SECOND ARTICLE : PLOT AND PERSONAGES.
SHAKESPEARE was forty-one years old when he wrote King Lear. Just at the time of life when a well-constituted, healthy man has attained the maturity of his faculties, he produced the work in which we see his mind in all its might and majesty. He had then been an actor some fourteen or fifteen years, and of his greater plays he had written Romeo and Juliet, Richard III., The Merchant of Venice, King Henry IV., Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, Hamlet, and Measure for Measure. In the case of a man who mingled himself so little with his work, who was, in other words, so objective a poet, it is not safe to infer the condition of his mind from the tone of his writings. But it is worthy of remark that King Lear quickly followed Measure for Measure, and came next to it as an original play, and was itself followed next by Timon of Athens, and that in these three plays the mirror that is held up to human nature tells more revolting and alarming truths than are revealed in all his other plays together. Not in all the rest is the sum of the counts of his indictment of the great criminal so great, so grave, so black, so damning. Hardly is there to be gathered from all the others so many personages who are so bad in all the ways of badness as the majority of those are which figure in these three.
It is, however, apart from this fact that these plays are so strongly significant of Shakespeare’s judgment of mankind in his forty - second year. For, types of badness as these personages are, what they say is tenfold more condemnatory than what they do. The aphoristic anthology of Measure for Measure, King Lear, and Timon of Athens would make the blackest pages in the records of the judgments against mankind. Moreover, the chief dramatic motives of all these plays are selfishness and ingratitude; while in two of them, King Lear and Timon, we find the principal personage expecting to buy love and words ot; love and deeds of love with bounteous gifts, and going mad with disappointment at not receiving what he thinks his due. For Timon in the forest, although he is not insane, is surely the subject of a self-inflicted monomania. Difficult as it is to trace Shakespeare himself in his plays, we can hardly err in concluding that there must have been in his experience of life and in the condition of his mind some reason for his production within three years, and with no intermediate relief, of three such plays as those in question. And the play which came between Measure for Measure and King Lear, All’s Well that Ends Well, although it is probably the product of the working over of an earlier play called Love’s Labours Won, can hardly be said to break the continuity of feeling which runs through its predecessor and its two immediate successors. In All’s Well we have Parolles, the vilest and basest character, although not the most wickedly malicious, that Shakespeare wrought; and its hero, Bertram, is so coldly and brutally selfish that it is hard to forgive Helena her loving him. Indeed, the tone of the play finds an echo in the last lines of the Clown’s song : —
And gave this sentence then;
Among nine bad if one be good,
Among nine bad if one be good,
There’s still one good in ten.”
Was it by sheer chance and hap-hazard that Shakespeare reverted to this unpleasant story and these repulsive personages at the time when, within three years, he wrote Measure for Measure, King Lear, and Timon of Athens ?
Although, in King Lear, Shakespeare owed less to the authors from whom he took his plot than was customary with him in such cases, the general notion that he owed little (which seems to me rather confirmed than shaken by what Mr. Furness says) is altogether erroneous. The truth is that in regard to plot, incidents, personages and their characters he (as his manner was) owed, not everything, but almost everything, to his predecessors. In the construction of the tragedy all that is his is the uniting of two stories, —that of Lear and that of Gloucester, — which he wrought into one, by mighty strength and subtle art welding them together white-heated in the glowing fire of his imagination ; and the change which he made in the issue of the fortunes of Lear and of Cordelia ; for in the legend Cordelia triumphs, reseats her father on the throne, succeeds him, is at last rebelled against by the sons of Goneril and Regan, deposed, and put in prison, “ wherewith she took suche griefe, being a woman of manlie courage, and despairing to recover libertie there, she slue herself.” Verily, these are great exceptions ; the latter even one that suggests Shakespeare’s own declaration that “ there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Nevertheless, the fact that he did find in the work of foregone writers, in chronicle, in legend, in poem, in play, and in novel, all the rest of the framework, the skeleton, of this his masterpiece, is one the importance of which in the formation of a judgment of his methods, of his purposes, and of the one apparent limit of his genius cannot be overrated.
