« PreviousContinue »
trates), Lear questions his daughters to ascertain which deserves the largest of the three prospective shares, thinking 'to guerdon most where favour most be found.'1 According to the second (Spenser's), three equal shares have already been arranged, and the questions aim merely at a formal test of the competency of the heirs to inherit them. In the third version (Holinshed's), the questions are a mere disguise for the king's partiality to Cordelia: he designs to bequeath the kingdom entire, and 'preferre hir whom he best loved to the succession.'
Cordelia's reply, again, though always unsatisfactory to her father, exhibits several shades of bluntness, from the brutal 'So much as you have, so much you are worth, and so much I love you, and no more' of Geoffrey, to the discreet declaration in the Mirror for Magistrates' version, that she loves him 'as I ought my father.' Holinshed's Cordeilla accounts for her love in both ways. Camden's version alone anticipates the beautiful and cogent reason of Shakespeare's Cordelia : Albeit she did love . him and so would
while she lived, as much as duty and daughterly love at the uttermost could expect, yet she did think that one day it would come to pass that she should affect another more fervently, when she was married.'
So far, it is to be noted, there is no question of abdication. Lear has merely appointed his heirs. In Holinshed he allows the heirs to take immediate possession of half their future domains, but retains the other halves during his life. The dukes, however, grow impatient, and 'thinking it long ere the government of the land did come to their hands,' they arose against him in armour and reft from him the governance of the land, upon conditions to be continued for term of life.' The conditions are broken 1 Mirror for Magistrates, i. 125.
and his allowance diminished; he flies to Cordeilla in Gallia, where he is 'so joyfully, honourably and lovingly received . . . that his heart was greatly comforted.' She raises a great army and fleet, they cross over to Britain, fight a great battle in which the dukes are slain, and then was Leir restored to his Kingdom, which he ruled after this by the space of two years, and then died, forty years after he began to reign.' Cordeilla succeeds him, and reigns for five years; when Margan the son of Gonorilla and Cunedag the son of Ragan rebelled against her, and 'being a woman of a manly courage' she ends her life.1
The whole of this after-history, however, is dismissed by Holinshed with a brief summary. The core of the legend still lies for him in the dramatic incident of the Love-test. For Shakespeare this incident is a mere preliminary to the tragic plot,a rudimentary survival important only for what it leads to. A dozen years before he wrote, the author of the old Chronicie History of King Leir and his King Leir Three Daughters had attempted to evoke the pathos of Lear's sufferings, in the fashion of the days when Daughters. Henry VI. and Edward II. were recent. He makes some show of technique, providing fresh incidents and stronger motives for the old. Leir is seen at the outset about to abdicate his crown. The 'trial of love' is ingeniously connected with his schemes for marrying his daughters, becoming a sudden stratagem to entrap Cordelia into compliance with his wishes:
1 The words of farewell in the Mirror for Magistrates look
like a reminiscence of the then recent death of Mary :
Farewell my realm of Fraunce, fare
well, Adieu; Adieu mes nobles tous, and England now farewell:
Farewell Madames my Ladyes, car
Her suicide forms the climax
Then at the vantage will I take Cordeilla,
And match her with a King of Brittany.'
The stratagem fails, and Cordeilla is disinherited despite the protest of Leir's faithful counsellor Perillus. As the guest of Goneril he shows himself the mirrour of mild patience,
Puts up all wrongs and never gives reply.1
The inoffensive Leir at length flies; whereupon. Goneril incenses Regan against him with a slanderous report that he hath detracted hes and most intolerably abused me.' Regan, infuriated, commissions the Messenger,' a serviceable rogue, to murder Leir and Perillus. After the manner of Lightborn with Edward in the dungeon (Edw. II. v. 5.), or Gloster with Henry in the Tower (3 Hen. VI. v. 6.), he holds a catlike dialogue with the two helpless old men. At the critical moment a deus ex machina in the form of a clap of thunder intervenes to save them; the Messenger quakes and drops the daggers. Leir and Perillus then escape to France, and faint with hunger and exposure fall in with Cordeilla and her husband disguised as peasant folk. Slowly her identity dawns upon him, and a pathetic recognition-scene ensues. With Leir's triumphant restoration the play ends. A dozen years earlier the time-honoured tragic climax of Cordelia's death would hardly have been thus forborne.
It is clear that the author of the Chronicle play
1 A phrase perhaps in Shakespeare's mind when he made Lear, piteously striving with his
frenzy, exclaim: 'No, I will be the pattern of all patience' (iii. 2. 37).
made important advances in the plot, some of which Shakespeare did not disdain to adopt. Lear, like his prototype, resigns his kingdom, and does not merely determine who shall inherit it after his death. Kent
is a blunter Perillus, Oswald a less masculine 'Messenger.' Leir's reunion with Cordeilla faintly foreshadows the ineffable pathos of the close of Shakespeare's Fourth Act.1 But beyond this, the old play interests us chiefly as setting forth paths from which Shakespeare deliberately departed. Such guidance to the workings of Shakespeare's art and mind is here peculiarly welcome, for King Lear confronts us with more baffling problems than any other tragedy, hardly excepting even Hamlet.
To the author of Othello, the Leir story naturally suggested a tragedy of fateful credulity and poignant disillusion. For the imagined unfaithfulness of a wife there were the actual infidelities of children: if aught could be more pathetic than the pang of 'jealousy' which 'perplexes' and overwhelms Othello, it was the ruin wrought by the serpent's tooth of ingratitude in the yet simpler and greater heart of an old father. Such a character was already hinted in the Leir of the legend. All these germs of tragic unreason, which the painstaking and matter-of-fact older playwright did his best to eliminate, are expanded and vitalised in the wonderful, Titanically infantine,
The Division and Love
Lear of Shakespeare,-that sea where all the winds of tragedy meet in tumult.
This procedure is exhibited with peculiar daring in the much-discussed opening scene. Goethe branded it as 'irrational'; and irrational it is in so far as it throws into glaring prominence the sublime unreason of Lear. Far from rationalising the folktale motif, Shakespeare combines several incongruous versions of it in the chaotic purposes of the king. In some versions, as we have seen, the kingdom is to be equally divided, in others the shares are proportioned to the 'love.' It is reserved for Shakespeare's Lear after contemplating an equal division and assigning two 'ample thirds' to the elder daughters, to invite Cordelia to merit ‘a third more opulent than your sisters.' In their subsequent attitude, again, the Leir of the Chronicle, and of the old play, were both consistent; the one had not abdicated, and therefore justly claimed his royal state; the other resigned his state with his crown. It was reserved for Shakespeare's Lear to insist upon keeping the authority of kingship after he had 'given it away.' The Leir of the old play brings no retinue to his daughter's house; the Leir of the Mirror for Magistrates brings sixty knights who are not described as unruly; it was reserved for Shakespeare's Lear to bring a hundred who 'hourly carp and quarrel,' and to meet resentful protests with the fierce intractable irony of his, 'Your name, fair gentlewoman?'-the ominous premonition of the frenzy of implacable rage which burns itself out only after consuming the vast tottering fabric of his mind, — that 'tower sublime of yesterday, that royally did wear its crown of weeds.'
In the splendour of that consuming flame the tragedy reaches its climax. Lear's madness is rooted in his unreason, it is the inevitable fate of an