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Shakespeare's Characters: Lear (King Lear)

From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.

Lear is perhaps Shakespeare's finest creation in what may be called the art of historical perspective. The old king speaks out from a large fund of vanishing recollections, and in his present we have the odor and efficacy of a remote and varied past. The play forecasts and prepares, from the outset, that superb intellectual ruin where we have "matter and impertinency mix'd, reason in madness"; the earlier transpirations of the character being shaped and ordered with a view to that end. Certain presages and predispositions of insanity are manifest in his behavior from the first, as the joint result of nature, of custom, and of superannuation. We see in him something of constitutional rashness of temper, which, moreover, has long been fostered by the indulgences and flatteries incident to his station, and which, through the cripplings of age, is now working loose from the restraints of his manlier judgment. He has been a wise and good man, strong in reason, in just feeling and rectitude of purpose, but is now decidedly past his faculties; which, however, as often happens, is unapparent to him save as he feels it in a growing indisposition to the cares and labors of his office. So that there is something of truth in what Goneril says of him; just enough to make her appear the more hateful in speaking of it as she does: "The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash; then must we look from his age to receive not alone the imperfections of long-engraff'd condition, but therewithal the unruly way wardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them." [I, i, 288-292.] He is indeed full of inconstant starts and petty gusts of impatience, such as are excusable only in those who have not yet reached, and those who have plainly out lived, the period of discretion and self-restraint.

These growing infirmities of nature and time are viewed by his children with very different feelings. The two elder are inwardly glad of them. They secretly exult in the decays and dilapidations of his manhood as incapacitating him for his office, and so speeding their hopes of the inheritance. They know it is his disease to be gratified with such hollow and hyperbolical soothings as would else be the height of insolence. And so in the name of duty they study to inflame the waywardness that provokes their scorn. They crave reasons for persecuting him, and therefore will say anything, will do anything, to pamper the faults which at once prompt and seem to justify their contempt of him. In a word, it is their pleasure to bring oil to his fire, that he may the sooner be burnt out of their way.

With Cordelia all this is just reversed. The infirmities of a beloved and venerated father are things which she does not willingly see; when she sees, she pities them; and in a true filial spirit never thinks of them but as a motive to greater tenderness and respect. That his mind is falling out of tune, inspires her with the deeper reverence: she would rather go mad herself than see him do so. Partly from a conscious purpose, but more from an instinct of dutiful affection, she tries to assuage and postpone his distemper with the temperate speech of simple truth ; duty and love alike forbidding her to stimulate his disease with the strong waters of fleering and strained hyperbole. Then too a fine moral tact seems to warn her that the medicine of reason must be administered to the dear old man in very gentle doses, else it will but feed his evil. And her treatment is well adapted to keep his faculties in tune, but that her holy purpose is baffled by the fulsome volubility of her sisters.

The first two speeches of the play make clear that the division of the kingdom has already been resolved upon, the terms of the division arranged, and the several portions allotted. This fact is significant, and goes far to interpret the subsequent action, inasmuch as it infers the trial of professions to be but a trick of the king's, designed, perhaps, to surprise his children into expressions which filial modesty would else forbid. Lear has a morbid hungering after the outward tokens of affection; he is not content to know that the heart beats for him, but craves to feel and count over its beatings. The passion is indeed a selfish one, but it is the selfishness of a right-generous and loving nature. Such a diseased longing for sympathy is not the growth of an unsympathizing heart; and Lear naturally looks for the strongest professions where he feels the deepest attachment. "I loved her most, and thought to set my rest on her kind nursery," such is his declared preference for Cordelia. And the same thing comes out still more forcibly when, hearing him speak of her as

Unfriended, new-adopted to our hate,
Dower'd with our curse, and stranger'd with our oath, [I, i, 197-198],

the King of France replies,

This is most strange,
That she, that even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
Most best, most dearest, should in this trice of time
Commit a thing so monstrous, to dismantle
So many folds of favour! [I, i, 207-212.]

And the same doting fondness that suggested the device makes Lear angry at its defeat; while its success with the first two heightens his irritation at its failure with the third. Thwarted of his hope where he has centred it most and held it surest, his weakness naturally flames out in a transport of rage. Still it is not any doubt of Cordelia's love, but a dotage of his trick that frets and chafes him. For the device is a pet with him. And such a bauble of strategy would have had no place in his thoughts had he been of a temper to bear the breaking of it. Being thus surprised into a tempest of passion, in the disorder of his mind he at once forgets the thousand little daily acts that have insensibly wrought in him to love Cordelia most, and to expect most love from her. His behavior towards her, indeed, is like that of a peevish, fretful child, who, if prevented from kissing his nurse, falls to striking her.

