« PreviousContinue »
OBSERVATIONS ON KING LEAR CONTINUED.
THUNDER and a ghost have been frequently introduced into tragedy by barren and mechanical play-wrights, as proper objects to impress terror and astonishment, where the distress has not been important enough to render it probable that nature would interpose for the sake of the sufferers, and where these objects themselves have not been supported by suitable sentiments. Thunder has, however, been made use of with great judgment and good effect by Shakspeare, to heighten and impress the distresses of Lear.
The venerable and wretched old king is driven out by both his daughters, without necessaries and without attendants, not only in the night, but in the midst of a most dreadful storm, and on a bleak and barren heath. On his first appearance in this situation, he draws an artful and pathetic comparison betwixt the severity of the tempest and of his daughters :
Rumble thy belly full! spit, fire ! spout, rain!
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave;
The storm continuing with equal violence, he drops for a moment the consideration of his own miseries, and takes occasion to moralize on the terrors which such commotions of nature should raise in the breast of secret and unpunished villainy:
-Tremble, thou wretch!
Close pent-up guilts
He adds, with reference to his own case,
I am a man
Kent most earnestly intreats him to enter a hovel which he had discovered on the heath ; and on pressing him again and again to take shelter there, Lear exclaims,
Wilt break my heart?
Much is contained in these four words; as if he had said, 'the kindness and the gratitude of this servant exceeds that of my own children. Though I have given them a kingdom, yet have they basely discarded me, and suffered a head so old and white as mine to be exposed to this terrible tempest, while this fellow pities and would protect me from its rage. I cannot bear this kindness from a perfect stranger; it breaks my heart.' All this seems to be included in that short' exclamation, which another writer, less acquainted with nature, would have displayed at large : such a suppression of sentiments, plainly implied, is judicious and affecting. The reflections that follow are drawn likewise from an intimate knowledge of man:
When the mind's free,
Here the remembrance of his daughters' behaviour rushes upon him, and he exclaims, full of the idea of its unparalleled cruelty,
Filial ingratitude !
He then changes his style, and vows with impotent menaces, as if still in possession of the power he had resigned, to revenge himself on his oppressors, and to steel his breast with fortitude:
But I'll punish home.
But the sense of his sufferings returns again, and he forgets the resolution he had formed the moment before :
In such a night,
At which, with a beautiful apostrophe, he suddenly addresses himself to his absent daughters, tenderly reminding them of the favours he had so lately and so liberally conferred upon them:
O Regan, Gonerill,
The turns of passion in these few lines are so quick and so various, that I thought they merited to be minutely pointed out by a kind of perpetual commentary.
The mind is never so sensibly disposed to pity the misfortunes of others, as when it is itself subdued and softened by calamity. Adversity diffuses a kind of sacred calm over the breast, that is the parent of thoughtfulness and meditation. The following reflections of Lear in his next speech, when his passion has subsided for a short interval, are equally proper and striking:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er ye are,
He concludes with a sentiment finely suited to his condition, and worthy to be written in characters of gold in the closet of every monarch upon earth:
-O! I have ta'en
And show the Heavens more just ! Lear being at last persuaded to take shelter in the hovel, the poet has artfully contrived to lodge there Edgar, the discarded son of Gloucester, who counterfeits the character and habit of a mad beggar, haunted by an evil demon, and whose supposed sufferings are enumerated with an inimitable wildness of fancy; Whom the foul fiend hath led through fire, and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o'er bog and quagmire ; that hath laid knives under his pillow, and halters in his
pew; set ratsbane by his porridge; made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inched bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor.—Bless thy five wits, Tom's a cold !' The assumed madness of Edgar, and the real distraction of Lear, form a judicious contrast.*
Upon perceiving the nakedness and wretchedness of this figure, the poor king asks a question that I never could read without strong emotions of pity and admiration :
Nothing can exceed the minute accuracy with which the commencement and progress of the insanity of Lear is drawn by this consummate master of the human heart-it is a study even for the pathologist !