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This noble tragedy, the composition of which is assigned by Malone to the date of 1605, was entered on the books of the Stationers' Company Nov. 26, 1607, and is there mentioned to have been played the preceding Christmas before his majesty at Whitehall. The story was originally related by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and thence transcribed in Holinshed's Chronicle, which Shakspeare certainly consulted, though he appears to have been more indebted to an old drama on the same subject by an anonymous writer, which made its appearance in 1594. The episode of Gloster and his sons, which is blended by our author with such consummate skill in the development of his main design, was derived from the narrative of the blind king of Paphlagonia, in the Arcadia of Sir Philip Sidney.
Geoffrey of Monmouth informs us that Lear, who was the eldest son of Bladud, 'nobly governed his country for sixty years.' According to that historian, he died about eight hundred years before the Christian
The tragedy of Lear,' says Dr. Johnson, '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 opposition 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 on 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 civilised, 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, who has in the Adventurer very minutely criticised this play, remarks, that the instances of cruelty are too savage and shock
ing, 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 by dialogue and action: but I am not able to apologise with equal plausibility for the extrusion of Gloster's eyes, which seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress 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 villany is never at a stop, that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.
But though this moral 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 reader, 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 favorable reception of Cato, the town was poisoned with much false and abominable