Most of the readers of The Atlantic probably know that the story of Lear and his three daughters is of great antiquity, and was told by many writers in prose and verse who preceded Shakespeare. He, we may he sure, read it in Holinshed and in the old play of King Leir. The division of the kingdom ; the extravagant professions of love by Goneril and Regan; the reserve of Cordelia ; the wrath of the disappointed old king; the endeavor of Kent (called Perillus) to avert the consequences of his anger from his youngest daughter ; the marriage of the elder sisters to Cornwall and Albany, and of the youngest to the king of France; Lear’s living with the former alternately, attended by a retinue of knights ; the ingratitude of Goneril and Regan ; the return of Cordelia to Britain with a French army to reëstablish her father, —all this was material made to Shakespeare’s hand. And not only this : the different characters of the personages in this story all existed in germ and in outline before he took it up as the subject of this tragedy. So as to the story of Gloucester and his two sons, which was told by Sir Philip Sidney in his Arcadia. Shakespeare found there the father, loving, kind hearted, but suspicious, and weak in principle and in mind; the bastard, an ungrateful villain ; the legitimate son, a model of filial affection ; the attempt of his suspicious and deceived father to kill him; and even the loss of Gloucester’s eyes, and his contrivance to commit suicide by getting his son to lead him to the verge of a cliff, whence he might cast himself down : all is there, — the incidents, the personages, and their characters. How absurd, then, are the attempts to make out a “ philosophy ” of Shakespeare’s dramas, to find out their “ inner life,” to show that this or that incident in them had a profound psychological purpose and meaning! He simply took his stories and his personages as he found them, and wrought them into such dramas as he thought would interest the audiences that came to the Globe Theatre. And they were interested in the stories, in the personages, and in their fortunes. They read little ; and they saw the stories on the stage instead of reading them in a printed page. He made the stories thus tell themselves as no man had ever done before, or has done since, or will do hereafter. Doing this, he accomplished all his purpose, and fulfilled all their desire. The poetry, the philosophy, the revelation of knowledge of the world and of the human heart, in which he has been equaled by no other of the sons of men, were all merely incidental to his purpose of entertaining his hearers profitably to himself. Being the man that his father had begotten him and his mother had borne him, if he did the former he must do the latter. If he made any effort at all, it was as easy for him to write in his way as it was for the other playwrights of his time to write in theirs. He talked as he wrote, and wrote as he talked. One of the few facts that we know concerning Shakespeare is this one. Ben Jonson tells it of him. He poured out the rich fruitage of his exhaustless fancy and his ever-creating imagination, until his hearers were borne down and overwhelmed with it. And his fellowactors, in presenting the first authentic edition of his plays to the world, said, “ And what he thought he uttered with that easinesse that wee have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.”
That it was the story that he told upon the stage, and his way of telling it, which interested the public of his day, is shown by the history of the text of this very drama. To us it is a great tragedy, the greatest dramatic poem in all literature ; but when its great success created a demand for it to be read as well as seen, it was published as “ Mr. William Shakespeare his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters, with the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam, as it was played,” etc. It was not the dramatic poem, but the true chronicle history, that captivated the public mind, which also was interested, it would seem, no less in the strange masquerade of an earl’s son in the shape of a Bedlam beggar (the least impressive and the least valuable part of the play as a work of art) than in the woes of the self-dethroned monarch. But there was another drama founded upon the story of King Lear; and the immeasurable superiority, in the public judgment, of the new dramatic version of that story is evinced by the anxiety of its publisher to advertise which one he had for sale. The pronoun his was then used as a mere form of the possessive case, as we use the apostrophe with s. Mr. Benjamin Jonson his comedy of Every Man in his Humor meant merely Mr. Benjamin Jonson’s comedy, etc. But on the titlepages of the first and of the second edition of this tragedy, his was not only printed in large italic capital letters, but was made a line by itself, thus, —
MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
TRUE CHRONICLE HISTORIE, ETC.,—in order that the buyer might have no doubt as to which King Lear he was getting. This use of his at that time is unique.
Now what was it that this Mr. William Shakespeare, a third-rate, money-making actor at the Globe Theatre at the Bankside, did to set all London running after his King Lear, in disregard of any other ? What it was may be shown by simply comparing two corresponding passages, one in the old play and one in the new, which the readers of Mr. Furness’s edition are enabled to do by his very full abstract of the former, from which he makes copious extracts. In the old play, when King Lear disinherits Cordelia, he says to her, —
I will not heare thee speake one tittle more.
Call me not father if thou love thy life,
Nor these thy sisters once presume to name:
Looke for no helpe henceforth from me or mine ;
Shift as thou wilt, and trust unto thyself.”
