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CRITICAL OPINIONS ON KING LEAR
"OF all Shakspeare's plays, 'Macbeth' is the most rapid, 'Hamlet' the slowest in movement. 'Lear' combines length with rapidity,—like the hurricane and the whirlpool, absorbing while it advances. It begins as a stormy day in summer, with brightness; but that brightness is lurid, and anticipates the tempest.
"It was not without forethought, nor is it without its due significance, that the division of Lear's kingdom is, in the first six lines of the play, stated as a thing already determined in all its particulars, previously to the trial of professions, as the relative rewards of which the daughters were to be made to consider their several portions. The strange, yet by no means unnatural mixture of selfishness, sensibility, and habit of feeling, derived from and fostered by the particular rank and usages of the individual;—the intense desire of being intensely beloved,-selfish, and yet characteristic of the selfishness of a loving and kindly nature alone;-the self-supportless leaning for all pleasure on another's breast ;--the craving after sympathy with a prodigal disinterestedness, frustrated by its own ostentation, and the mode and nature of its claims;—the anxiety, the distrust, the jealousy, which more or less accompany all selfish affections, and are amongst the surest contradistinctions of mere fondness from true love, and which originate Lear's eager wish to enjoy his daughters' violent professions, whilst the inveterate habits of sovereignty convert the wish into claim and positive right, and an incompliance with it into crime and treason;-these facts, these passions, these moral verities, on which the whole tragedy is founded, are all prepared for, and will to the retrospect be found implied, in these first four or five lines of the play. They let us know that the trial is but a trick; and that the grossness of the old king's rage is in part the natural result of a silly trick, suddenly and mest unexpectedly baffled and disappointed.
"Having thus, in the fewest words, and in a natural reply to as natural a question, which yet answers the secondary purpose of attracting our attention to the difference or diversity between the characters of Cornwall and Albany, provided the premises and data, as it were, for our after-insight into the mind and mood of the person whose character, passions, and sufferings are the main subjectmatter of the play;-from Lear, the persona patiens of his drama, Shakspeare passes without delay to the second in importance, the chief agent and prime mover, and introduces Edmund to our acquaintance, preparing us with the same felicity of judgment, and in the same easy and natural way, for his character in the seemingly casual communication of its origin and occasion. From the first drawing up of the curtain Edmund has stood before us in the united strength and beauty of earliest manhood. Our eyes have been questioning him. Gifted as he is with high advantages of person, and further endowed by nature with a powerful intellect and a strong energetic will, even without any concurrence of circumstances and accident, pride will necessarily be the sin that most easily besets him. But Edmund is also the known and acknowledged son of the princely Gloster: he, therefore, has both the germ of pride, and the conditions best fitted to evolve and ripen it into a predominant feeling. Yet, hitherto, no reason appears why it should be other than the not unusual pride of person, talent, and birth,—a pride auxiliary, if not akin to many virtues, and the natural ally of honourable impulses. But, alas ! in his own presence his own father takes shame to himself for the frank avowal that he is his father; he has 'blushed so often to acknowledge him, that he is now brazed to it.' Edmund hears the circumstances of his birth spoken of with a most degrading and licentious levity. *** This, and the con
sciousness of its notoriety,—the gnawing conviction that every show of respect is an effort of courtesy, which recalls, while it represses, a contrary feeling;-this is the ever-trickling flow of wormwood and gall into the wounds of pride,—the corrosive virus which inoculates pride with a venom not its own, with envy, hatred, and a lust for that power which, in its blaze of radiance, would hide the dark spots on his disc,-with pangs of shame personally undeserved, and therefore felt as wrongs, and with a blind ferment of vindictive working towards the occasions and causes, especially towards a brother, whose stainless birth and lawful honours were the constant remembrancers of his own debasement, and were ever in the way to prevent all chance of its being unknown, or overlooked and forgotten.
"Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in all Shakspeare's characters, and yet the most individualized. There is an extraordinary charm in his bluntness, which is that only of a nobleman arising from a contempt of overstrained courtesy; and combined with easy placability where goodness of heart is apparent. His passionate affection for, and fidelity to Lear, act on our feelings in Lear's own favour: virtue itself seems to be in company with him.
"The Steward should be placed in exact, antithesis to Kent, as the only character of utter irredeemable baseness in Shakspeare. Even in this the judgment and invention of the poet are very observable; for what else could the willing tool of a Goneril be? Not a vice but this of baseness was left open to him. "The Fool is no comic buffoon to make the groundlings laugh,-no forced condescension of Shakspeare's genius to the taste of his audience. Accordingly the poet prepares for his introduction, which he never does with any of his common clowns and fools, by bringing him into living connection with the pathos of the play. He is as wonderful a creation as Caliban ;-his wild babblings, and inspired idiocy, articulate and guage the horrors of the scene.
"The monster Goneril prepares what is necessary, while the character of Albany renders a still more maddening grievance possible, namely, Regan and Cornwall in perfect sympathy of monstrosity. Not a sentiment, not an image, which can give pleasure on its own account, is admitted; whenever these creatures are introduced, and they are brought forward as little as possible, pure horror reigns throughout.
"Edgar's assumed madness serves the great purpose of taking off part of the shock which would otherwise be caused by the true madness of Lear, and further displays the profound difference between the two. In every attempt at representing madness throughout the whole range of dramatic literature, with the single exception of Lear, it is mere light-headedness, as especially in Otway. In Edgar's ravings, Shakspeare all the while lets you see a fixed purpose, a practical end in view; in Lear's, there is only the brooding of the one anguish, an eddy without progression.”—COLERIDGE.
"THE Tragedy of Coriolanus" appears to have been first printed in the folio of 1623. In the same year, November 8th, it was entered on the Registers of the Stationers' Company by Blount and Jaggard, the publishers of the folio, as one of the copies "not formerly entered to other men." Malone ascribes it to the year 1610; but with the exception of some peculiarities in the style, which would lead us to class it among the poet's latest plays, there is not a particle of evidence, internal or extrinsic, to assist in determining within several years the date of its production. That it was written subsequently to the publication of Camden's "Remains" in 1605 is probable, from the resemblance between the following version of the famous apologue of the members' rebellion against the belly, as told by that author, and the same story in the speech of Menenius, Act I. Sc. 1; for, as Malone remarks, although Shakespeare found this fable in North's Plutarch, there are some expressions, as well as the enumeration of the functions performed by the respective instruments of the body, which he seems to have taken from Camden :
"All the members of the body conspired against the stomach, as against the swallowing gulfe of all their labours; for whereas the eies beheld, the eares heard, the handes laboured, the feete travelled, the tongue spake, and all partes performed their functions; onely the stomache lay ydle and consumed all. Hereuppon they joyntly agreed al to forbeare their labours, and to pine away their lazie and publike enemy. One day passed over, the second followed very tedious, but the third day was so greevous to them all, that they called a common counsel. The eyes waxed dimme, the feete could not support the bodie; the armes waxed lazie, the tongue faltered, and could not lay open the matter. Therefore they all with one accord desired the advice of the heart. There Reason layd open before them," &c.
"There was a time, when all the body's members
That only like a gulph it did remain
I' the midst o' the body, idle and inactive,
According to Douce, Camden derived what he has related of the fable from John of Salisbury, who wrote in the
reign of Henry the Second, and professes to have received it from Pope Hadrian IV.