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HE Tragedy of Lear is defervedly celebrated a
perhaps no play which keeps the attention fo ftrongly fixed; which fo much agitates our paflions and interefts our curiosity. The artful involutions of diftinet interefts, the ftriking oppofition of contrary characters, the fudden changes of fortune, and the quick fucceffion of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. There is no fcene 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 progrefs of the scene. So powerful is the current of the poet's imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irrefiftibly along.
On the feeming improbability of Lear's conduct it may be obferved, that he is reprefented according to hiftories 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 fo unlikely as while we eftimate Lear's manners by our own. Such preference of one daughter to another, or refignation of dominion on fuch conditions, would be yet credible, if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar. Shakespeare, indeed, by the mention of his Earls and Dukes, has given us the idea of times more civilifed, and of life regulated by fofter manners; and the truth is, that though he fo nicely difcriminates, and fo minutely defcribes 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 criticifed this play, remarks, that the inftances of cruelty are too favage and fhocking, and that the intervention of Edmund deftroys the fimplicity of the ftory. These objections may, I think, be anfwered, by repeating, that the cruelty of the daughters is an hiftorical fact, to which the poet has added little, having only drawn it into a feries by dialogue and action. But I am not able to apologise with equal plaufibility for the extrusion of Gloucester's eyes,
which feems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatick exhibition, and fuch as must always compel the mind to relieve its diftrefs by incredulity. Yet let it be remembred that our author well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote.
The injury done by Edmund to the fimplicity of the. action is abundantly recompenfed by the addition of variety, by the art with which he is made to co-operate with the chief defign, and the opportunity which he gives the poet of combining perfidy with perfidy, and connecting the wicked fon with the wicked daughters, to imprefs 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, Shakespeare has fuffered the virtue. of Cordelia to perish in a juft caufe, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more ftrange, to the faith of chronicles.. Yet this conduct is juftified by the Spectator, who blames Tate for giving Cordelia fuccefs and happiness in his alteration, and declares that in his opinion, the tragedy has loft half its beauty. Dennis has remarked, whether justly or not, that, to fecure the favourable reception of Cato, the town was poisoned with much falfe and abominable criticism, and that endeavours had been ufed to difcredit and decry poetical juftice. A play in which the wicked profper, and the virtuous mifcarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a juft reprefentation of the common events of human life but fince all reasonable beings naturally love juftice, I cannot eafily be perfuaded, that the obfervation of juftice makes a play worfe; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rife better pleafed from the final triumph of perfecuted virtue.
In the prefent cafe the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And if my fenfations could add any thing to the general fuffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago fo fhocked 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 revife them as an editor.
There is another controverfy among the criticks concerning this play. It is difputed whether the predominant image in Lear's difordered mind be the lofs of his kingdom or the cruelty of his daughters. Mr. Murphy, a very judicious critick, has evinced by induction of particular paffages, that the cruelty of his daughters is the primary fource of his diftrefs, and that the lofs of royalty affects him only as a fecondary and fubordinate evil; He obferves with great juftnefs, that Lear would move our compaffion but little, did we not rather confider the injured father than the degraded king.
The ftory of this play except the episode of Edmund, which is derived I think, from Sidney, is taken originally from Geoffry of Monmouth, whom Halling fbead generally copied; but perhaps immediately from an old hiftorical ballad, of which I fhall infert the greater part. My reafon for believing that the play was pofteriour to the ballad rather than the ballad to the play, is, that the ballad has nothing of Seakespeare's nocturnal tempeft, which is too ftriking to have been omitted, and that it follows the chronicle; it has the rudiments of the play, but none of its amplifications: it firft hinted Lear's madnefs, but did not array it in circumftances. The writer of the ballad added fomething to the hiftory, 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 feen Shakespeare.
King Lear once ruled in this land
So princely feeming beautiful,
The writer then proceeds with Lear's questions to
his daughters, and their answers, according to the hiftories, and very nearly according to Shakespeare.
Thus flatt'ring fpeeches won renown
By thefe two fifters here.
The third had causeless banishment,
Until at laft in famous France
Though poor and bare, yet fhe was deem'd
Her father, old King Lear, this while
She took from him his chiefeft means,
For whereas twenty men were wont
She gave all
allowance but to ten,
And after fcarce to three;
Nay one the thought too much for him ;
In hope that in her court, good King,
Am I rewarded thus, quoth he,
Unto my children, and to beg
For what I lately gave? I'll go unto my Gonerill;
My fecond child, I know, Will be more kind and pitiful, And will relieve my woe.
Full faft he hies then to her court,
When he had heard with bitter tears,
In what I did let me be made
Example to all men.
I will return again, quoth he,
Unto my Regan's court:
She will not ufe me thus I hope,
But in a kinder fort.
Where when he came, fhe gave command
To drive him hence away : When he was well within her court,
She faid, he would not stay.
Then back again to Gonerill
That within her kitchen he might have
But there of that he was deny'd,
Thus 'twixt his daughters, for relief