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This noble tragedy, the composition of which is assigned by Malone to the date of 1605, was entered on the books of the Stationers' Company Nov. 26, 1607, and is there mentioned to have been played the preceding Christmas before his majesty at Whitehall. The story was originally related by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and thence transcribed in Holinshed's Chropicle, which Sbakspeare certainly consulted, though he appears to have been more indebted to an old drama on the same subject by an anonymous writer, which made its appearance in 1594. The episode of Gloster and his sons, which is blended by our author with such consummate skill in the development of his main design, was derived from the narrative of the blind king of Paphlagonia, in the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney
Geoffrey of Monmouth informs us that Lear, who was the eldest son of Bladud, ‘nobly governed his country for sixty years. According to that historian, he died about eight hundred years before the Christian
• The tragedy of Lear,' says Dr. Johnson, is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakspeare. There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so
strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions, and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. There is no scene which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or conduct of the action, and scarce a line which does not conduce to the progress of the
So powerful is the current of the poet's imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irresistibly along.
* On the seeming improbability of Lear's conduct, it may be observed, that he is represented according to histories at that time vulgarly received as true: and, perhaps, if we turn our thoughts on the barbarity and ignorance of the age to which this story is referred, it will appear not so unlikely as while we estimate Lear's manners by our own. Such preference of one daughter to another, or resignation of dominion on such conditions, would be yet credible, if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar. Shakspeare, indeed, by the mention of his earls and dukes, has given us the idea of times more civilised, and of life regulated by softer manners; and the truth is, that though he so nicely discriminates, and so'minutely describes the characters of men, he commonly neglects and confounds the ebaracters of ages, by mingling customs ancient and modern, English and foreign.
• My learned friend Mr. Warton, who has in the Adventurer very minutely criticised this play, remarks, that the instances of cruelty are too savage and shock
ing, and that the intervention of Edmund destroys the simplicity of the story. These objections may, I think, be answered, by repeating, that the cruelty of the daughters is an historical fact, to which the poet has added little, having only drawn it into a series by dialogue and action : but I am not able to apologise with equal plausibility for the extrusion of Gloster's eyes, which seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity. Yet let it be remembered that our author well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote.
“The injury done by Edmund to the simplicity of the action is abundantly recompensed by the addition of variety, by the art with wbich he is made to co-operate with the chief design, and the opportunity which he gives the poet of combining perfidy with perfidy, and connecting the wicked son with the wicked daughters, to impress this important moral, that villany is never at a stop, that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.
* But though this moral be incidentally enforced, Shakspeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles. Yet this conduct is justified by the Spectator, who blames Tate for giving Cordelia success and happiness in his alteration, and declares, that, in his opinion, the tragedy has lost half its beauty.' Dennis has remarked, whether justly or not, that, to secure the favorable reception of Cato, the town was poisoned with much false and abominable criticism,' and that endeavors had been used to discredit and decry poetical justice. A play, in which the wicked prosper and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellences are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue. In the present case the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity: and if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last, scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
• There is another controversy among the critics concerning this play. It is disputed whether the predominant image in Lear's disordered mind be the loss of his kingdom or the cruelty of his daughters. Mr. Murphy, a very judicious critic, has evinced, by induction of particular passages, that the cruelty of his daughters is the primary source of his distress, and that the loss of royalty affects him only as a secondary and subordinate evil. He observes, with great justness, that Lear would move our compassion but little, did we not rather consider the injured father than the degraded king.'