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Kent. The wonder is, he hath endur'd so long : He but usurp'd his life.
Alb. Bear them from hence. Our present business Is general woe. Friends of my soul, you twain
[To Kent and EDGAR. Rule in this realm, and the gor'd state sustain.
Kent. I have a journey, sir, shortly to go ;
Alb. The weight of this sad time we must obey;
[Exeunt with a Dead March.p
p 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 indignation, 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, [afterwards Dr. Joseph 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 dramatick exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distresses 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 co-operate 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 villainy is never at a stop, that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.
But though this inoral 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 realer, 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 favourable reception of Cato, the town was poisoned with much false and abominable criticism, and that endeavours 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 excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.*
In the present case the publick has decided.t 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 criticks 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 critick, 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.—Johnson.
• I cannot help inserting, as a note on this passage of Johnson's, the following admirable observations of Schlegel :-"On a trouvé sa morte révoltante, et lorsqu'on joue cette pièce en Angleterre, Cordélie y est représentée à la fin heureuse et triomphante. Mais j'avoue que je ne conçois pas quelle idée on se fait de l'art dramatique et de la liaison des parties d'un ouvrage, quand on croit pouvoir à volonté ajuster deux dénouemens à la même pièce. Après que Léar a supporté tant de maux, il n'y a plus que la douleur de perdre Cordélie qui puisse le faire mourir d'une manière théâtrale, et si on le rétablit dans son premier étât, l'ensemble de la pièce perd sa signification. Dans le plan de Shakspeare, tous les coupables sont punis, parceque le méchant court à sa perte, mais les secours de la vertu arrivent, trop tard, ou sont insuffisans, contre l'active babilité du vice. Les personnages n'ont qu'une foi vacillante à la justice des Dieur, et telle qu'elle devoit exister chez des payens ; le poëte nous montre que cette foi, pour être pleinement raffermie, doit s'étendre sur un espace plus vaste que la courte vie des mortels." Cours de Litt. Dram. tom. 3. p. 80, 81.
† Dr. Johnson should rather have said that the managers of the theatres royal have decided, and the publick has been obliged to acquiesce in their decision. The altered play has the upper gallery on its side; the original drama was patronized by Addison.
" Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.”-STEEVENS.
ROMEO AND JULIET.
Or this play there were four quarto editions published during the life of the author ; the first of which was published in 1597.
The original author of the story was Luigi da Porto, a gentleman of Vicenza, who died in 1529. His novel did not appear till some years after his death; being first printed at Venice in 1535, under the title of La Giulietta.
The story had been dramatized in this country, before 1562, for in that year Arthur Brooke published his poem, called The Tragical Hystory of Romeus and Juliet, and in his adverti ement to the reader says, that he had seen " the same argument lately set forth on the stage with more commendation than I can look for.” To this obsolete play and Brooke's poem, Shakspeare was most probably indebted for those rude materials which he has rendered so valuable by bis exquisite skill and management in the tragedy before us.
Breval says in the Travels, that on a strict inquiry into the histories of Verona, he found that Shakspeare had varied very little from the truth, either in the names, characters, or other circumstances. Malone supposes this play to have been written in 1596.