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There is something to be gained by an irresponsible and random flight through Shakespeare. The sublime is inaccessible to study, and Shakespeare's greatest poetry, dealing as it does with minds distraught, with the chaotic emotions of dislocated natures, cannot be understood by a well-ordered and correct attention. We must be dreamy and indifferent as we read “Hamlet.' We must accept and relinquish the scenes in "King Lear” without an attempt to understand them. Their meaning will be surrendered to us later by memory, and will live in those regions where the things themselves were born, on the threshold of the unconscious and the incommunicable.
The play “King Lear” has shown that it will survive any treatment. It was fitted with a happy ending by Nahum Tate in Charles the Second's time, and the version held the stage for one hundred and sixty years. In the meantime all the great minds of Europe had had their say about it, and many great actors of Europe had done what human genius could do to interpret it. There grew up, both in Germany and in England, a great public of educated persons, who knew every word of the play by heart, and attended a performance of “King Lear” much as a modern audience attends the performance by some new pianist of one of Beethoven's great sonatas.
In fact the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did for “Lear,” “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Othello,” and “Richard III” what the last half of the nineteenth century did for Beethoven: they produced a special race of prodigious experts, created by the plays and by the music - gladiators of art, who gave exhibitions on a scale undreamed of by Shakespeare or Beethoven, and produced effects that would have startled the creators. Beethoven was, no doubt, a musical person, and he was by profession a pianist; but if Beethoven were to play one of his concertos before a modern audience, which knew every interpretation that the work has undergone since the times of Liszt and Rubenstein, he would cut a sorry figure. The size of the instrument, the size of the auditorium, and the expectations of the public would crush him.
The exploitation of Shakespeare as a field for starring came to a climax first in Garrick and next in Edmund Kean, who, to judge by all accounts, was the greatest of English actors, and became to the British stage what Rachel was to the French stage, the messiah of an epoch when people went to the theatre, not to see a play, but to see an actor. By the sacrifice of all other interests to this one interest certain effects were produced which will not soon be repeated. They imply that the whole passion of an age is bent toward representing with virtuosity something that has been created, schemed, and brought to a focus by former genius. At such epochs the actor is classed by the public as almost the poet's equal.
I transcribe a few critiques on Edmund Kean
from the treasure-house out of which most of my learning is drawn – Mr. Furness's edition :
It has been said that “Lear” was a study for anyone who would make himself acquainted with the workings of an insane mind. There is no doubt of it. And it is no less true that Mr. Kean was a perfect exemplification of it. His eye, when his senses are first forsaking him, giving a questioning look at what he saw, as if all before him was undergoing a strange and bewildering change which confused his brain - the wandering, lost motions of his hands, which seemed feeling for something familiar to them, on which they might take hold, and be assured of a safe reality — the under monotone of his voice, as if he was questioning his own being, and all which surrounded him - the continuous, but slight oscillating motion of the body,
all expressed, with fearful truth, the dreamy state of a mind fast unsettling, and making vain and weak efforts to find its way back to its wonted reason. There was a childish, feeble gladness in the eye, and a half-piteous smile about the mouth at times, which one could scarce look
upon without shedding tears. As the derangement increased upon him, his eye lost its notice of what surrounded him, wandering over everything as if he saw it not, and fastening upon the creatures of his crazed brain. The helpless and dignified fondness with which he clings to Edgar as an insane brother is another instance of the justness of Mr. Kean's conceptions. Nor does he lose the air of insanity even in the fine moralizing parts, and where he inveighs against the corruptions of the world. There is a madness even in his reason.
Since his first appearance at Drury Lane he had never lost an opportunity of improving his attainment in “Lear"; so anxious was he to impart truth and natural coloring to his performance that, in order to observe the details and manifestations of real insanity, he constantly visited St. Luke's and Bethlehem hospitals ere he appeared in the old King; and, tranquilly relying upon the unfailing fertility of his intellectual resources, he anticipated this effort as the last seal of his theatrical renown. He knew that, when he came to the trial, his mind would be thoroughly imbued with the properties of the character; and, fearless as to the result, he quietly said that he would make the audience as mad as he himself should be.
Who that once heard can ever forget the terrors of that terrific curse, where, in the wild storm of his conflicting passions, he threw himself on his knees, “lifted up his arms, like withered stumps, threw his head quite back and, in that position, as if severed from all that held him to society, breathed a heart-struck prayer, like the figure of a man obtruncated”? ...
The next scene is the finish of the whole performance, and certainly it is the noblest execution of lofty genius that the modern stage has ever witnessed — always excepting the same actor's closing scene in the Third Act of “Othello.” It is impossible for words to convey anything like an adequate description of the extraordinary acting in the whole of this scene of the electrical effect produced from the transition from “Bid 'em come forth and hear me," etc., to "O, are you come?" - the mingled suspicion and tenderness with which he tells Regan of Goneril's treatment of him; the exquisite tone of pathos thrown into the mock petition to Regan, “I confess that I am old,” etc.; the wonderful depth and nobility of expression given to the ironical speech to Goneril, “I did not bid the thunderbearer strike," etc.; the pure and touching simplicity of “I gave you all”; and lastly, the splendid close of this scene with the speech, “Heavens, drop your patience down,” etc., in which the bitter delight of anticipated revenge, and the unbending sense of habitual dignity, contend against the throes and agonies of a torn and bursting heart.
After such a series of heroic actors as Garrick, Kemble, Kean, Booth, and Salvini, the kaleidoscope of time must fall into new shapes before other aspects of Shakespeare can reveal themselves. It will not be till some years after the death of Josef Hoffman and our other titanic pianists, that humanity will dare creep toward a new understanding of Beethoven. Yet time passes, manners change. We can never be sure that we ourselves should have liked Garrick's Hamlet, or have been carried away by Paganini. I have seen Edwin Booth and Salvini, who were the latest stars in the slowly setting galaxy - or, as it were, dynasty - of great tragedians; and I am going to confess that in “King Lear," though each was extraordinary, there did not seem to be mists and clouds enough about the old King. The mind's theatre was too bare; Lear had slipped his envelope and was too isolated, too visible, too articulate, too cunningly lighted. I believe that this effect was due, not, as Charles Lamb would have it, to Shakespeare's unfitness for the stage, but to the neglect by modern stage managers of the minor plots and minor characters in the drama.
It was long ago discovered that two very similar legends are woven together in this play — the story of Lear, and a tale about an old man and his two sons which Shakespeare probably ran across in Sidney's “Arcadia.” Why were these two stories combined ?
The mystery of “King Lear” lies in the strange sheaf of things that Shakespeare grasped in his hand before he began to write the play. It was to be a tragedy — that is to say, a great many of the characters were to be killed. Eleven of them are killed,