The magnitude of this first error is generally fully recognised by the reader owing to his sympathy with Cordelia, though, as we have seen, he often loses the memory of it as the play advances. But this is not so, I think, with the repetition of this error, in the quarrel with Goneril. Here the daughter excites so much detestation, and the father so much sympathy, that we often fail to receive the due impression of his violence. There is not here, of course, the injustice of his rejection of Cordelia, but there is precisely the same [Greek: hubris]. This had been shown most strikingly in the first scene when, immediately upon the apparently cold words of Cordelia, 'So young, my lord, and true,' there comes this dreadful answer:
Let it be so; thy truth then be thy dower. For, by the sacred radiance of the sun, The mysteries of Hecate and the night; By all the operation of the orbs From whom we do exist and cease to be; Here I disclaim all my paternal care, Propinquity and property of blood, And as a stranger to my heart and me Hold thee from this for ever. The barbarous Scythian, Or he that makes his generation messes To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom Be as well neighbour'd, pitied and relieved, As thou my sometime daughter.
Now the dramatic effect of this passage is exactly, and doubtless intentionally, repeated in the curse pronounced against Goneril. This does not come after the daughters have openly and wholly turned against their father. Up to the moment of its utterance Goneril has done no more than to require him 'a little to disquantity' and reform his train of knights. Certainly her manner and spirit in making this demand are hateful, and probably her accusations against the knights are false; and we should expect from any father in Lear's position passionate distress and indignation. But surely the famous words which form Lear's immediate reply were meant to be nothing short of frightful:
Hear, nature, hear; dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend To make this creature fruitful! Into her womb convey sterility! Dry up in her the organs of increase; And from her derogate body never spring A babe to honour her! If she must teem, Create her child of spleen; that it may live, And be a thwart disnatured torment to her! Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth; With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks; Turn all her mother's pains and benefits To laughter and contempt; that she may feel How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is To have a thankless child!
The question is not whether Goneril deserves these appalling imprecations, but what they tell us about Lear. They show that, although he has already recognised his injustice towards Cordelia, is secretly blaming himself, and is endeavouring to do better, the disposition from which his first error sprang is still unchanged. And it is precisely the disposition to give rise, in evil surroundings, to calamities dreadful but at the same time tragic, because due in some measure to the person who endures them.
The perception of this connection, if it is not lost as the play advances, does not at all diminish our pity for Lear, but it makes it impossible for us permanently to regard the world displayed in this tragedy as subject to a mere arbitrary or malicious power. It makes us feel that this world is so far at least a rational and a moral order, that there holds in it the law, not of proportionate requital, but of strict connection between act and consequence. It is, so far, the world of all Shakespeare's tragedies.
But there is another aspect of Lear's story, the influence of which modifies, in a way quite different and more peculiar to this tragedy, the impressions called pessimistic and even this impression of law. There is nothing more noble and beautiful in literature than Shakespeare's exposition of the effect of suffering in reviving the greatness and eliciting the sweetness of Lear's nature. The occasional recurrence, during his madness, of autocratic impatience or of desire for revenge serves only to heighten this effect, and the moments when his insanity becomes merely infinitely piteous do not weaken it. The old King who in pleading with his daughters feels so intensely his own humiliation and their horrible ingratitude, and who yet, at fourscore and upward, constrains himself to practise a self-control and patience so many years disused; who out of old affection for his Fool, and in repentance for his injustice to the Fool's beloved mistress, tolerates incessant and cutting reminders of his own folly and wrong; in whom the rage of the storm awakes a power and a poetic grandeur surpassing even that of Othello's anguish; who comes in his affliction to think of others first, and to seek, in tender solicitude for his poor boy, the shelter he scorns for his own bare head; who learns to feel and to pray for the miserable and houseless poor, to discern the falseness of flattery and the brutality of authority, and to pierce below the differences of rank and raiment to the common humanity beneath; whose sight is so purged by scalding tears that it sees at last how power and place and all things in the world are vanity except love; who tastes in his last hours the extremes both of love's rapture and of its agony, but could never, if he lived on or lived again, care a jot for aught beside—there is no figure, surely, in the world of poetry at once so grand, so pathetic, and so beautiful as his. Well, but Lear owes the whole of this to those sufferings which made us doubt whether life were not simply evil, and men like the flies which wanton boys torture for their sport. Should we not be at least as near the truth if we called this poem The Redemption of King Lear, and declared that the business of 'the gods' with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a 'noble anger,' but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life? One can believe that Shakespeare had been tempted at times to feel misanthropy and despair, but it is quite impossible that he can have been mastered by such feelings at the time when he produced this conception.
To dwell on the stages of this process of purification (the word is Professor Dowden's) is impossible here; and there are scenes, such as that of the meeting of Lear and Cordelia, which it seems almost a profanity to touch. But I will refer to two scenes which may remind us more in detail of some of the points just mentioned. The third and fourth scenes of Act III. present one of those contrasts which speak as eloquently even as Shakespeare's words, and which were made possible in his theatre by the absence of scenery and the consequent absence of intervals between the scenes. First, in a scene of twenty-three lines, mostly in prose, Gloster is shown, telling his son Edmund how Goneril and Regan have forbidden him on pain of death to succour the houseless King; how a secret letter has reached him, announcing the arrival of a French force; and how, whatever the consequences may be, he is determined to relieve his old master. Edmund, left alone, soliloquises in words which seem to freeze one's blood:
This courtesy, forbid thee, shall the duke Instantly know; and of that letter too: This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me That which my father loses; no less than all: The younger rises when the old doth fall.
He goes out; and the next moment, as the fourth scene opens, we find ourselves in the icy storm with Lear, Kent and the Fool, and yet in the inmost shrine of love. I am not speaking of the devotion of the others to Lear, but of Lear himself. He had consented, merely for the Fool's sake, to seek shelter in the hovel:
Come, your hovel. Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart That's sorry yet for thee.
But on the way he has broken down and has been weeping (III. iv. 17), and now he resists Kent's efforts to persuade him to enter. He does not feel the storm:
when the mind's free The body's delicate: the tempest in my mind Doth from my senses take all feeling else Save what beats there:
and the thoughts that will drive him mad are burning in his brain:
Filial ingratitude! Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand For lifting food to't? But I will punish home. No, I will weep no more. In such a night To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure. In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril! Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,— O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that.
And then suddenly, as he controls himself, the blessed spirit of kindness breathes on him 'like a meadow gale of spring,' and he turns gently to Kent:
Prithee, go in thyself; seek thine own ease: This tempest will not give me leave to ponder On things would hurt me more. But I'll go in. In, boy; go first. You houseless poverty— Nay, get thee in. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep.
But his prayer is not for himself.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
it begins, and I need not quote more. This is one of those passages which make one worship Shakespeare.
Much has been written on the representation of insanity in King Lear, and I will confine myself to one or two points which may have escaped notice. The most obvious symptom of Lear's insanity, especially in its first stages, is of course the domination of a fixed idea. Whatever presents itself to his senses, is seized on by this idea and compelled to express it; as for example in those words, already quoted, which first show that his mind has actually given way:
Hast thou given all To thy two daughters? And art thou come to this?
But it is remarkable that what we have here is only, in an exaggerated and perverted form, the very same action of imagination that, just before the breakdown of reason, produced those sublime appeals:
O heavens, If you do love old men, if your sweet sway Allow obedience, if yourselves are old, Make it your cause;
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain! Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters: I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness; I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children, You owe me no subscription: then let fall Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave, A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man: But yet I call you servile ministers, That have with two pernicious daughters join'd Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!
Shakespeare, long before this, in the Midsummer Night's Dream, had noticed the resemblance between the lunatic, the lover, and the poet; and the partial truth that genius is allied to insanity was quite familiar to him. But he presents here the supplementary half-truth that insanity is allied to genius.
He does not, however, put into the mouth of the insane Lear any such sublime passages as those just quoted. Lear's insanity, which destroys the coherence, also reduces the poetry of his imagination. What it stimulates is that power of moral perception and reflection which had already been quickened by his sufferings. This, however partial and however disconnectedly used, first appears, quite soon after the insanity has declared itself, in the idea that the naked beggar represents truth and reality, in contrast with those conventions, flatteries, and corruptions of the great world, by which Lear has so long been deceived and will never be deceived again:
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! here's three on's are sophisticated: thou art the thing itself.
Lear regards the beggar therefore with reverence and delight, as a person who is in the secret of things, and he longs to question him about their causes. It is this same strain of thought which much later (IV. vi.), gaining far greater force, though the insanity has otherwise advanced, issues in those famous Timon-like speeches which make us realise the original strength of the old King's mind. And when this strain, on his recovery, unites with the streams of repentance and love, it produces that serene renunciation of the world, with its power and glory and resentments and revenges, which is expressed in the speech (V. iii.):
No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too, Who loses, and who wins; who's in, who's out; And take upon's the mystery of things, As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out, In a wall'd prison, packs and sets of great ones, That ebb and flow by the moon.