After Lear, Goneril, and Regan have gone out, Perillus, the Kent of the old play, says, —
To dote so much upon vain flattering words!
Ah, if he but with good advice had weigh’d
The hidden tenure of her humble speech,
Reason to rage should not have given place,
Nor poor Cordelia suffer such disgrace.”
Let the reader now turn to Shakespeare’s play (for I cannot spare more room to quotation), and read Lear’s speech to Cordelia beginning, —
and the after broken dialogue between Lear and Kent, — that splendid tilt between tyranny and independence, in which independence for the time goes under ; and by this brief comparison he will find the great although not the only secret of Shakespeare’s power revealed. It will be seen (and it is important to remark) that the conception of the scene and of the feelings and opinions of the personages was much the same in the writers of both passages. All that Shakespeare did here is suggested by what his predecessor had done. But the work of one is trite, commonplace, dull, flat, stupid, dead ; to describe worthily that of the other, in its fitness to the strange, rude scene, in its revelation of the emotions of the speakers, and above all in its exuberant vitality, would require a command of words equal to that of him who wrote it. There is no other so grandly fierce an altercation to be found on any page. The mature man at the hundredth reading finds it stir his blood just as it first did when the downy hair of his cold young flesh stood up, as he felt alternately with the despotic old king and with his bold, faithful, loving servant.
And yet, regarded in itself, and simply on its merits, the action in this whole scene, excepting that of Kent, is so unreasonable and unnatural as to be almost absurd; yes, quite absurd. The king’s solicitation of the flattery of his daughters is absurd, unworthy of a reasonable creature ; the flattery of the elder sisters is nauseously absurd; the reserve of Cordelia is foolishly absurd ; the instant change of feeling in the king is absurd to the verge of incredibility. But for this Shakespeare is not responsible, except in so far as he is made so by the choice of the story. For all this is in the story; and it is the story that is absurd, not Shakespeare. What he did was to see in it its great capability of dramatic treatment, notwithstanding its absurdity. Lear’s purposed division of his kingdom, his behavior to his daughters and their behavior to him, and his consequent disinheritance of the youngest are a postulate which is not to be questioned. They are absurd, but without their absurdity there would have been no play. Let us accept their absurdity, say nothing, and be thankful. For with the disinheriting of Cordelia the absurdity stops short; it does not last one moment longer; it does not infect one line of any subsequent speech. To this remark there is one exception, — the scene in which Gloucester is deluded into believing that he has thrown himself from Dover cliff. But again, this incident is from the story in Sidney’s Arcadia, which Shakespeare used. True, he develops and enriches it, and gilds its absurdity with crusted gold of thought and language, but he does not essentially change it; giving thus (for he might have omitted this incident or have altered it) an illustration of his habitual copiousness of imagination and of fancy, and of his no less habitual parsimony, if not of his poverty, of constructive skill.
In this first scene is deployed the whole potentiality of the tragedy. The germ of every character, the spring of every dramatic motive developed during the whole five acts, is to be found there ; and every personage of any importance is there, excepting the Fool and the legitimate Edgar, who after all is not a very important or a very dramatic person, and who is chiefly interesting to that part of an audience which likes to be called upon to sympathize with virtue in distress, and to have its curiosity excited by seeing a nobleman in the disguise of a beggar. Edgar performs, however, a very useful function as a provocative to the half - insane sententiousness of Lear in the hovel and at the farm-house (Act III., Sc. 4 and 6), and as a means to help the progress of the play and to bring it to a close. He is a very good young man; but, like many other good young men, he is not interesting in himself; he is only the occasion of our interest in others. The drama neither rests upon him, nor moves by his means ; and yet without him it would halt.
Among all the personages of the tragedy who take a sufficient part in the action to fill any space in the mind’s eye of the reader, or to dwell in his memory, Edgar is the only one whose character and conduct are entirely beyond reproach. For in this play, in which from its first scene to its last our minds are kept upon the stretch of tense anxiety, the people whose hopes and fears we share and whose woes pierce us with a personal pang are no model men and women. Strength and weakness, good and ill, even nobility and meanness, appear in them side by side, mingled in varying proportions. Like Lear’s hand, they all smell of mortality. Some, indeed. as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan, are mere reptiles or wild beasts in human form, and yet even these are not allowed to go entirely without our sympathy ; but the best of them, Cordelia, is infected with a vice of soul which taints her whole being, until it is purged thence by the sorrow with which it floods her loving heart.