How deeply the old king, in this spasm of wilfulness, violates the cherished order of his feelings, appears in what follows, but especially in his shrinking soreness of mind as shown when the Fool's grief at the loss of Cordelia is mentioned. The sense of having done her wrong sticks fast in his heart, and will not let him rest. And his remorse on this score renders him the more sensitive to the wrongs that are done him by others. He could better endure the malice of his other daughters, but that it reminds him how deeply he has sinned against her love who has ever approved herself his best. Hence, when Goneril is stinging her ingratitude into him, he exclaims,

O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!
Which like an engine wrench'd my frame of nature
From the fix'd place ; drew from my heart all love,
And added to the gall. [I, iv, 255-259.]

In the delineation of Lear the most impressive thing is the effect and progress of his passion in redeveloping his intellect. For the character seems designed in part to illus trate the power of passion to reawaken and raise the faculties from the tomb in which age has quietly inurned them. And so in Lear we have, as it were, a handful of tumult embosomed in a sea, gradually overspreading and pervading and convulsing the entire mass.

In his conscious fulness of paternal love, Lear confides unreservedly in the piety of his children. The possibility of filial desertion seems never to have entered his thoughts; for so absolute is his trust, that he can hardly admit the evidence of sight against his cherished expectations. Bereft, as he thinks, of one, he clings the closer to the rest, assuring himself that they will spare no pains to make up the loss. Cast off and struck on the heart by another, he flies with still greater confidence to the third. Though proofs that she too has fallen off are multiplied upon him, still he cannot give her up, cannot be provoked to curse her; he will not see, will not own to himself the fact of her revolt.

When, however, the truth is forced home, and he can no longer evade or shuffle off the conviction, the effect is indeed terrible. So long as his heart had something to lay hold of and cling to and rest upon, his mind was the abode of order and peace. But now that his feelings are rendered object less, torn from their accustomed holdings, and thrown back upon themselves, there springs up a wild chaos of the brain, a whirling tumult and anarchy of the thoughts, which, till imagination has time to work, chokes down his utterance. Then comes the inward, tugging conflict, deep as life, which gradually works up his imaginative forces, and kindles them to a preternatural resplendence. The crushing of his aged spirit brings to light its hidden depths and buried riches.

Thus his terrible energy of thought and speech, as soon as imagination rallies to his aid, grows naturally from the struggle of his feelings, a struggle that seems to wrench his whole being into dislocation, convulsing and upturning his soul from the bottom. Thence proceeds, to quote Hallam, "that splendid madness, not absurdly sudden, as in some tragedies, but in which the strings that keep his reasoning powers together give way one after the other in the frenzy of rage and grief."

In the transition of Lear's mind from its first stillness and repose to its subsequent tempest and storm; in the hurried revulsions and alternations of feeling, the fast-rooted faith in filial virtue, the keen sensibility to filial ingratitude, the mighty hunger of the heart, thrice repelled, yet ever strengthened by repulse ; and in the turning-up of sentiments and faculties deeply embedded beneath the incrustations of time and place; in all this we have a retrospect of the aged sufferer's whole life; the abridged history of a mind that has passed through many successive stages, each putting off the form, yet retaining and perfecting the grace of the preceding.


It is significant that experts in mental diseases consult and quote King Lear as though it were the history of an actual case of insanity. Essays and treatises on the subject are numerous.1 That Shakespeare should have entered so perfectly into the consciousness of insanity as thus to project, not a mere likeness of the thing, but the very thing itself, is one of the mysteries of his genius.2 No philosophy has yet explained or begun to explain the secret of it. To be sure, the same holds true of his other representations of madness; but this of Lear is in some respects the most wonderful of them all, for it is the resurgence of a decayed intellect, with the faculties wrenched into unhingement, and thrown into exorbitancy, by the fearful violence that has evoked them from their repose.

The methods used for the recovery of the old king anticipate those employed as the result of modern scientific study and experience. In a note on the Doctor's reply to Cordelia, IV, iv, 11-15, Dr. Kellogg says: "This reply is significant, and worthy of careful attention, as embracing a brief summary of almost the only two principles recognized by modern science, and now carried out by the most eminent physicians in the treatment of the insane." So again with regard to the Doctor's directions for preventing a relapse, Dr. Brigham remarks that, "although near two centuries and a half have passed since Shakespeare wrote this, we have very little to add to his method of treating the insane as thus pointed out. To produce sleep, to quiet the mind by medical and moral treatment, to avoid all unkindness, and, when the patients begin to convalesce, to guard, as he directs, against everything likely to disturb their minds and cause a relapse, is now considered the best and nearly the only essential treatment."

FOOTNOTE 1: Among noteworthy studies are Bucknill's The Psychology of Shakespeare, Medical Knowledge of Shakespeare, and The Mad Folk of Shakespeare (see notes, I, v, 42; III, vi, 74); Ray's Contributions to Mental Pathology; and Stark's King Lear: eine psychiatrische Shakespeare-Studie.

FOOTNOTE 2: In this connection attention has been drawn to the fact that Shakespeare's daughter Susanna married, in 1607, Dr. Hall, a well-known Stratford physician.


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