This is that renunciation which is at the same time a sacrifice offered to the gods, and on which the gods themselves throw incense; and, it may be, it would never have been offered but for the knowledge that came to Lear in his madness.
I spoke of Lear's 'recovery,' but the word is too strong. The Lear of the Fifth Act is not indeed insane, but his mind is greatly enfeebled. The speech just quoted is followed by a sudden flash of the old passionate nature, reminding us most pathetically of Lear's efforts, just before his madness, to restrain his tears:
Wipe thine eyes: The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell, Ere they shall make us weep: we'll see 'em starve first.
And this weakness is still more pathetically shown in the blindness of the old King to his position now that he and Cordelia are made prisoners. It is evident that Cordelia knows well what mercy her father is likely to receive from her sisters; that is the reason of her weeping. But he does not understand her tears; it never crosses his mind that they have anything more than imprisonment to fear. And what is that to them? They have made that sacrifice, and all is well:
Have I caught thee? He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven, And fire us hence like foxes.
This blindness is most affecting to us, who know in what manner they will be parted; but it is also comforting. And we find the same mingling of effects in the overwhelming conclusion of the story. If to the reader, as to the bystanders, that scene brings one unbroken pain, it is not so with Lear himself. His shattered mind passes from the first transports of hope and despair, as he bends over Cordelia's body and holds the feather to her lips, into an absolute forgetfulness of the cause of these transports. This continues so long as he can converse with Kent; becomes an almost complete vacancy; and is disturbed only to yield, as his eyes suddenly fall again on his child's corpse, to an agony which at once breaks his heart. And, finally, though he is killed by an agony of pain, the agony in which he actually dies is one not of pain but of ecstasy. Suddenly, with a cry represented in the oldest text by a four-times repeated 'O,' he exclaims:
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there!
These are the last words of Lear. He is sure, at last, that she lives: and what had he said when he was still in doubt?
She lives! if it be so, It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows That ever I have felt!
To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may bring a culmination of pain: but, if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express, in Lear's last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy.
To dwell on the pathos of Lear's last speech would be an impertinence, but I may add a remark on the speech from the literary point of view. In the simplicity of its language, which consists almost wholly of monosyllables of native origin, composed in very brief sentences of the plainest structure, it presents an extraordinary contrast to the dying speech of Hamlet and the last words of Othello to the by-standers. The fact that Lear speaks in passion is one cause of the difference, but not the sole cause. The language is more than simple, it is familiar. And this familiarity is characteristic of Lear (except at certain moments, already referred to) from the time of his madness onwards, and is the source of the peculiarly poignant effect of some of his sentences (such as 'The little dogs and all....'). We feel in them the loss of power to sustain his royal dignity; we feel also that everything external has become nothingness to him, and that what remains is 'the thing itself,' the soul in its bare greatness. Hence also it is that two lines in this last speech show, better perhaps than any other passage of poetry, one of the qualities we have in mind when we distinguish poetry as 'romantic.' Nothing like Hamlet's mysterious sigh 'The rest is silence,' nothing like Othello's memories of his life of marvel and achievement, was possible to Lear. Those last thoughts are romantic in their strangeness: Lear's five-times repeated 'Never,' in which the simplest and most unanswerable cry of anguish rises note by note till the heart breaks, is romantic in its naturalism; and to make a verse out of this one word required the boldness as well as the inspiration which came infallibly to Shakespeare at the greatest moments. But the familiarity, boldness and inspiration are surpassed (if that can be) by the next line, which shows the bodily oppression asking for bodily relief. The imagination that produced Lear's curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that could venture to follow that cry of 'Never' with such a phrase as 'undo this button,' and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry?
Gloster and Albany are the two neutral characters of the tragedy. The parallel between Lear and Gloster, already noticed, is, up to a certain point, so marked that it cannot possibly be accidental. Both are old white-haired men (III. vii. 37); both, it would seem, widowers, with children comparatively young. Like Lear, Gloster is tormented, and his life is sought, by the child whom he favours; he is tended and healed by the child whom he has wronged. His sufferings, like Lear's, are partly traceable to his own extreme folly and injustice, and, it may be added, to a selfish pursuit of his own pleasure. His sufferings, again, like Lear's, purify and enlighten him: he dies a better and wiser man than he showed himself at first. They even learn the same lesson, and Gloster's repetition (noticed and blamed by Johnson) of the thought in a famous speech of Lear's is surely intentional. And, finally, Gloster dies almost as Lear dies. Edgar reveals himself to him and asks his blessing (as Cordelia asks Lear's):
but his flaw'd heart— Alack, too weak the conflict to support— 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.
So far, the resemblance of the two stories, and also of the ways in which their painful effect is modified, is curiously close. And in character too Gloster is, like his master, affectionate, credulous and hasty. But otherwise he is sharply contrasted with the tragic Lear, who is a towering figure, every inch a king, while Gloster is built on a much smaller scale, and has infinitely less force and fire. He is, indeed, a decidedly weak though good-hearted man; and, failing wholly to support Kent in resisting Lear's original folly and injustice, he only gradually takes the better part. Nor is his character either very interesting or very distinct. He often gives one the impression of being wanted mainly to fill a place in the scheme of the play; and, though it would be easy to give a long list of his characteristics, they scarcely, it seems to me, compose an individual, a person whom we are sure we should recognise at once. If this is so, the fact is curious, considering how much we see and hear of him.
I will add a single note. Gloster is the superstitious character of the drama,—the only one. He thinks much of 'these late eclipses in the sun and moon.' His two sons, from opposite points of view, make nothing of them. His easy acceptance of the calumny against Edgar is partly due to this weakness, and Edmund builds upon it, for an evil purpose, when he describes Edgar thus:
Here stood he in the dark, his sharp sword out, Mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon, To prove's auspicious mistress.
Edgar in turn builds upon it, for a good purpose, when he persuades his blind father that he was led to jump down Dover cliff by the temptation of a fiend in the form of a beggar, and was saved by a miracle:
As I stood here below, methought his eyes Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses, Horns whelk'd and waved like the enridged sea: It was some fiend; therefore, thou happy father, Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.
This passage is odd in its collocation of the thousand noses and the clearest gods, of grotesque absurdity and extreme seriousness. Edgar knew that the 'fiend' was really Gloster's 'worser spirit,' and that 'the gods' were himself. Doubtless, however—for he is the most religious person in the play—he thought that it was the gods who, through him, had preserved his father; but he knew that the truth could only enter this superstitious mind in a superstitious form.
The combination of parallelism and contrast that we observe in Lear and Gloster, and again in the attitude of the two brothers to their father's superstition, is one of many indications that in King Lear Shakespeare was working more than usual on a basis of conscious and reflective ideas. Perhaps it is not by accident, then, that he makes Edgar and Lear preach to Gloster in precisely the same strain. Lear says to him:
If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes. I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloster: Thou must be patient; we came crying hither: Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air, We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee: mark.
Edgar's last words to him are:
What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all.
Albany is merely sketched, and he is so generally neglected that a few words about him may be in place. He too ends a better and wiser man than he began. When the play opens he is, of course, only just married to Goneril; and the idea is, I think, that he has been bewitched by her fiery beauty not less than by her dowry. He is an inoffensive peace-loving man, and is overborne at first by his 'great love' for his wife and by her imperious will. He is not free from responsibility for the treatment which the King receives in his house; the Knight says to Lear, 'there's a great abatement of kindness appears as well in the general dependants as in the duke himself also and your daughter.' But he takes no part in the quarrel, and doubtless speaks truly when he protests that he is as guiltless as ignorant of the cause of Lear's violent passion. When the King departs, he begins to remonstrate with Goneril, but shrinks in a cowardly manner, which is a trifle comical, from contest with her. She leaves him behind when she goes to join Regan, and he is not further responsible for what follows. When he hears of it, he is struck with horror: the scales drop from his eyes, Goneril becomes hateful to him, he determines to revenge Gloster's eyes. His position is however very difficult, as he is willing to fight against Cordelia in so far as her army is French, and unwilling in so far as she represents her father. This difficulty, and his natural inferiority to Edmund in force and ability, pushes him into the background; the battle is not won by him but by Edmund; and but for Edgar he would certainly have fallen a victim to the murderous plot against him. When it is discovered, however, he is fearless and resolute enough, beside being full of kind feeling towards Kent and Edgar, and of sympathetic distress at Gloster's death. And one would be sure that he is meant to retain this strength till the end, but for his last words. He has announced his intention of resigning, during Lear's life, the 'absolute power' which has come to him; and that may be right. But after Lear's death he says to Kent and Edgar:
Friends of my soul, you twain Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.
