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There is this difference between the Fool in Lear and The Fool all Shakespeare's other fools, that he is introduced intensifies not to give comic relief, but rather to heighten, by not relieves his bitter commentaries, the terror and pity of situ- it. ations already tragic. Everywhere else the fool is used for contrast and assuagement. Even the Porter in Macbeth is there to bring a shock of relief to emotions previously strained to the height, and destined to be strained so again in what immediately follows. But the Fool in Lear wears throughout the grin of a death's-head. His barbed words bring no comfort either to Lear or to the onlooker. They intensify his master's pain, and thereby accentuate the sympathetic pain of the beholder. When the Fool's words are wittiest and wisest, the light they throw upon the situation adds but so much to its horror. It is such a light as that whereby the fallen angels of Milton discerned the terrors of that “universe of death” into which they had been hurled.
The tragedy of King Lear is the most terrible The essencrescendo of agony in the wide range of human tial horror: literature; and its highest terror consists in this, ing from that goodness itself is the means by which evil goodness. triumphs. It is the sheer incorruptibility of Cordelia, and that dignity of principle in her which inhibits any concession to her father's folly, that gives rise to all the ensuing sorrow. It is the outspoken manliness of Kent that, by provoking his banishment, robs him of the power of effective service to the master he loves.
In no other play is there such decisive evidence of one peculiar difficulty which, as Sir Walter Raleigh has brilliantly proved, Shakespeare often encountered. He chooses a familiar story, and a set of puppets designed to go through a predetermined
Vogue of the Lear story.
series of actions and episodes; but in the handling of these puppets, he cannot help breathing into them the breath of independent life. They take on character and personality of their own, and proceed to pull and strain the poor story in all sorts of directions other than the original one. The legend of King Lear which Shakespeare found in the authorities becomes altogether different under his hands, not, apparently, because he had so designed, but simply because the characters, when they come to life before him, cannot be forced into the primitive framework.
The popularity of the Lear legend in Shakespeare's time is abundantly evidenced. Holinshed, we know, was favourite reading; and this tale (which Holinshed had found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's British History) was retold at some length by Spenser in The Faerie Queene, and by half-adozen other writers. It was also the subject of a successful play, produced in 1594.
There is no more interesting instance of the transmutations effected by Shakespeare than the use he makes of this legendary material. The anonymous play of 1594, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, is an asinine production. It is more freakishly anachronistic than even Shakespeare ever permits himself to be, since its ancient pagan characters talk undisguisedly the language of Christianity, and there is no attempt whatever to produce the illusion of antiquity in the mise-en-scène. That which in Shakespeare becomes the heartrending tragedy of living men and women is here the farcical savagery of the puppets of Puncinello. Cordelia is a simpering sniveller, and
1 Book II, canto x, verses xxvii-xxxii.
(1) The “ Chronicle" play of 1594.
Goneril and Regan are as ludicrously incredible as the two ugly sisters of Cinderella. Leir and Perillus (the prototype of Kent), in their wanderings in Britain and Gallia, talk and behave like escaped inmates from an asylum for the feeble-minded. The blank verse is the flattest and most pedestrian prose. The author's sole conception of verse is that each line must contain ten syllables — though he cannot conform regularly even to that simple arithmetical rule.
The story as it stands in Geoffrey (which Holin- (2) Geoffrey shed follows substantially) is similarly dull and of Mon.. colourless. The speeches of the two elder daughters Holinshed. in reply to Lear's childish question are prosy and stilted; — as thus:
The question being proposed, Gonorilla, the eldest, made answer,
“That she called heaven to witness, she loved him more than her own soul.
Then Regau, the second daughter, willing, after the example of her sister, to prevail upon her father's good nature, answered with an oath, " That she could not otherwise express her thoughts, but that she loved him above all
creatures.” Cordelia, instead of the magical "Love and be silent" of Shakespeare, lectures her progenitor to the following tune:
My father, is there any daughter that can love her father more than duty requires? In my opinion, whoever pretends to it, must disguise her real sentiments under the veil of flattery. I have always loved you as a father, nor do I yet depart from my purposed duty: and if you insist to have something more extorted from me, hear now the greatness of my affection, which I always bear you, and take this for a short answer to all your questions: look how much you have, so much is your value, and so much do I love you.
The originals end happily.
(3) Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia.
Her banishment ensues, and the ingratitude of the elder sisters is speedily manifested; whereupon Lear takes ship for Gaul and complains to Cordelia, and she and her husband invade Britain and restore the old man to the kingdom which he had resigned. The elder daughters and the sons-in-law are routed, and the story ends happily. Lear survives for three years, after which Cordelia has the government of the kingdom in her own hands.
Out of these two or three pages of dull fiction Shakespeare has created the tragic world of that drama for the sake of which alone its sources are now remembered. Into the texture of the story he has woven another suggested to him by that of a certain king of Paphlagonia which he found in Sidney's Arcadia), which grows into the by-plot of Gloucester and his two sons. As the characters project themselves dramatically through Shakespeare's mind, it becomes obvious to him that any kind of happy ending on earth, after such griding torments, would be an irredeemable anti-climax. Raleigh has well said of Lear that "a deeper peace than that of a comfortable fireside is needed to heal such gigantic sorrow.” We feel, with Kent, that the quietude of death is the best boon that can be wished for the shattered soul :
Oh, let him pass! he hates him much
Stretch him out longer.
V iii 312 ff.
Geoffrey's History purely fictitious,
under the leadership of one Brute, and that in the pre-Roman times the Britons were a populous and highly civilized nation. The book is a curious collection of tales, full of the highest dramatic possibilities, yet told so dully that the narrator himself seems not to feel their force. The raw material of the Arthurian saga is here,— the legends of Merlin and Uther Pendragon, of the traitor Modred and the wondrous feats of Arthur. Cymbeline, too, with his sons Guiderius and Arviragus, is first heard of in Geoffrey's veracious pages. But it must be but mistakremembered that the sixteenth century was unaware en for his
tory in XVI of the character of Geoffrey's tales, and accepted century. them uncritically as sober history,— just as, until yesterday, the folklore of the Pentateuch was accepted.
According to Geoffrey's account, Lear “flourished” in the days when Isaiah and Hosea were prophesying in Israel, and Romulus and Remus were founding Rome — that is, during the eighth century B.C. Shakespeare's contempt for historical Shakeconsistency and verisimilitude needs no other proof speare's play than a comparison of this date with the list of mense anadramatis personae prefixed to the tragedy. He chronism. represents Britain as divided up into dukedoms and earldoms in the eighth century B.C., just as it was in his own day. The counties already possess the names which they did not acquire until long after the Saxon Conquest. The feudal orders of nobility and knighthood, and the institutions of heraldry, are already established. The rivalry of the kings of France and the dukes of Burgundy is anticipated by two thousand years.
When from the list of persons of the drama we turn to the drama itself, we find impossibility piled