verisimilitude, to represent the most solemn and awful mysteries of life as they actually are, without attempting to offer a ready-made explanation of them. Cordelia dies strangled in prison; yet we know that her devotion of love was not misspent. Lear expires in an agony of grief; but he has been delivered from his pride and passionate wilfulness: he has found that instead of being a master, at whose nod all things must bow, he is weak and helpless, a sport even of the wind an the rain; his ignorance of true love, and pleasure in false professions of love, have given place to an agonised clinging to the love which is real, deep, and tranquil because of it fulness. Lear is the greatest sufferer in Shakspere's plays; though so old, he has strength which makes him a subject for prolonged and vast agony; and patience is unknown to him. The elements seem to have conspired against him with his unnatural daughters; the upheavel of the moral world, and the rage of tempest in the air seem to be parts of the same gigantic convulsion. In the midst of this tempest wanders unhoused the white-haired Lear; while his fool - most pathetic of all the minor characters of Shakspere - jests half-wildly, half-coherently, half-bitterly, half-tenderly, and always with a sad remembrance of the happier past. The poor boy's heart has been sore ever since his 'young mistress went to France.'
If Cordelia is pure love, tender and faithful, and Kent is unmingled loyalty, the monsters Goneril and Regan are gorgons rather tahn women, such as Shakspere has nowhere else conceived. The aspect of Goneril can almost turn to stone; in Regan's tongue there is a viperous hiss. Goneril is the more formidable, because the more incapable of any hatred which is not solid and four-square. Regan acts under her sister's influence, but has an eager venomousness of her own. The story of Gloucester enlarges the basis of the tragedy. Lear's afflication is no mere private incident; there is a breaking of the bonds of nature and society all around us. But Gloucester is suffering for a former sin of self-indulgence, Lear is 'more sinned against than sinning.' Yet Gloucester is granted a death which is half joyful. His afflication serves as a measure of the huger affliction of the king.
Edgar and Edmund are a contrasted pair - both are men of penetration, energy, and skill, one on the side of evil, the other on the side of good. Edgar's virtue is active, enduring, and full of device; he rises at last to be the justiciary who brings his evil brother sternly to punishment. Everywhere throughout the play Shakspere's imaginative daring impresses us. Nothing in poetry is bolder or more wonderful than the scene on the night of the tempest in the hovel where the king, whose intellect has now given way, is in company with Edgar, assuming madness, the Fool, with his forced pathetic mirth, and Kent.
The text of the quarto differs considerably from that of the folio; but the opinion that the later text - that of the folio - exhibits a revision of his own work by Shakspere is not supported by sufficient evidence. 'The folio was printed from an independent manuscript, and its text is on the whole much superior to that of the quartos. Each, however, supplies passages which are wanting in the other.' Scene iii of Act IV is not found in the folio.