If this means that he wishes to hand over his absolute power to them, Shakespeare's intention is certainly to mark the feebleness of a well-meaning but weak man. But possibly he means by 'this realm' only that half of Britain which had belonged to Cornwall and Regan.
I turn now to those two strongly contrasted groups of good and evil beings; and to the evil first. The members of this group are by no means on a level. Far the most contemptible of them is Oswald, and Kent has fortunately expressed our feelings towards him. Yet twice we are able to feel sympathy with him. Regan cannot tempt him to let her open Goneril's letter to Edmund; and his last thought as he dies is given to the fulfilment of his trust. It is to a monster that he is faithful, and he is faithful to her in a monstrous design. Still faithfulness is faithfulness, and he is not wholly worthless. Dr. Johnson says: 'I know not well why Shakespeare gives to Oswald, who is a mere factor of wickedness, so much fidelity'; but in any other tragedy this touch, so true to human nature, is only what we should expect. If it surprises us in King Lear, the reason is that Shakespeare, in dealing with the other members of the group, seems to have been less concerned than usual with such mingling of light with darkness, and intent rather on making the shadows as utterly black as a regard for truth would permit.
Cornwall seems to have been a fit mate for Regan; and what worse can be said of him? It is a great satisfaction to think that he endured what to him must have seemed the dreadful disgrace of being killed by a servant. He shows, I believe, no redeeming trait, and he is a coward, as may be seen from the sudden rise in his courage when Goneril arrives at the castle and supports him and Regan against Lear (II. iv. 202). But as his cruelties are not aimed at a blood-relation, he is not, in this sense, a 'monster,' like the remaining three.
Which of these three is the least and which the most detestable there can surely be no question. For Edmund, not to mention other alleviations, is at any rate not a woman. And the differences between the sisters, which are distinctly marked and need not be exhibited once more in full, are all in favour of 'the elder and more terrible.' That Regan did not commit adultery, did not murder her sister or plot to murder her husband, did not join her name with Edmund's on the order for the deaths of Cordelia and Lear, and in other respects failed to take quite so active a part as Goneril in atrocious wickedness, is quite true but not in the least to her credit. It only means that she had much less force, courage and initiative than her sister, and for that reason is less formidable and more loathsome. Edmund judged right when, caring for neither sister but aiming at the crown, he preferred Goneril, for he could trust her to remove the living impediments to her desires. The scornful and fearless exclamation, 'An interlude!' with which she greets the exposure of her design, was quite beyond Regan. Her unhesitating suicide was perhaps no less so. She would not have condescended to the lie which Regan so needlessly tells to Oswald:
It was great ignorance, Gloster's eyes being out, To let him live: where he arrives he moves All hearts against us: Edmund, I think, is gone, In pity of his misery, to dispatch His nighted life.
Her father's curse is nothing to her. She scorns even to mention the gods. Horrible as she is, she is almost awful. But, to set against Regan's inferiority in power, there is nothing: she is superior only in a venomous meanness which is almost as hateful as her cruelty. She is the most hideous human being (if she is one) that Shakespeare ever drew.
I have already noticed the resemblance between Edmund and Iago in one point; and Edmund recalls his greater forerunner also in courage, strength of will, address, egoism, an abnormal want of feeling, and the possession of a sense of humour. But here the likeness ends. Indeed a decided difference is observable even in the humour. Edmund is apparently a good deal younger than Iago. He has a lighter and more superficial nature, and there is a certain genuine gaiety in him which makes one smile not unsympathetically as one listens to his first soliloquy, with its cheery conclusion, so unlike Iago's references to the powers of darkness,
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Even after we have witnessed his dreadful deeds, a touch of this sympathy is felt again when we hear his nonchalant reflections before the battle:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love: Each jealous of the other, as the stung Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take? Both? one? or neither?
Besides, there is nothing in Edmund of Iago's motive-hunting, and very little of any of the secret forces which impelled Iago. He is comparatively a straightforward character, as straightforward as the Iago of some critics. He moves wonder and horror merely because the fact that a man so young can have a nature so bad is a dark mystery.
Edmund is an adventurer pure and simple. He acts in pursuance of a purpose, and, if he has any affections or dislikes, ignores them. He is determined to make his way, first to his brother's lands, then—as the prospect widens—to the crown; and he regards men and women, with their virtues and vices, together with the bonds of kinship, friendship, or allegiance, merely as hindrances or helps to his end. They are for him divested of all quality except their relation to this end; as indifferent as mathematical quantities or mere physical agents.
A credulous father and a brother noble, ... I see the business,
he says, as if he were talking of x and y.
This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me That which my father loses; no less than all: The younger rises when the old doth fall:
he meditates, as if he were considering a problem in mechanics. He preserves this attitude with perfect consistency until the possibility of attaining his end is snatched from him by death.
Like the deformity of Richard, Edmund's illegitimacy furnishes, of course, no excuse for his villainy, but it somewhat influences our feelings. It is no fault of his, and yet it separates him from other men. He is the product of Nature—of a natural appetite asserting itself against the social order; and he has no recognised place within this order. So he devotes himself to Nature, whose law is that of the stronger, and who does not recognise those moral obligations which exist only by convention,—by 'custom' or 'the curiosity of nations.' Practically, his attitude is that of a professional criminal. 'You tell me I do not belong to you,' he seems to say to society: 'very well: I will make my way into your treasure-house if I can. And if I have to take life in doing so, that is your affair.' How far he is serious in this attitude, and really indignant at the brand of bastardy, how far his indignation is a half-conscious self-excuse for his meditated villainy, it is hard to say; but the end shows that he is not entirely in earnest.
As he is an adventurer, with no more ill-will to anyone than good-will, it is natural that, when he has lost the game, he should accept his failure without showing personal animosity. But he does more. He admits the truth of Edgar's words about the justice of the gods, and applies them to his own case (though the fact that he himself refers to fortune's wheel rather than to the gods may be significant). He shows too that he is not destitute of feeling; for he is touched by the story of his father's death, and at last 'pants for life' in the effort to do 'some good' by saving Lear and Cordelia. There is something pathetic here which tempts one to dream that, if Edmund had been whole brother to Edgar, and had been at home during those 'nine years' when he was 'out,' he might have been a very different man. But perhaps his words,
Some good I mean to do, Despite of mine own nature,
suggest rather that Shakespeare is emphasising the mysterious fact, commented on by Kent in the case of the three daughters of Lear, of an immense original difference between children of one father. Stranger than this emergence of better feelings, and curiously pathetic, is the pleasure of the dying man in the thought that he was loved by both the women whose corpses are almost the last sight he is to see. Perhaps, as we conjectured, the cause of his delay in saving Lear and Cordelia even after he hears of the deaths of the sisters is that he is sunk in dreamy reflections on his past. When he murmurs, 'Yet Edmund was beloved,' one is almost in danger of forgetting that he had done much more than reject the love of his father and half-brother. The passage is one of several in Shakespeare's plays where it strikes us that he is recording some fact about human nature with which he had actually met, and which had seemed to him peculiarly strange.
What are we to say of the world which contains these five beings, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, Oswald? I have tried to answer this question in our first lecture; for in its representation of evil King Lear differs from the other tragedies only in degree and manner. It is the tragedy in which evil is shown in the greatest abundance; and the evil characters are peculiarly repellent from their hard savagery, and because so little good is mingled with their evil. The effect is therefore more startling than elsewhere; it is even appalling. But in substance it is the same as elsewhere; and accordingly, although it may be useful to recall here our previous discussion, I will do so only by the briefest statement.
On the one hand we see a world which generates terrible evil in profusion. Further, the beings in whom this evil appears at its strongest are able, to a certain extent, to thrive. They are not unhappy, and they have power to spread misery and destruction around them. All this is undeniable fact.
On the other hand this evil is merely destructive: it founds nothing, and seems capable of existing only on foundations laid by its opposite. It is also self-destructive: it sets these beings at enmity; they can scarcely unite against a common and pressing danger; if it were averted they would be at each other's throats in a moment; the sisters do not even wait till it is past. Finally, these beings, all five of them, are dead a few weeks after we see them first; three at least die young; the outburst of their evil is fatal to them. These also are undeniable facts; and, in face of them, it seems odd to describe King Lear as 'a play in which the wicked prosper' (Johnson).
Thus the world in which evil appears seems to be at heart unfriendly to it. And this impression is confirmed by the fact that the convulsion of this world is due to evil, mainly in the worst forms here considered, partly in the milder forms which we call the errors or defects of the better characters. Good, in the widest sense, seems thus to be the principle of life and health in the world; evil, at least in these worst forms, to be a poison. The world reacts against it violently, and, in the struggle to expel it, is driven to devastate itself.
If we ask why the world should generate that which convulses and wastes it, the tragedy gives no answer, and we are trying to go beyond tragedy in seeking one. But the world, in this tragic picture, is convulsed by evil, and rejects it.