The very first scene shows us, as I have said, the characters of all these personages with more or less completeness. The very first sentence, Kent’s speech, “ I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall,” shows us that Lear had the gift to know men, as the subsequent conduct of Albany and Cornwall proves. Gloucester’s second speech, in regard to his bastard son and that son’s mother, reveals his weakness, the sin which doth most easily beset him, and no less the frankness of his nature, his boldness in assuming the responsibility of his acts, his capacity of love and confidence. Lear comes in, and instantly dominates the scene ; somewhat because of his royalty of station, but far more because of his majesty of person and of bearing. At once his grand figure casts a shadow that lies all along his life to its dark end. We readers of Shakespeare know that end ; but did we not know it, could we fail to see, or at least to apprehend, what must be the end when that haughty heart, as loving as a woman’s and as exacting, not content with love in life, but craving assurance of it in flattering words, strips itself of the fact of royalty, and, hoping to retain the semblance, lays itself down unshielded by a crown before the claws and fangs of Goneril and Regan, those she-monsters of a dark and monster-bearing age? The man who detected the superior nature of Albany in the two suitors who were recommending themselves to his favor, and who yet could be willfully blind to the cruelty and selfishness of their wives because they were his daughters, and who could turn in wrath upon his little favorite, his last and least, and disinherit her because she did not pour out in fulsome words the love which he knew she bore him, ethically deserved an end of grief, and was psychologically a fit subject of insanity. And by what marvelous untraceable touch of art is it that Shakespeare has conveyed to us that Lear, in his casting off Cordelia, is half conscious all the while that he is doing wrong? The intuitive perception of the fitness of such a man to be the central figure in such a tragedy as this, and of the moral righteousness of the afflictions which he lays upon him and the sad inevitableness of the end to which he brings him, is a manifestation of Shakespeare’s dramatic genius hardly less impressive than his execution of the work itself.
Lear, although of a kindly, loving nature, and in certain aspects very grand and noble, is yet largely capable of a very mean passion, revenge, the basest of the three passions — the others being pride, and its offspring jealousy — winch cause the chief misery of human life. Revenge says not to the wrongdoer,—You shall do me right, you shall make restoration ; those are the words of justice; but, — I have suffered, and therefore I wish you to suffer. I will pray in my heart, if not with my tongue, that you may suffer, and if I have my opportunity I will make you suffer at my own hand, although I know that this will do nothing to right the wrong that you have done. Lear, stung by the ingratitude of Goneril, prays openly, and manifestly prays with his whole heart, that she may undergo all the sorrow and pain that can be borne by woman. It is frightful to hear this old man, in the revulsion of feeling, imprecate misery illimitable upon his own daughter, He prays in general terms for inexpressible anguish to fall upon her; he prays for particular ills and pains with horrible and almost loathsome specification : —
On her ingrateful top ! Strike her young bones
You taking airs with lameness ! ”
He has before this poured out the gall of his bitterness upon Goneril herself in what is usually called his curse. But it is not a curse ; it is a prayer, — a passionate plea to the powers of nature that they will inflict upon her the extremest agony of soul that can be felt by woman. He asks that it may come in all its completeness ; he omits nothing, not even the laughter and contempt that women feel so much more keenly than men do. The prayer would shock and revolt the whole world, were it not that it closes with those lines that cause sympathy to flash like a flame from the hearts of all born of woman: — — “that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! ”
And he deliberately threatens revenge, if we may say that after Goneril’s treatment of him he does anything deliberately : —
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall — I will do such tilings —
What they are yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.”
Poor raving, impotent threatener, menacing others with nameless terrors, himself condemned to suffer the extremity of grief as the consequence of his own folly, and to die with just enough intellect to know the utterness of his misery!
His very insanity, or the exciting cause of his insanity, Lear brings upon himself. For he is not driven out into the storm, or driven out at all; although he speaks, and leads others to speak, as if he were, and such has consequently been the general verdict. But after his threat, without one word from Regan or from Cornwall, he rushes into the open, and himself seeks in the storm what is at first a grateful and sympathetic companionship of turbulence (Act III., Sc. 2). Regan will not have any of his hundred knights, but she will take him. Detestable as she and her husband are in their stony, cruel selfishness, we feel that, so far as the king’s action is concerned, there is some reason in what they say when he turns his back upon them and shelter: —
Reg. The house is little; the old man and his people
Cannot be well bestowed.
