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Alb. Haste thee, for thy life. [Exit EDGAR.
Edm. He hath commission from thy wife and me To hang Cordelia in the prison, and To lay the blame upon her own despair, That she fordid herself. Alb. The gods defend her! Bear him hence awhile.
[EDMUND is borne off.
Enter LEAR, with CORDELIA dead in his arms;? EDGAR,
Officer, and others. Lear. Howl, howl, howl, howl !—0, you are men
of stones; Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so That heaven's vault should crack.-0, she is gone
forever!I know when one is dead, and when one lives; She's dead as earth.-Lend me a looking-glass; If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, Why, then she lives. Kent.
Is this the promised end ? 3
Fall, and cease!
O my good master! [Kneeling. Lear. 'Pr’ythee, away. Edg.
'Tis noble Kent, your friend. Lear. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all !
1 To fordo signifies to destroy. It is used again in Hamlet.
2 The old historians say that Cordelia retired with victory from the battle, which she conducted in her father's cause, and thereby replaced him on the throne; but in a subsequent one fought against her (after the death of the old king), by the sons of Regan and Goneril
, she was taken, and died miserably in prison. Geoffrey of Monmouth, the original . relater of the story, says that she killed herself.
3 Kent, in contemplating the scene before him, recollects those passages of St. Mark's Gospel, in which Christ foretells to his disciples the end of the world ; and hence his question. To which Edgar adds, or only a representation or resemblance of that horror.
4 To cease is to die. “Rather fall, and cease to be at once, than continue in existence only to be wretched.”
I might have saved her; now she's gone forever!
Off. 'Tis true, my lords, he did.
Did I not, fellow?
Kent. If Fortune brag of two she loved and hated, One of them we behold.
Lear. This is a dull sight:? Are you not Kent?
The same; Your servant Kent. Where is your servant Caius ?
Lear. He's a good fellow, I can tell you that ; He'll strike, and quickly too.—He's dead and rotten.
Kent. No, my good lord, I am the very man ;-
Kent. That, from your first of difference and decay, Have followed
You are welcome hither. Kent. Nor no man else ; all's cheerless, dark, and
deadly.-Your eldest daughters have fore-doomed themselves, And desperately are dead. Lear.
Ay, so I think. Alb. He knows not what he sees ; 4 and vain it is That we present us to him. Edg.
1 “If Fortune, to display the plenitude of her power, should brag of two persons, one of whom she had highly elevated, and the other she had wofully depressed, we now behold the latter.” The quarto reads, “ She loved or hated," which confirms this sense.
? Lear means that his eyesight was bedimmed either by excess of grief, or, as is usual, by the approach of death.
3 Thus the quartos: the folio reads foredone, which is probably right See note 1, on page 130.
4 The quarto reads says.
Enter an Officer.
Oj. Edmund is dead, my lord.
That's but a trifle here.-
[To Edgar and KENT. With boot, and such addition as your honors Have more than merited. 2- All friends shall taste The wages of their virtue, and all foes The cup of their deservings.-0, see, see!
Lear. And my poor fool is hanged!3 No, no, no life; Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never ! 'Pray you, undo this button : 4 thank you, sir.-Do you see this ?-Look on her,-look,-her lips, Look there, look there !
[He dies. Edg.
He faints !—My lord, my lord, Kent. Break, heart; I pr’ythee, break! Edg.
Look up, my lord. Kent. Vex not his ghost: 0, let him pass! he hates
O, he is
Alb. Bear them from hence.–Our present business
1 “This great decay” is Lear.
2 These lines are addressed to Kent as well as to Edgar. Boot is advantage, increase. By honors is meant honorable conduct.
3. This is an expression of tenderness for his dead Cordelia (not his fool, as some have thought), on whose lips he is still intent, and dies while he is searching there for indications of life. “ Poor fool,” in the age of Shakspeare, was an expression of endearment.
4 T'he Rev. Dr. J. Warton judiciously observes, that the swelling and heaving of the heart is described by this most expressive circumstance.
Is general woe. Friends of my soul, you twain
[To Kent and EDGAR. Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.
Kent. I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls, and I must not say no.
Alb. The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most ; we, that are young, Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
[Exeunt, with a dead march.
The tragedy of Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakspeare. There is, perhaps, no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions, and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking oppositions of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indig. nation, pity, and hope. There is no scene which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or conduct of the action, and scarce a line which does not conduce to the progress of the scene. So powerful is the current of the Poet's imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irresistibly along.
On the seeming improbability of Lear's conduct, it may be observed, that he is represented according to histories at that time vulgarly received as true. And, perhaps, if we turn our thoughts upon the barbarity and ignorance of the age to which this story is referred, it will appear not so unlikely as while we estimate Lear's manners by our own. Such preference of one daughter to another, or resignation of dominion on such conditions, would be yet credible if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar. Shakspeare, indeed, by the mention of his earls and dukes, has given us the idea of times more civilized, and of life regulated by softer manners; and the truth is, that, though he so nicely discriminates, and so minutely describes, the characters of men, he commonly neglects and confounds the characters of ages, by mingling customs ancient and modern, English and foreign.
My learned friend, Mr. Warton, who has, in The Adventurer, very minutely criticised this play, remarks, that the instances of cruelty are too savage and shocking, and that the intervention of Edmund destroys the simplicity of the story. These objections may, I think, be answered by repeating that the cruelty of the daughters is an historical fact, to which the Poet has added little, having only drawn it into a series of dialogue and action. But I am not able to apologize with equal plausibility for the extrusion of Gloster's eyes, which seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity. Yet let it be remembered that our author well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote.
The injury done by Edmund to the simplicity of the action, is abundantly recompensed by the addition of variety; by the art with which he is made to cooperate with the chief design, and the opportunity which he gives the Poet of combining perfidy with perfidy, and connecting the wicked son with the wicked daughters, to impress this important moral, that villany is never at a stop; that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.
But though this moral be incidentally enforced, Shakspeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange. to the faith of chronicles. Yet this conduct is justified by The Spectator, who blames Tate for giving Cordelia success and happiness in his alteration, and declares, that, in his opinion, the tragedy has lost half its beauty. Dennis has remarked, whether justly or not, that, to secure the favorable reception of Cato, the town was poisoned with much false and abominable criticism, and that endeavors had been used to discredit and decry poetical justice. A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life; but, since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or that, if other excellences are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.
In the present case, the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
There is another controversy among the critics concerning this play. It is disputed whether the predominant image in Lear's disordered mind be the loss of his kingdom or the cruelty of his daughters. Mr. Murphy, a very judicious critic, has evinced, by induction of particular passages, that the cruelty of his daughters is the primary source of his distress, and that the loss of royalty affects him only as a secondary and subordinate evil. He observes, with great justness, that Lear would move our compassion but little, did we not rather consider the injured father than the degraded king:
The story of this play, except the episode of Edmund, which is derived, I think, from Sidney, is taken originally from Geoffry of Monmouth, whom Holinshed generally copied; but perhaps immediately from an old historical ballad. My reason for believing that the play was posterior to the ballad, rather than the ballad to the play, is, that the ballad has nothing of Shakspeare's nocturnal tempest, which is too striking to have been omitted, and that it follows the chronicle; it has the rudiments of the play, but none of its amplifications; it first hinted Lear's madness, but did not array it in circumstances. The writer of the ballad added something to the history, which is a proof that he would have added more, if more had occurred to his mind, and more must have occurred if he had seen Shakspeare.