And if here there is 'very Night herself,' she comes 'with stars in her raiment.' Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the Fool—these form a group not less remarkable than that which we have just left. There is in the world of King Lear the same abundance of extreme good as of extreme evil. It generates in profusion self-less devotion and unconquerable love. And the strange thing is that neither Shakespeare nor we are surprised. We approve these characters, admire them, love them; but we feel no mystery. We do not ask in bewilderment, Is there any cause in nature that makes these kind hearts? Such hardened optimists are we, and Shakespeare,—and those who find the darkness of revelation in a tragedy which reveals Cordelia. Yet surely, if we condemn the universe for Cordelia's death, we ought also to remember that it gave her birth. The fact that Socrates was executed does not remove the fact that he lived, and the inference thence to be drawn about the world that produced him.
Of these four characters Edgar excites the least enthusiasm, but he is the one whose development is the most marked. His behaviour in the early part of the play, granted that it is not too improbable, is so foolish as to provoke one. But he learns by experience, and becomes the most capable person in the story, without losing any of his purity and nobility of mind. There remain in him, however, touches which a little chill one's feeling for him.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices Make instruments to plague us: The dark and vicious place where thee he got Cost him his eyes:
—one wishes he had not said to his dying brother those words about their dead father. 'The gods are just' would have been enough. It may be suggested that Shakespeare merely wished to introduce this moral somehow, and did not mean the speech to be characteristic of the speaker. But I doubt this: he might well have delivered it through Albany, if he was determined to deliver it. This trait in Edgar is characteristic. It seems to be connected with his pronounced and conscious religiousness. He interprets everything religiously, and is speaking here from an intense conviction which overrides personal feelings. With this religiousness, on the other side, is connected his cheerful and confident endurance, and his practical helpfulness and resource. He never thinks of despairing; in the worst circumstances he is sure there is something to be done to make things better. And he is sure of this, not only from temperament, but from faith in 'the clearest gods.' He is the man on whom we are to rely at the end for the recovery and welfare of the state: and we do rely on him.
I spoke of his temperament. There is in Edgar, with much else that is fine, something of that buoyancy of spirit which charms us in Imogen. Nothing can subdue in him the feeling that life is sweet and must be cherished. At his worst, misconstrued, contemned, exiled, under sentence of death, 'the lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,' he keeps his head erect. The inextinguishable spirit of youth and delight is in him; he embraces the unsubstantial air which has blown him to the worst; for him 'the worst returns to laughter.' 'Bear free and patient thoughts,' he says to his father. His own thoughts are more than patient, they are 'free,' even joyous, in spite of the tender sympathies which strive in vain to overwhelm him. This ability to feel and offer great sympathy with distress, without losing through the sympathy any elasticity or strength, is a noble quality, sometimes found in souls like Edgar's, naturally buoyant and also religious. It may even be characteristic of him that, when Lear is sinking down in death, he tries to rouse him and bring him back to life. 'Look up, my lord!' he cries. It is Kent who feels that
he hates him, That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.
Kent is one of the best-loved characters in Shakespeare. He is beloved for his own sake, and also for the sake of Cordelia and of Lear. We are grateful to him because he stands up for Cordelia, and because, when she is out of sight, he constantly keeps her in our minds. And how well these two love each other we see when they meet. Yet it is not Cordelia who is dearest to Kent. His love for Lear is the passion of his life: it is his life. At the beginning he braves Lear's wrath even more for Lear's sake than Cordelia's. At the end he seems to realise Cordelia's death only as it is reflected in Lear's agony. Nor does he merely love his master passionately, as Cordelia loves her father. That word 'master,' and Kent's appeal to the 'authority' he saw in the old King's face, are significant. He belongs to Lear, body and soul, as a dog does to his master and god. The King is not to him old, wayward, unreasonable, piteous: he is still terrible, grand, the king of men. Through his eyes we see the Lear of Lear's prime, whom Cordelia never saw. Kent never forgets this Lear. In the Storm-scenes, even after the King becomes insane, Kent never addresses him without the old terms of respect, 'your grace,' 'my lord,' 'sir.' How characteristic it is that in the scene of Lear's recovery Kent speaks to him but once: it is when the King asks 'Am I in France?' and he answers 'In your own kingdom, sir.'
In acting the part of a blunt and eccentric serving-man Kent retains much of his natural character. The eccentricity seems to be put on, but the plainness which gets him set in the stocks is but an exaggeration of his plainness in the opening scene, and Shakespeare certainly meant him for one of those characters whom we love none the less for their defects. He is hot and rash; noble but far from skilful in his resistance to the King; he might well have chosen wiser words to gain his point. But, as he himself says, he has more man than wit about him. He shows this again when he rejoins Lear as a servant, for he at once brings the quarrel with Goneril to a head; and, later, by falling upon Oswald, whom he so detests that he cannot keep his hands off him, he provides Regan and Cornwall with a pretext for their inhospitality. One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one's head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one's friends.
One fact about Kent is often overlooked. He is an old man. He tells Lear that he is eight and forty, but it is clear that he is much older; not so old as his master, who was 'four-score and upward' and whom he 'loved as his father,' but, one may suppose, three-score and upward. From the first scene we get this impression, and in the scene with Oswald it is repeatedly confirmed. His beard is grey. 'Ancient ruffian,' 'old fellow,' 'you stubborn ancient knave, you reverent braggart'—these are some of the expressions applied to him. 'Sir,' he says to Cornwall, 'I am too old to learn.' If his age is not remembered, we fail to realise the full beauty of his thoughtlessness of himself, his incessant care of the King, his light-hearted indifference to fortune or fate. We lose also some of the naturalness and pathos of his feeling that his task is nearly done. Even at the end of the Fourth Act we find him saying,
My point and period will be throughly wrought Or well or ill, as this day's battle's fought.
His heart is ready to break when he falls with his strong arms about Edgar's neck; bellows out as he'd burst heaven (how like him!);
threw him on my father, Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him That ever ear received; which in recounting His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life Began to crack. Twice then the trumpet sounded, And there I left him tranced;
and a little after, when he enters, we hear the sound of death in his voice:
I am come To bid my king and master aye goodnight.
This desire possesses him wholly. When the bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought in he asks merely, 'Alack, why thus?' How can he care? He is waiting for one thing alone. He cannot but yearn for recognition, cannot but beg for it even when Lear is bending over the body of Cordelia; and even in that scene of unmatched pathos we feel a sharp pang at his failure to receive it. It is of himself he is speaking, perhaps, when he murmurs, as his master dies, 'Break, heart, I prithee, break!' He puts aside Albany's invitation to take part in the government; his task is over:
I have a journey, sir, shortly to go: My master calls me; I must not say no.
Kent in his devotion, his self-effacement, his cheerful stoicism, his desire to follow his dead lord, has been well likened to Horatio. But Horatio is not old; nor is he hot-headed; and though he is stoical he is also religious. Kent, as compared with him and with Edgar, is not so. He has not Edgar's ever-present faith in the 'clearest gods.' He refers to them, in fact, less often than to fortune or the stars. He lives mainly by the love in his own heart.
* * * * *
The theatrical fool or clown (we need not distinguish them here) was a sore trial to the cultured poet and spectator in Shakespeare's day. He came down from the Morality plays, and was beloved of the groundlings. His antics, his songs, his dances, his jests, too often unclean, delighted them, and did something to make the drama, what the vulgar, poor or rich, like it to be, a variety entertainment. Even if he confined himself to what was set down for him, he often disturbed the dramatic unity of the piece; and the temptation to 'gag' was too strong for him to resist. Shakespeare makes Hamlet object to it in emphatic terms. The more learned critics and poets went further and would have abolished the fool altogether. His part declines as the drama advances, diminishing markedly at the end of the sixteenth century. Jonson and Massinger exclude him. Shakespeare used him—we know to what effect—as he used all the other popular elements of the drama; but he abstained from introducing him into the Roman plays, and there is no fool in the last of the pure tragedies, Macbeth.
But the Fool is one of Shakespeare's triumphs in King Lear. Imagine the tragedy without him, and you hardly know it. To remove him would spoil its harmony, as the harmony of a picture would be spoiled if one of the colours were extracted. One can almost imagine that Shakespeare, going home from an evening at the Mermaid, where he had listened to Jonson fulminating against fools in general and perhaps criticising the Clown in Twelfth Night in particular, had said to himself: 'Come, my friends, I will show you once for all that the mischief is in you, and not in the fool or the audience. I will have a fool in the most tragic of my tragedies. He shall not play a little part. He shall keep from first to last the company in which you most object to see him, the company of a king. Instead of amusing the king's idle hours, he shall stand by him in the very tempest and whirlwind of passion. Before I have done you shall confess, between laughter and tears, that he is of the very essence of life, that you have known him all your days though you never recognised him till now, and that you would as soon go without Hamlet as miss him.'
