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King Lear

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King Lear is widely regarded as Shakespeare's crowning artistic achievement. The scenes in which a mad Lear rages naked on a stormy heath against his deceitful daughters and nature itself are considered by many scholars to be the finest example of tragic lyricism in the English language. Shakespeare took his main plot line of an aged monarch abused by his children from a folk tale that appeared first in written form in the 12th century and was based on spoken stories that originated much further into the Middle Ages. In several written versions of "Lear," the king does not go mad, his "good" daughter does not die, and the tale has a happy ending.

This is not the case with Shakespeare's Lear, a tragedy of such consuming force that audiences and readers are left to wonder whether there is any meaning to the physical and moral carnage with which King Lear concludes. Like the noble Kent, seeing a mad, pathetic Lear with the murdered Cordelia in his arms, the profound brutality of the tale compels us to wonder, "Is this the promised end?" (V.iii.264). That very question stands at the divide between traditional critics of King Lear who find a heroic pattern in the story and modern readers who see no redeeming or purgative dimension to the play at all, the message being the bare futility of the human condition with Lear as Everyman.

As in Macbeth terror reaches its utmost height, in King Lear the sense of compassion is exhausted. The principal characters here are not those who act, but those who suffer. We have not in this, as in most tragedies, the picture of a calamity in which the sudden blows of fate seem still to honor the head which they strike, and where the loss is always accompanied by some flattering consolation in the memory of the former possession; but a fall from the highest elevation into the deepest abyss of misery, where humanity is stripped of all external and internal advantages, and given up a prey to naked helplessness.

The threefold dignity of a king, an old man, and a father, is dishonored by the cruel ingratitude of his unnatural daughters; the old king, who out of a foolish tenderness has given away everything, is driven out into the world a homeless beggar; the childish imbecility to which he was fast advancing changes into the wildest insanity, and when he is rescued from the destitution to which he was abandoned, it is too late. The kind consolations of filial care and attention and of true friendship are now lost on him; his bodily and mental powers are destroyed beyond hope of recovery, and all that now remains to him of life is the capability of loving and suffering beyond measure. What a picture we have in the meeting of Lear and Edgar in a tempestuous night and in a wretched hovel! The youthful Edgar has, by the wicked arts of his brother, and through his father's blindness, fallen, as did Lear, from the rank to which his birth entitled him; and, as the only means of escaping further persecution, is reduced to the disguise of a beggar tormented by evil spirits. The king's fool, notwithstanding the voluntary degradation which is implied in his condition, is, after Kent, Lear's most faithful associate, the wisest counsellor. This good-hearted fool clothes reason with the livery of his motley garb; the high-born beggar acts the part of insanity; and both, were they even in reality what they seem, would still be enviable in comparison with the king, who feels that the violence of his grief threatens to overpower his reason. The meeting of Edgar with the blinded Gloucester is equally pathetic; nothing could be more affecting than to see the ejected son become the father's guide, and the good angel, who, under the disguise of insanity, saves him by an ingenious

and pious fraud from the horror and despair of self-murder.

The story of Lear and his daughers was left by Shakespeare as he found it in a fabulous tradition, with all the features characteristic of the simplicity of old times. But in that tradition there is not the slightest trace of the story of Gloucester and his sons, which was derived by Shakespeare from another source. The incorporation of the two stories has been censured as destructive of the unity of action. But whatever contributes to the intrigue of the dйnoument must always possess unity. And with what ingenuity and skill are the two main parts of the composition dovetailed into one another! The pity felt by Gloucester for the fate of Lear becomes the means whereby his son Edmund effects his complete destruction, and affords the outcast Edgar an opportunity of being the savior of his father. On the other hand, Edmund is active in the cause of Regan and Goneril, and the criminal passion which they both entertain for him induces them to execute justice on each other and on themselves. The laws of the drama have therefore been sufficiently complied with, and it is the very combination which constitutes the beauty of the work.

The two cases resemble each other in the main; an infatuated father is blind toward his well-disposed child, and the unnatural children, whom he prefers, requite him by the ruin of his happiness. But all the circumstances are so different that the stories, while they each make a correspondent impression on the heart, for a complete contrast for the imagination. Were Lear alone to suffer from his daughters, the impression would be limited to the powerful compassion felt by us for his private misfortune. But two such unheard-of examples taking place at the same time have the appearance of a great commotion in the moral world; the picture becomes gigantic and fills us with such alarm as we should entertain at the idea that the heavenly bodies might one day fall from

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