Corn. 'T is his own blame; hath put himself from rest
And must needs taste his folly.
Reg. For his particular, I ’ll receive him gladly;
But not one follower.
Shakespeare meant that this should be considered, and also intentionally made Lear by exaggeration misrepresent his treatment.
And this brings to mind that, except with childish or unreasoning readers, the two elder sisters are at first not altogether without reason for the conduct at which he rages himself into frenzy. His proposed sojourn with them alternately, accompanied by a retinue of a hundred knights, was inherently sure to breed confusion and disturbance. Malicious art could not have devised a plan better fitted to bring itself to an end in turmoil and exasperation. It is with some sympathy with Goneril that every man or woman of family experience hears her complaint about the throng of men, “ so disordered, so debosh’d and bold,” that they made her castle “ seem like a riotous inn.” We know that it could not have been otherwise. And yet her father at once breaks forth, “ Darkness and devils ! Saddle my horses ! ”
There is no justification of Lear’s conduct, hardly any excuse for it, up to the time when he rushes out into the storm. He was not insane ; he had not even begun to be insane before that time; and after that time we may almost say that he seeks madness. In the fury of his wrath as an offended king and of his morbid grief as an outraged father, his intellect commits a sort of suicide. As other men throw themselves into the water, he throws himself into the storm, hoping to find oblivion in the counter-irritation of its severity. The robustness of his frame and the strength of his will sustain him for a while; and it is his old brain which first gives way, — as he felt that it would, and yet was reckless of the danger.
From the time when Lear first shows signs of breaking down, which is in the scene before the hovel (Act III., Sc. 4), where he meets Edgar disguised as poor Tom, I abandon all attempt to follow the gradual yet rapid ruin of his mind, which, like some strong and stately building sapped at its foundation, first cracks and crumbles, then yawns apart, and rushes headlong down, scattering its not yet quite dismembered beauties into confused heaps ; leaving some of them standing in all their majesty, with their riven interiors baldly exposed to view. Others (but I know them not) may have the words in which to picture this destruction ; but I confess that I have not, except in the futile way of recording the quickly succeeding stages of the catastrophe and cataloguing the items of the ruins. From this point the action of Lear’s mind may be apprehended, may even be comprehended, but to any good purpose, it seems to me, neither analyzed nor described. I can only contemplate it in silence, fascinated by its awfulness and by what all must feel to be its truth. For the strange, inexplicable power of this sad spectacle is that we who have not been insane like Lear, although like him we may have been foolish and headstrong, yet know that here is a true representation of the wreck of a strong nature, which has not fallen into decay, but has been rent into fragments. In the preceding scene Lear is not insane. The speech beginning,—
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads
Find out their enemies now,”
merely shows the tension of a mind strained to the last pitch of possible endurance, like a string upon a musical instrument which is stretched to the very point of breaking. But the string is not yet broken ; the instrument is still in tune. These words at the close of the speech, —
More sinned against than sinning,”
show that the speaker is still capable of a logical defense of his own actions ; and his next utterance, “ My wits begin to turn,” is evidence that they have not yet turned. Men who are insane believe that they alone are reasonable; and when Lear at last is crazed he makes no allusion to the condition of his intellect. When, at the end of this act, he returns to the feeble semblance of himself, in that pathetic passage in which he recognizes Cordelia, he says, “ I fear I am not in my perfect mind,” — a sure sign that his mind, although at once senile and childish, is no longer distracted.
After this he sinks rapidly; but in his speech to Cordelia, when they are brought in prisoners, in which he says that they will sing in prison “ like birds in a cage,” and “laugh at gilded butterflies,” he is not again insane. The tone of his mind has gone; he has passed even the pride of manliness, and has fallen to a point at which he can look upon the remnants of his former self without anger, and even with a gentle pity. Of all the creations of dramatic art this is the most marvelous. Art it must be, and yet art inexplicable. We might rather believe that Shakespeare, when he was writing these scenes, could say in Milton’s phrase, Myself am Lear. Strangest, perhaps, of all is the sustained royalty of Lear’s madness. For Lear, mad or sane, is always kingly. His very faults are those of a good-natured tyrant; and in his darkest hours his wrongs sit crowned and robed upon a throne. In looking upon his disintegrated mind, it is no common structure that we see cast down; it is a palace that lies before our eyes in ruins, — a palace, with all its splendor, its garniture of sweet and del icate beauty, and its royal and imposing arrogance of build.