The Fool in King Lear has been so favourite a subject with good critics that I will confine myself to one or two points on which a difference of opinion is possible. To suppose that the Fool is, like many a domestic fool at that time, a perfectly sane man pretending to be half-witted, is surely a most prosaic blunder. There is no difficulty in imagining that, being slightly touched in the brain, and holding the office of fool, he performs the duties of his office intentionally as well as involuntarily: it is evident that he does so. But unless we suppose that he is touched in the brain we lose half the effect of his appearance in the Storm-scenes. The effect of those scenes (to state the matter as plainly as possible) depends largely on the presence of three characters, and on the affinities and contrasts between them; on our perception that the differences of station in King, Fool, and beggar-noble, are levelled by one blast of calamity; but also on our perception of the differences between these three in one respect,—viz. in regard to the peculiar affliction of insanity. The insanity of the King differs widely in its nature from that of the Fool, and that of the Fool from that of the beggar. But the insanity of the King differs from that of the beggar not only in its nature, but also in the fact that one is real and the other simply a pretence. Are we to suppose then that the insanity of the third character, the Fool, is, in this respect, a mere repetition of that of the second, the beggar,—that it too is mere pretence? To suppose this is not only to impoverish miserably the impression made by the trio as a whole, it is also to diminish the heroic and pathetic effect of the character of the Fool. For his heroism consists largely in this, that his efforts to outjest his master's injuries are the efforts of a being to whom a responsible and consistent course of action, nay even a responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult, and from whom it is never at the best of times expected. It is a heroism something like that of Lear himself in his endeavour to learn patience at the age of eighty. But arguments against the idea that the Fool is wholly sane are either needless or futile; for in the end they are appeals to the perception that this idea almost destroys the poetry of the character.
This is not the case with another question, the question whether the Fool is a man or a boy. Here the evidence and the grounds for discussion are more tangible. He is frequently addressed as 'boy.' This is not decisive; but Lear's first words to him, 'How now, my pretty knave, how dost thou?' are difficult to reconcile with the idea of his being a man, and the use of this phrase on his first entrance may show Shakespeare's desire to prevent any mistake on the point. As a boy, too, he would be more strongly contrasted in the Storm-scenes with Edgar as well as with Lear; his faithfulness and courage would be even more heroic and touching; his devotion to Cordelia, and the consequent bitterness of some of his speeches to Lear, would be even more natural. Nor does he seem to show a knowledge of the world impossible to a quick-witted though not whole-witted lad who had lived at Court. The only serious obstacle to this view, I think, is the fact that he is not known to have been represented as a boy or youth till Macready produced King Lear.
But even if this obstacle were serious and the Fool were imagined as a grown man, we may still insist that he must also be imagined as a timid, delicate and frail being, who on that account and from the expression of his face has a boyish look. He pines away when Cordelia goes to France. Though he takes great liberties with his master he is frightened by Goneril, and becomes quite silent when the quarrel rises high. In the terrible scene between Lear and his two daughters and Cornwall (II. iv. 129-289), he says not a word; we have almost forgotten his presence when, at the topmost pitch of passion, Lear suddenly turns to him from the hateful faces that encompass him:
You think I'll weep; No, I'll not weep: I have full cause of weeping; but this heart Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.
From the beginning of the Storm-scenes, though he thinks of his master alone, we perceive from his words that the cold and rain are almost more than he can bear. His childishness comes home to us when he runs out of the hovel, terrified by the madman and crying out to the King 'Help me, help me,' and the good Kent takes him by the hand and draws him to his side. A little later he exclaims, 'This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen'; and almost from that point he leaves the King to Edgar, speaking only once again in the remaining hundred lines of the scene. In the shelter of the 'farm-house' (III. vi.) he revives, and resumes his office of love; but I think that critic is right who considers his last words significant. 'We'll go to supper i' the morning,' says Lear; and the Fool answers 'And I'll go to bed at noon,' as though he felt he had taken his death. When, a little later, the King is being carried away on a litter, the Fool sits idle. He is so benumbed and worn out that he scarcely notices what is going on. Kent has to rouse him with the words,
Come, help to bear thy master, Thou must not stay behind.
We know no more. For the famous exclamation 'And my poor fool is hanged' unquestionably refers to Cordelia; and even if it is intended to show a confused association in Lear's mind between his child and the Fool who so loved her (as a very old man may confuse two of his children), still it tells us nothing of the Fool's fate. It seems strange indeed that Shakespeare should have left us thus in ignorance. But we have seen that there are many marks of haste and carelessness in King Lear; and it may also be observed that, if the poet imagined the Fool dying on the way to Dover of the effects of that night upon the heath, he could perhaps convey this idea to the audience by instructing the actor who took the part to show, as he left the stage for the last time, the recognised tokens of approaching death.
Something has now been said of the four characters, Lear, Edgar, Kent and the Fool, who are together in the storm upon the heath. I have made no attempt to analyse the whole effect of these scenes, but one remark may be added. These scenes, as we observed, suggest the idea of a convulsion in which Nature herself joins with the forces of evil in man to overpower the weak; and they are thus one of the main sources of the more terrible impressions produced by King Lear. But they have at the same time an effect of a totally different kind, because in them are exhibited also the strength and the beauty of Lear's nature, and, in Kent and the Fool and Edgar, the ideal of faithful devoted love. Hence from the beginning to the end of these scenes we have, mingled with pain and awe and a sense of man's infirmity, an equally strong feeling of his greatness; and this becomes at times even an exulting sense of the powerlessness of outward calamity or the malice of others against his soul. And this is one reason why imagination and emotion are never here pressed painfully inward, as in the scenes between Lear and his daughters, but are liberated and dilated.
The character of Cordelia is not a masterpiece of invention or subtlety like that of Cleopatra; yet in its own way it is a creation as wonderful. Cordelia appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes of King Lear; she speaks—it is hard to believe it—scarcely more than a hundred lines; and yet no character in Shakespeare is more absolutely individual or more ineffaceably stamped on the memory of his readers. There is a harmony, strange but perhaps the result of intention, between the character itself and this reserved or parsimonious method of depicting it. An expressiveness almost inexhaustible gained through paucity of expression; the suggestion of infinite wealth and beauty conveyed by the very refusal to reveal this beauty in expansive speech—this is at once the nature of Cordelia herself and the chief characteristic of Shakespeare's art in representing it. Perhaps it is not fanciful to find a parallel in his drawing of a person very different, Hamlet. It was natural to Hamlet to examine himself minutely, to discuss himself at large, and yet to remain a mystery to himself; and Shakespeare's method of drawing the character answers to it; it is extremely detailed and searching, and yet its effect is to enhance the sense of mystery. The results in the two cases differ correspondingly. No one hesitates to enlarge upon Hamlet, who speaks of himself so much; but to use many words about Cordelia seems to be a kind of impiety.
I am obliged to speak of her chiefly because the devotion she inspires almost inevitably obscures her part in the tragedy. This devotion is composed, so to speak, of two contrary elements, reverence and pity. The first, because Cordelia's is a higher nature than that of most even of Shakespeare's heroines. With the tenderness of Viola or Desdemona she unites something of the resolution, power, and dignity of Hermione, and reminds us sometimes of Helena, sometimes of Isabella, though she has none of the traits which prevent Isabella from winning our hearts. Her assertion of truth and right, her allegiance to them, even the touch of severity that accompanies it, instead of compelling mere respect or admiration, become adorable in a nature so loving as Cordelia's. She is a thing enskyed and sainted, and yet we feel no incongruity in the love of the King of France for her, as we do in the love of the Duke for Isabella.
But with this reverence or worship is combined in the reader's mind a passion of championship, of pity, even of protecting pity. She is so deeply wronged, and she appears, for all her strength, so defenceless. We think of her as unable to speak for herself. We think of her as quite young, and as slight and small. 'Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low'; ever so, whether the tone was that of resolution, or rebuke, or love. Of all Shakespeare's heroines she knew least of joy. She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters. Even her love for her father must have been mingled with pain and anxiety. She must early have learned to school and repress emotion. She never knew the bliss of young love: there is no trace of such love for the King of France. She had knowingly to wound most deeply the being dearest to her. He cast her off; and, after suffering an agony for him, and before she could see him safe in death, she was brutally murdered. We have to thank the poet for passing lightly over the circumstances of her death. We do not think of them. Her image comes before us calm and bright and still.
