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VOL. VII. 1
The story of King Lear and his Three Daughters was originally told by Geffrey of Monmouth, from whom Holinshed transcribed it; and in his Chronicle, Shakspeare had certainly read it; but he seems to have been more indebted to the old anonymous play, entitled The True Chronicle Hystorie of Leire, King of England, and his Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella ; 1605. A play with that title was entered on the Stationers' books by Edward White, May 14, 1594 ; and there are two other entries of the same piece, May 8, 1605, and Nov. 26, 1607. From the Mirror of Magistrates, Shakspeare has taken the hint for the behavior of the steward, and the reply of Cordelia to her father concerning her future marriage. The episode of Gloucester and his sons must have been borrowed from Sidney's Arcadia, no trace of it being found in the other sources of the fable. The reader will also find the story of King Lear in the second book and tenth canto of Spenser's Faerie Queene, and in the fifteenth chapter of the third book of Warner's Albion's England. Camden, in his Remaines, under the head of Wise Speeches, tells a similar story to this of Lear, of Ina, king of the West Saxons; which, if the thing ever happened, probably was the real origin of the fable. The story has found its way into many ballads and other metrical pieces; one ballad will be found in Dr. Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, vol. i. 3d edit. The story is also to be found in the unpublished Gesta Romanorum, and in the Romance of Perceforest. The whole of this play could not have been written till after 1603. Harsnet's Declaration of Popish Impostures, to which it contains so many references, and from which the fantastic names of several spirits are
borrowed, was not published till that year. It must have been produced before the Christmas of 1606; for, in the entry of Lear on the Stationers' Register, on the 26th of November, 1607, it is expressly recorded to have been played, during the preceding Christmas, before his majesty at Whitehall. Malone places the date of the composition in 1605; Dr. Drake in 1604.
“ Of this noble tragedy, one of the first productions of the noblest of poets, it is scarcely possible to express our admiration in adequate terms. Whether considered as an effort of art, or as a picture of the passions, it is entitled to the highest praise. The two portions of which the fable consists, involving the fate of Lear and his daughters, and of Gloster and his sons, influence each other in so many points, and are blended with such consummate skill, that whilst the imagination is delighted by diversity of circumstances, the judgment is equally gratified in viewing their mutual coöperation towards the final result; the coalescence being so intimate, as not only to preserve the necessary unity of action, but to constitute one of the greatest beauties of the piece.
“Such, indeed, is the interest excited by the structure and concatenation of the story, that the attention is not once suffered to flag. By a rapid succession of incidents, by sudden and overwhelming vicissitudes, by the most awful instances of misery and destitution, by the boldest contrariety of characters, are curiosity and anxiety kept progressively increasing, and with an impetus so strong as nearly to absorb every faculty of the mind and every feeling of the heart. .
“ Victims of frailty, of calamity, or of vice, in an age remote and barbarous, the actors in this drama are brought forward with a strength of coloring, which, had the scene been placed in a more civilized era, might have been justly deemed too dark and ferocious, but is not discordant with the earliest heathen age of Britain. The effect of this style of characterization is felt, occasionally, throughout the entire play; but it is particularly visible in the delineation of the vicious personages of the drama; the parts of Goneril, Regan, Edmund, and Cornwall, being loaded not only with ingratitude of the deepest dye, but with cruelty of the most savage and diabolical nature: they are the criminals, in fact, of an age where vice may be supposed to reign with lawless and gigantic power, and in which the extrusion of Gloster's eyes might be such an event as