To us of the present day who have a just appreciation of King Lear it is unactable, as Lamb has said already. It stands upon too lofty a plane ; its emotions are too mountainous to be within the reach of mimic art. The efforts of actors of flesh and blood to represent it are as futile as the attempts of the stage carpenter to represent that tempest with the rattling of his sheet-iron and the rumble of his cannon-balls. Nor has there been any actor in modern days who united in himself the person and the art required for the presentation of our ideal of King Lear. Garrick was too small; Kean too fiery and gypsy-like ; Kemble was physically fit for it, but too cold and artificial. As to any of the later actors, it is needless to describe the unfitness which they themselves have so ably illustrated.
Lear’s daughters form a trio that live in our minds like three figures of the old mythology. My acquaintance with King Lear began at a time when fairy stories had not lost their interest for me, — if indeed they have lost it, or will ever lose it, — and I associated Cordelia and her sisters with Cinderella and her sisters, and the likeness still lingers with me. Perhaps there is no other similarity than the cruel selfishness of the two elder women and the sweet and tender beauty of the youngest in both stories. And Cordelia, with all her gentle loveliness and charm, the influence of which pervades the play as the perfume of a hidden lily of the valley pervades the surrounding air, had one great fault, which is the spring of all the woes of this most woful of all tragedies. That fault was pride, the passion which led to the first recorded murder. Her pride revolted when she saw her royal father accept the sacrifice of her sisters’ falsehearted battery; and she shrank from laying down the offering of her true affection upon the altar which she felt they had profaned. She let her pride come between her and the father whom she so fondly loved. It was her pride and her determination to subdue her rivals, as much as her filial affection, that led her to invade her country with a foreign army, to restore him to his throne. And with her pride went its often attendant, a propensity to satire, the unloveliest trait that can mar a lovely woman’s character.
When, in the first scene, she demurely says,
Cordelia leaves you: I know you what you are,”
we feel that it is sharply said, but also that it might better have been left unsaid ; and we sympathize a little with Regan in her retort, “Prescribe not us our duties,” and with Goneril in hers, that Cordelia may now best turn her attention to pleasing the husband who has received her “at fortune’s alms.” Plutarch tells us rightly that ill deeds are forgiven sooner than sharp words. But it must be admitted that Cordelia’s pride stands her in good stead when, in Hudson’s happy phrase, “ she so promptly switches off her higgling suitor” with —
Since that respects of fortune are his love,
I shall not be his wife.”
But her pride and her speech to her sisters helped to destroy her father, and to put a halter round her own neck.
Edmund suggests Iago; hut with other minor differences, — differences of person and of manner, — there is this great unlikeness between them: Edmund is not spontaneously malicious; he is only supremely selfish and utterly unscrupulous. For he too has a comprehensible reason for his base and cruel actions. It was not his fault that he was illegitimate. He was no less his father’s son than Edgar was; and yet he found himself with a branded stigma upon his name. This is not even a palliation of his villainy; but it is a motive for it that may be understood. Iago’s villainy is the outcome of pure malignity of nature. He is the Fiend, who has taken a human shape. If Edmund had been horn in wedlock, he would still have been a bad man at heart; but he might have lived a reputable life and have done little harm. There are more such reputable men than we suspect. As it is, he uses all his gifts of mind and of person to gain his selfish ends, He has great ability and no scruples, — absolutely none. When these qualities are combined, as in him they were combined, with a fine person and attractive manners (and as they also were combined in Iago), the resulting power for evil is incalculable, almost unlimited.
But there must be absolutely no scruple. Most of the failures in villainy are the consequence of an imperfect solution between the villain and the sense of right and wrong. He is ready to do much that is evil, but not quite ready to do everything; and there comes a point at which he hesitates, and is lost. Both the sisters feel Edmund’s personal attraction, and respect his courage and enterprising spirit; and the astute Cornwall sees his ability, and says to him, " Natures of such deep trust we shall much need.” He has a touch of man’s nature in him that is absent in Iago. He prizes the preference of women. When he is dying, slain by Edgar, and the bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought in, he says, —
The one the other poisoned for my sake,
And after slew herself.”
And, as if brought by this feminine influence, bad as it was, within the range of human affections, he instantly does all that he can to stay the execution of his sentence of death upon Lear and Cordelia. dago goes out, a cold-blooded, malignant villain to the last.