The memory of Cordelia thus becomes detached in a manner from the action of the drama. The reader refuses to admit into it any idea of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father's sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene. Because she was deeply wronged he is ready to insist that she was wholly right. He refuses, that is, to take the tragic point of view, and, when it is taken, he imagines that Cordelia is being attacked, or is being declared to have 'deserved' all that befell her. But Shakespeare's was the tragic point of view. He exhibits in the opening scene a situation tragic for Cordelia as well as for Lear. At a moment where terrible issues join, Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet. As I have already remarked in speaking of Desdemona, it was a demand which other heroines of Shakespeare could have met. Without loss of self-respect, and refusing even to appear to compete for a reward, they could have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved. Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia. And so she is not merely rejected and banished, but her father is left to the mercies of her sisters. And the cause of her failure—a failure a thousand-fold redeemed—is a compound in which imperfection appears so intimately mingled with the noblest qualities that—if we are true to Shakespeare—we do not think either of justifying her or of blaming her: we feel simply the tragic emotions of fear and pity.
In this failure a large part is played by that obvious characteristic to which I have already referred. Cordelia is not, indeed, always tongue-tied, as several passages in the drama, and even in this scene, clearly show. But tender emotion, and especially a tender love for the person to whom she has to speak, makes her dumb. Her love, as she says, is more ponderous than her tongue:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth.
This expressive word 'heave' is repeated in the passage which describes her reception of Kent's letter:
Faith, once or twice she heaved the name of 'Father' Pantingly forth, as if it press'd her heart:
two or three broken ejaculations escape her lips, and she 'starts' away 'to deal with grief alone.' The same trait reappears with an ineffable beauty in the stifled repetitions with which she attempts to answer her father in the moment of his restoration:
Lear. Do not laugh at me; For, as I am a man, I think this lady To be my child Cordelia.
Cor. And so I am, I am.
Lear. Be your tears wet? yes, faith. I pray, weep not; If you have poison for me, I will drink it. I know you do not love me; for your sisters Have, as I do remember, done me wrong: You have some cause, they have not.
Cor. No cause, no cause.
We see this trait for the last time, marked by Shakespeare with a decision clearly intentional, in her inability to answer one syllable to the last words we hear her father speak to her:
No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage: When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live, And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh At gilded butterflies....
She stands and weeps, and goes out with him silent. And we see her alive no more.
But (I am forced to dwell on the point, because I am sure to slur it over is to be false to Shakespeare) this dumbness of love was not the sole source of misunderstanding. If this had been all, even Lear could have seen the love in Cordelia's eyes when, to his question 'What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?' she answered 'Nothing.' But it did not shine there. She is not merely silent, nor does she merely answer 'Nothing.' She tells him that she loves him 'according to her bond, nor more nor less'; and his answer,
How now, Cordelia! mend your speech a little, Lest it may mar your fortunes,
so intensifies her horror at the hypocrisy of her sisters that she replies,
Good my Lord, You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I Return those duties back as are right fit, Obey you, love you, and most honour you. Why have my sisters husbands, if they say They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed, That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry Half my love with him, half my care and duty: Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters, To love my father all.
What words for the ear of an old father, unreasonable, despotic, but fondly loving, indecent in his own expressions of preference, and blind to the indecency of his appeal for protestations of fondness! Blank astonishment, anger, wounded love, contend within him; but for the moment he restrains himself and asks,
But goes thy heart with this?
Imagine Imogen's reply! But Cordelia answers,
Ay, good my lord.
Lear. So young, and so untender?
Cor. So young, my lord, and true.
Yes, 'heavenly true.' But truth is not the only good in the world, nor is the obligation to tell truth the only obligation. The matter here was to keep it inviolate, but also to preserve a father. And even if truth were the one and only obligation, to tell much less than truth is not to tell it. And Cordelia's speech not only tells much less than truth about her love, it actually perverts the truth when it implies that to give love to a husband is to take it from a father. There surely never was a more unhappy speech.
When Isabella goes to plead with Angelo for her brother's life, her horror of her brother's sin is so intense, and her perception of the justice of Angelo's reasons for refusing her is so clear and keen, that she is ready to abandon her appeal before it is well begun; she would actually do so but that the warm-hearted profligate Lucio reproaches her for her coldness and urges her on. Cordelia's hatred of hypocrisy and of the faintest appearance of mercenary professions reminds us of Isabella's hatred of impurity; but Cordelia's position is infinitely more difficult, and on the other hand there is mingled with her hatred a touch of personal antagonism and of pride. Lear's words,
Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her!
are monstrously unjust, but they contain one grain of truth; and indeed it was scarcely possible that a nature so strong as Cordelia's, and with so keen a sense of dignity, should feel here nothing whatever of pride and resentment. This side of her character is emphatically shown in her language to her sisters in the first scene—language perfectly just, but little adapted to soften their hearts towards their father—and again in the very last words we hear her speak. She and her father are brought in, prisoners, to the enemy's camp; but she sees only Edmund, not those 'greater' ones on whose pleasure hangs her father's fate and her own. For her own she is little concerned; she knows how to meet adversity:
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down; Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.
Yes, that is how she would meet fortune, frowning it down, even as Goneril would have met it; nor, if her father had been already dead, would there have been any great improbability in the false story that was to be told of her death, that, like Goneril, she 'fordid herself.' Then, after those austere words about fortune, she suddenly asks,
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?
Strange last words for us to hear from a being so worshipped and beloved; but how characteristic! Their tone is unmistakable. I doubt if she could have brought herself to plead with her sisters for her father's life; and if she had attempted the task, she would have performed it but ill. Nor is our feeling towards her altered one whit by that. But what is true of Kent and the Fool is, in its measure, true of her. Any one of them would gladly have died a hundred deaths to help King Lear; and they do help his soul; but they harm his cause. They are all involved in tragedy.
* * * * *
Why does Cordelia die? I suppose no reader ever failed to ask that question, and to ask it with something more than pain,—to ask it, if only for a moment, in bewilderment or dismay, and even perhaps in tones of protest. These feelings are probably evoked more strongly here than at the death of any other notable character in Shakespeare; and it may sound a wilful paradox to assert that the slightest element of reconciliation is mingled with them or succeeds them. Yet it seems to me indubitable that such an element is present, though difficult to make out with certainty what it is or whence it proceeds. And I will try to make this out, and to state it methodically.
(a) It is not due in any perceptible degree to the fact, which we have just been examining, that Cordelia through her tragic imperfection contributes something to the conflict and catastrophe; and I drew attention to that imperfection without any view to our present problem. The critics who emphasise it at this point in the drama are surely untrue to Shakespeare's mind; and still more completely astray are those who lay stress on the idea that Cordelia, in bringing a foreign army to help her father, was guilty of treason to her country. When she dies we regard her, practically speaking, simply as we regard Ophelia or Desdemona, as an innocent victim swept away in the convulsion caused by the error or guilt of others.
(b) Now this destruction of the good through the evil of others is one of the tragic facts of life, and no one can object to the use of it, within certain limits, in tragic art. And, further, those who because of it declaim against the nature of things, declaim without thinking. It is obviously the other side of the fact that the effects of good spread far and wide beyond the doer of good; and we should ask ourselves whether we really could wish (supposing it conceivable) to see this double-sided fact abolished. Nevertheless the touch of reconciliation that we feel in contemplating the death of Cordelia is not due, or is due only in some slight degree, to a perception that the event is true to life, admissible in tragedy, and a case of a law which we cannot seriously desire to see abrogated.
(c) What then is this feeling, and whence does it come? I believe we shall find that it is a feeling not confined to King Lear, but present at the close of other tragedies; and that the reason why it has an exceptional tone or force at the close of King Lear, lies in that very peculiarity of the close which also—at least for the moment—excites bewilderment, dismay, or protest. The feeling I mean is the impression that the heroic being, though in one sense and outwardly he has failed, is yet in another sense superior to the world in which he appears; is, in some way which we do not seek to define, untouched by the doom that overtakes him; and is rather set free from life than deprived of it. Some such feeling as this—some feeling which, from this description of it, may be recognised as their own even by those who would dissent from the description—we surely have in various degrees at the deaths of Hamlet and Othello and Lear, and of Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. It accompanies the more prominent tragic impressions, and, regarded alone, could hardly be called tragic. For it seems to imply (though we are probably quite unconscious of the implication) an idea which, if developed, would transform the tragic view of things. It implies that the tragic world, if taken as it is presented, with all its error, guilt, failure, woe and waste, is no final reality, but only a part of reality taken for the whole, and, when so taken, illusive; and that if we could see the whole, and the tragic facts in their true place in it, we should find them, not abolished, of course, but so transmuted that they had ceased to be strictly tragic,—find, perhaps, the suffering and death counting for little or nothing, the greatness of the soul for much or all, and the heroic spirit, in spite of failure, nearer to the heart of things than the smaller, more circumspect, and perhaps even 'better' beings who survived the catastrophe. The feeling which I have tried to describe, as accompanying the more obvious tragic emotions at the deaths of heroes, corresponds with some such idea as this.
Now this feeling is evoked with a quite exceptional strength by the death of Cordelia. It is not due to the perception that she, like Lear, has attained through suffering; we know that she had suffered and attained in his days of prosperity. It is simply the feeling that what happens to such a being does not matter; all that matters is what she is. How this can be when, for anything the tragedy tells us, she has ceased to exist, we do not ask; but the tragedy itself makes us feel that somehow it is so. And the force with which this impression is conveyed depends largely on the very fact which excites our bewilderment and protest, that her death, following on the deaths of all the evil characters, and brought about by an unexplained delay in Edmund's effort to save her, comes on us, not as an inevitable conclusion to the sequence of events, but as the sudden stroke of mere fate or chance. The force of the impression, that is to say, depends on the very violence of the contrast between the outward and the inward, Cordelia's death and Cordelia's soul. The more unmotived, unmerited, senseless, monstrous, her fate, the more do we feel that it does not concern her. The extremity of the disproportion between prosperity and goodness first shocks us, and then flashes on us the conviction that our whole attitude in asking or expecting that goodness should be prosperous is wrong; that, if only we could see things as they are, we should see that the outward is nothing and the inward is all.
And some such thought as this (which, to bring it clearly out, I have stated, and still state, in a form both exaggerated and much too explicit) is really present through the whole play. Whether Shakespeare knew it or not, it is present. I might almost say that the 'moral' of King Lear is presented in the irony of this collocation:
Albany. The gods defend her! Enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms.
The 'gods,' it seems, do not show their approval by 'defending' their own from adversity or death, or by giving them power and prosperity. These, on the contrary, are worthless, or worse; it is not on them, but on the renunciation of them, that the gods throw incense. They breed lust, pride, hardness of heart, the insolence of office, cruelty, scorn, hypocrisy, contention, war, murder, self-destruction. The whole story beats this indictment of prosperity into the brain. Lear's great speeches in his madness proclaim it like the curses of Timon on life and man. But here, as in Timon, the poor and humble are, almost without exception, sound and sweet at heart, faithful and pitiful. And here adversity, to the blessed in spirit, is blessed. It wins fragrance from the crushed flower. It melts in aged hearts sympathies which prosperity had frozen. It purges the soul's sight by blinding that of the eyes. Throughout that stupendous Third Act the good are seen growing better through suffering, and the bad worse through success. The warm castle is a room in hell, the storm-swept heath a sanctuary. The judgment of this world is a lie; its goods, which we covet, corrupt us; its ills, which break our bodies, set our souls free;
Our means secure us, and our mere defects Prove our commodities.
Let us renounce the world, hate it, and lose it gladly. The only real thing in it is the soul, with its courage, patience, devotion. And nothing outward can touch that.
This, if we like to use the word, is Shakespeare's 'pessimism' in King Lear. As we have seen, it is not by any means the whole spirit of the tragedy, which presents the world as a place where heavenly good grows side by side with evil, where extreme evil cannot long endure, and where all that survives the storm is good, if not great. But still this strain of thought, to which the world appears as the kingdom of evil and therefore worthless, is in the tragedy, and may well be the record of many hours of exasperated feeling and troubled brooding. Pursued further and allowed to dominate, it would destroy the tragedy; for it is necessary to tragedy that we should feel that suffering and death do matter greatly, and that happiness and life are not to be renounced as worthless. Pursued further, again, it leads to the idea that the world, in that obvious appearance of it which tragedy cannot dissolve without dissolving itself, is illusive. And its tendency towards this idea is traceable in King Lear, in the shape of the notion that this 'great world' is transitory, or 'will wear out to nought' like the little world called 'man' (IV. vi. 137), or that humanity will destroy itself. In later days, in the drama that was probably Shakespeare's last complete work, the Tempest, this notion of the transitoriness of things appears, side by side with the simpler feeling that man's life is an illusion or dream, in some of the most famous lines he ever wrote:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep.
These lines, detached from their context, are familiar to everyone; but, in the Tempest, they are dramatic as well as poetical. The sudden emergence of the thought expressed in them has a specific and most significant cause; and as I have not seen it remarked I will point it out.
Prospero, by means of his spirits, has been exhibiting to Ferdinand and Miranda a masque in which goddesses appear, and which is so majestic and harmonious that to the young man, standing beside such a father and such a wife, the place seems Paradise,—as perhaps the world once seemed to Shakespeare. Then, at the bidding of Iris, there begins a dance of Nymphs with Reapers, sunburnt, weary of their August labour, but now in their holiday garb. But, as this is nearing its end, Prospero 'starts suddenly, and speaks'; and the visions vanish. And what he 'speaks' is shown in these lines, which introduce the famous passage just quoted:
Pros. [Aside] I had forgot that foul conspiracy Of the beast Caliban and his confederates Against my life: the minute of their plot Is almost come. [To the Spirits.] Well done! avoid; no more.
Fer. This is strange; your father's in some passion That works him strongly.
Mir. Never till this day Saw I him touch'd with anger so distemper'd.
Pros. You do look, my son, in a moved sort, As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir. Our revels....
And then, after the famous lines, follow these:
Sir, I am vex'd: Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled; Be not disturb'd with my infirmity; If you be pleased, retire into my cell And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk, To still my beating mind.
We seem to see here the whole mind of Shakespeare in his last years. That which provokes in Prospero first a 'passion' of anger, and, a moment later, that melancholy and mystical thought that the great world must perish utterly and that man is but a dream, is the sudden recollection of gross and apparently incurable evil in the 'monster' whom he had tried in vain to raise and soften, and in the monster's human confederates. It is this, which is but the repetition of his earlier experience of treachery and ingratitude, that troubles his old brain, makes his mind 'beat,' and forces on him the sense of unreality and evanescence in the world and the life that are haunted by such evil. Nor, though Prospero can spare and forgive, is there any sign to the end that he believes the evil curable either in the monster, the 'born devil,' or in the more monstrous villains, the 'worse than devils,' whom he so sternly dismisses. But he has learned patience, has come to regard his anger and loathing as a weakness or infirmity, and would not have it disturb the young and innocent. And so, in the days of King Lear, it was chiefly the power of 'monstrous' and apparently cureless evil in the 'great world' that filled Shakespeare's soul with horror, and perhaps forced him sometimes to yield to the infirmity of misanthropy and despair, to cry 'No, no, no life,' and to take refuge in the thought that this fitful fever is a dream that must soon fade into a dreamless sleep; until, to free himself from the perilous stuff that weighed upon his heart, he summoned to his aid his 'so potent art,' and wrought this stuff into the stormy music of his greatest poem, which seems to cry,
You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need,
and, like the Tempest, seems to preach to us from end to end, 'Thou must be patient,' 'Bear free and patient thoughts.'
[Footnote 158: Of course I do not mean that he is beginning to be insane, and still less that he is insane (as some medical critics suggest).]
[Footnote 159: I must however point out that the modern stage-directions are most unfortunate in concealing the fact that here Cordelia sees her father again for the first time. See Note W.]
[Footnote 160: What immediately follows is as striking an illustration of quite another quality, and of the effects which make us think of Lear as pursued by a relentless fate. If he could go in and sleep after his prayer, as he intends, his mind, one feels, might be saved: so far there has been only the menace of madness. But from within the hovel Edgar—the last man who would willingly have injured Lear—cries, 'Fathom and half, fathom and half! Poor Tom!'; the Fool runs out terrified; Edgar, summoned by Kent, follows him; and, at sight of Edgar, in a moment something gives way in Lear's brain, and he exclaims:
Hast thou given all To thy two daughters? And art thou come to this?
Henceforth he is mad. And they remain out in the storm.
I have not seen it noticed that this stroke of fate is repeated—surely intentionally—in the sixth scene. Gloster has succeeded in persuading Lear to come into the 'house'; he then leaves, and Kent after much difficulty induces Lear to lie down and rest upon the cushions. Sleep begins to come to him again, and he murmurs,
'Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains; so, so, so. We'll go to supper i' the morning. So, so, so.'
At that moment Gloster enters with the news that he has discovered a plot to kill the King; the rest that 'might yet have balm'd his broken senses' is again interrupted; and he is hurried away on a litter towards Dover. (His recovery, it will be remembered, is due to a long sleep artificially induced.)]
[Footnote 161: III. iv. 49. This is printed as prose in the Globe edition, but is surely verse. Lear has not yet spoken prose in this scene, and his next three speeches are in verse. The next is in prose, and, ending, in his tearing off his clothes, shows the advance of insanity.]
[Footnote 162: [Lear's death is thus, I am reminded, like pere Goriot's.] This interpretation may be condemned as fantastic, but the text, it appears to me, will bear no other. This is the whole speech (in the Globe text):
And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never! Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir. Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there!