And this suggests to me Shakespeare’s effort to mitigate the horrors of that revolting scene in which Gloucester’s eyes are torn out. The voice of humanity, otherwise stifled there, is heard in the speech and embodied in the action of the serving-man, who, with words that recall those of Kent to Lear in the first scene, breaks in upon his master, fights him, kills him, and is himself slain by the hand of Regan, — an outburst of manhood which is a great relief. Although Shakespeare found the incident of the loss of Gloucester’s eyes in the old story, and used it in a way which illustrated at once the savage manners of the time in which his tragedy was supposed to be acted and the cruelty of Cornwall and Regan, he intuitively shrank from leaving the scene in its otherwise bare and brutal hideousness.
One personage of importance remains who cannot be passed by unconsidered in an attempt to appreciate this drama. It needs hardly to be said that this is the Fool. What Shakespeare did not do, as well as what he did do, as a playwright has no better proof or illustration than in his Fools. He did not invent the personage ; he found it on the stage. Indeed he invented nothing ; he added nothing to the drama as he found it; he made nothing, not even the story of one of his own plays; he created nothing, save men and women, and Ariels and Calibans. What he did with the Fool was this. This personage is the resultant compound of the Vice, a rude allegorical personage constant in the old Moral Plays, and the court jester. He was a venter of coarse and silly ribaldry, and a player of practical jokes. Only so far back as the time of Shakespeare’s boyhood the Fool’s part was in most cases not written, and at the stage direction “ Stultus loquitur” (the Fool speaks) he performed his function extempore; and thus he continued to jape and to caper for the diversion of those who liked horse-play and ribaldry. But Shakespeare saw that the grinning toad had a jewel in his head, and touching him with his transforming pen shows him to us as he appears in As You Like It, in All’s Well that Ends Well, and last of all, and greatest, in King Lear. In this tragedy the Fool rises to heroic proportions, as he must have risen to be in keeping with his surroundings. He has wisdom enough to stock a college of philosophers, — wisdom which has come from long experience of the world without responsible relations to it. For plainly he and Lear have grown old together. The king is much the older; but the Fool has the marks of time upon his face as well as upon his mind. They have been conrpanions since he was a boy; and Lear still calls him boy and lad, as he did when he first learned to look kindly upon his young, loving, halfdistraught companion. The relations between them have plainly a tenderness which, knowingly to both, is covered, but not hidden, by the grotesque surface of the Fool’s official function. His whole soul is bound up in his love for Lear and for Cordelia. He would not set his life “ at a pin’s fee ” to serve his master; and when his young mistress goes to France he pines away for the sight of her. When the king feels the consequences of his headstrong folly, the Fool continues the satirical comment which he begins when he offers Kent his coxcomb. So might Touchstone have done ; but in a vein more cynical, colder, and without that undertone rather of sweetness than of sadness which tells us that this jester has a broken heart.
About the middle of the play the Fool suddenly disappears, making in reply to Lear’s remark, “We ’ll go to supper in the morning,” the fitting rejoinder, “ And I ’ll go to bed at noon.” Why does he not return ? Clearly for this reason ; he remains with Lear during his insanity, to answer in antiphonic commentary the mad king’s lofty ravings with his simple wit and homespun wisdom : but after that time, when Lear sinks from frenzy into forlorn imbecility, the Fool’s utterances would have jarred upon our ears. The situation becomes too grandly pathetic to admit the presence of a jester, who, unless he is professional, is nothing. Even Shakespeare could not make sport with the great primal elements of woe. And so the poor Fool sought the little corner where he slept, turned his face to the wall, and went to bed in the noon of his life for the last time — functus officio.
I see that in the last paragraph I am inconsistent; attributing to Shakespeare, first, a deliberate artistic purpose, and then, with regard to the same object, a dramatic conception, the offspring of sentiment. Let the inconsistency stand: it becomes him of whom it is spoken. Shakespeare was mightily taken hold of by these creatures of his imagination, and they did before his eyes what he did not at first intend that they should do. True, his will was absolute over his genius, which was subject to him, not he to it; but like a wizard he was sometimes obsessed by the spirits which he had willingly called up. In none of his dramas is this attitude of their author so manifest as in this, the largest in conception, noblest in design, richest in substance, and highest in finish of all his works, and which, had he written it alone (if we can suppose the existence of such a sole production), would have set him before all succeeding generations, the miracle of time.
Richard Grant White.