The transition at 'Do you see this?' from despair to something more than hope is exactly the same as in the preceding passage at the word 'Ha!':
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all! I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever! Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha! What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft, Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
As to my other remarks, I will ask the reader to notice that the passage from Lear's entrance with the body of Cordelia to the stage-direction He dies (which probably comes a few lines too soon) is 54 lines in length, and that 30 of them represent the interval during which he has absolutely forgotten Cordelia. (It begins when he looks up at the Captain's words, line 275.) To make Lear during this interval turn continually in anguish to the corpse, is to act the passage in a manner irreconcilable with the text, and insufferable in its effect. I speak from experience. I have seen the passage acted thus, and my sympathies were so exhausted long before Lear's death that his last speech, the most pathetic speech ever written, left me disappointed and weary.]
[Footnote 163: The Quartos give the 'Never' only thrice (surely wrongly), and all the actors I have heard have preferred this easier task. I ought perhaps to add that the Quartos give the words 'Break, heart; I prithee, break!' to Lear, not Kent. They and the Folio are at odds throughout the last sixty lines of King Lear, and all good modern texts are eclectic.]
[Footnote 164: The connection of these sufferings with the sin of earlier days (not, it should be noticed, of youth) is almost thrust upon our notice by the levity of Gloster's own reference to the subject in the first scene, and by Edgar's often quoted words 'The gods are just,' etc. The following collocation, also, may be intentional (III. iv. 116):
Fool. Now a little fire in a wild field were like an old lecher's heart; a small spark, all the rest on's body cold. Look, here comes a walking fire. [Enter GLOSTER with a torch.]
Pope destroyed the collocation by transferring the stage-direction to a point some dozen lines later.]
[Footnote 165: The passages are here printed together (III. iv. 28 ff. and IV. i. 67 ff.):
Lear. Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop'd and window'd raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta'en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens just.
Glo. Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still! Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man, That slaves your ordinance, that will not see Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly; So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough.]
[Footnote 166: Schmidt's idea—based partly on the omission from the Folios at I. ii. 103 (see Furness' Variorum) of the words 'To his father that so tenderly and entirely loves him'—that Gloster loved neither of his sons, is surely an entire mistake. See, not to speak of general impressions, III. iv. 171 ff.]
[Footnote 167: Imagination demands for Lear, even more than for Othello, majesty of stature and mien. Tourgenief felt this and made his 'Lear of the Steppes' a gigantic peasant. If Shakespeare's texts give no express authority for ideas like these, the reason probably is that he wrote primarily for the theatre, where the principal actor might not be a large man.]
[Footnote 168: He is not present, of course, till France and Burgundy enter; but while he is present he says not a word beyond 'Here's France and Burgundy, my noble lord.' For some remarks on the possibility that Shakespeare imagined him as having encouraged Lear in his idea of dividing the kingdom see Note T. It must be remembered that Cornwall was Gloster's 'arch and patron.']
[Footnote 169: In this she stands alone among the more notable characters of the play. Doubtless Regan's exclamation 'O the blest gods' means nothing, but the fact that it is given to her means something. For some further remarks on Goneril see Note T. I may add that touches of Goneril reappear in the heroine of the next tragedy, Macbeth; and that we are sometimes reminded of her again by the character of the Queen in Cymbeline, who bewitched the feeble King by her beauty, and married him for greatness while she abhorred his person (Cymbeline, V. v. 62 f., 31 f.); who tried to poison her step-daughter and intended to poison her husband; who died despairing because she could not execute all the evil she purposed; and who inspirited her husband to defy the Romans by words that still stir the blood (Cymbeline, III. i. 14 f. Cf. King Lear, IV. ii. 50 f.).]
[Footnote 170: I. ii. 1 f. Shakespeare seems to have in mind the idea expressed in the speech of Ulysses about the dependence of the world on degree, order, system, custom, and about the chaos which would result from the free action of appetite, the 'universal wolf' (Troilus and Cr. I. iii. 83 f.). Cf. the contrast between 'particular will' and 'the moral laws of nature and of nations,' II. ii. 53, 185 ('nature' here of course is the opposite of the 'nature' of Edmund's speech).]
[Footnote 171: The line last quoted is continued by Edmund in the Folios thus: 'Th' hast spoken right; 'tis true,' but in the Quartos thus: 'Thou hast spoken truth,' which leaves the line imperfect. This, and the imperfect line 'Make instruments to plague us,' suggest that Shakespeare wrote at first simply,
Make instruments to plague us.
Edm. Th' hast spoken truth.
The Quartos show other variations which seem to point to the fact that the MS. was here difficult to make out.]
[Footnote 172: IV. i. 1-9. I am indebted here to Koppel, Verbesserungsvorschlaege zu den Erlaeuterungen und der Textlesung des Lear (1899).]
[Footnote 173: See I. i. 142 ff. Kent speaks, not of the injustice of Lear's action, but of its 'folly,' its 'hideous rashness.' When the King exclaims 'Kent, on thy life, no more,' he answers:
My life I never held but as a pawn To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it, Thy safety being the motive.
(The first Folio omits 'a,' and in the next line reads 'nere' for 'nor.' Perhaps the first line should read 'My life I ne'er held but as pawn to wage.')]
[Footnote 174: See II. ii. 162 to end. The light-heartedness disappears, of course, as Lear's misfortunes thicken.]
[Footnote 175: This difference, however, must not be pressed too far; nor must we take Kent's retort,
Now by Apollo, king, Thou swear'st thy gods in vain,
for a sign of disbelief. He twice speaks of the gods in another manner (I. i. 185, III. vi. 5), and he was accustomed to think of Lear in his 'prayers' (I. i. 144).]
[Footnote 176: The 'clown' in Antony and Cleopatra is merely an old peasant. There is a fool in Timon of Athens, however, and he appears in a scene (II. ii.) generally attributed to Shakespeare. His talk sometimes reminds one of Lear's fool; and Kent's remark, 'This is not altogether fool, my lord,' is repeated in Timon, II. ii. 122, 'Thou art not altogether a fool.']
[Footnote 177: [This is no obstacle. There could hardly be a stage tradition hostile to his youth, since he does not appear in Tate's version, which alone was acted during the century and a half before Macready's production. I had forgotten this; and my memory must also have been at fault regarding an engraving to which I referred in the first edition. Both mistakes were pointed out by Mr. Archer.]]
[Footnote 178: In parts of what follows I am indebted to remarks by Cowden Clarke, quoted by Furness on I. iv. 91.]
[Footnote 179: See also Note T.]
[Footnote 180: 'Our last and least' (according to the Folio reading). Lear speaks again of 'this little seeming substance.' He can carry her dead body in his arms.]
[Footnote 181: Perhaps then the 'low sound' is not merely metaphorical in Kent's speech in I. i. 153 f.:
answer my life my judgment, Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least; Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound Reverbs no hollowness.]
[Footnote 182: I. i. 80. 'More ponderous' is the reading of the Folios, 'more richer' that of the Quartos. The latter is usually preferred, and Mr. Aldis Wright says 'more ponderous' has the appearance of being a player's correction to avoid a piece of imaginary bad grammar. Does it not sound more like the author's improvement of a phrase that he thought a little flat? And, apart from that, is it not significant that it expresses the same idea of weight that appears in the phrase 'I cannot heave my heart into my mouth'?]
[Footnote 183: Cf. Cornwall's satirical remarks on Kent's 'plainness' in II. ii. 101 ff.,—a plainness which did no service to Kent's master. (As a matter of fact, Cordelia had said nothing about 'plainness.')]
[Footnote 184: Who, like Kent, hastens on the quarrel with Goneril.]
[Footnote 185: I do not wish to complicate the discussion by examining the differences, in degree or otherwise, in the various cases, or by introducing numerous qualifications; and therefore I do not add the names of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.]
[Footnote 186: It follows from the above that, if this idea were made explicit and accompanied our reading of a tragedy throughout, it would confuse or even destroy the tragic impression. So would the constant presence of Christian beliefs. The reader most attached to these beliefs holds them in temporary suspension while he is immersed in a Shakespearean tragedy. Such tragedy assumes that the world, as it is presented, is the truth, though it also provokes feelings which imply that this world is not the whole truth, and therefore not the truth.]
[Footnote 187: Though Cordelia, of course, does not occupy the position of the hero.]
[Footnote 188: E.g. in King Lear the servants, and the old man who succours Gloster and brings to the naked beggar 'the best 'parel that he has, come on't what will,' i.e. whatever vengeance Regan can inflict. Cf. the Steward and the Servants in Timon. Cf. there also (V. i. 23), 'Promising is the very air o' the time ... performance is ever the duller for his act; and, but in the plainer and simpler kind of people, the deed of saying [performance of promises] is quite out of use.' Shakespeare's feeling on this subject, though apparently specially keen at this time of his life, is much the same throughout (cf. Adam in As You Like It). He has no respect for the plainer and simpler kind of people as politicians, but a great respect and regard for their hearts.]