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TRAGEDY OF LEAR CONTINUED.
LEAR-CORDELIA-KENT AND EDGAR-THE STEWARD-THE FOOL.
“In Lear old age itself is made a character,”-a character at first disfigured with peccant humours, and afterwards made beautiful by suffering. With his body tottering beneath the weight of years and cares of state, his mind is sliding into that second childhood which is content to play with the shadows of things that have been, as the first is to play with the shadows of things that are to be. So that the same infirmity which counsels him to resign the burdens, also counsels him to reserve the baubles of sovereignty; and while appearing as weak as a child he at the same time appears as loving and unsuspecting. Yet underneath the tattered covering of senility there sleeps the soul of youth, his noble faculties having but wrapped themselves in the chrysalis, to await a higher birth. As time has thinned away the props of his affections and impaired his physical energies, his feelings have centered themselves more and more upon his daughters ; his life has come to be but an offshoot from them; and he has thought to set his rest on their kind care and nursery.” Paternal love and faith in filial piety, the sentiments that strike deepest and live longest in the human bosom, have grown into entire possession of him.' Equally strong in
this love and this faith, he of course does not distinguish between the obedience which springs from love of his person, and that which springs from lust of his power; he is too confiding and therefore too confident to discern the gushings of a filial from the pumpings of a selfish heart; and he cannot suspect his daughters of hollowness in professions which he is so conscious of deserving and so fond of receiving, and in which he knows it is alike the ornament and the sacrament of our nature to be sincere.
In a state of dependence on his children Lear naturally expects a closer sympathy from them; thinks to enrich and strengthen himself in their gratitude by enriching and strengthening them with his bounty. For, what elevates often isolates; and solitude of spirit is paying too much for superiority of place: and our sympathies stoop to those below us much easier than they rise to those above us; and those who trustingly lean upon us at once encourage and strengthen us to support them. Besides, the fruits that gladden grow, for most part, on the plains of life.; the heights are magnificent indeed, but often desolate; stick us up there by ourselves, and our hearts are pretty apt to starve or freeze to death; while those who stand above and around us help at least to keep the cold off us. But, as our humanity is most apt to congeal or petrify when thus exalted apart for homage, so it approves itself richest and strongest when it survives and voluntarily resigns that exaltation. And herein consists the beauty of Lear's character, that his feelings do but gather depth and strength from the impotence and oblivion of age, until nature comes to outwrestle the attractions of power
and the habits of sovereignty; thus ending in a triumph of the man over the monarch.
Prizing his kingdom chiefly as a dowry for his children, Lear presumes they will prize it chiefly as a gift from him, and will even use the prerogatives derived from the king as means and occasions of piety and tenderness to the father. Nay, more; he regards those prerogatives as an encumbrance, for that they obstruct the free grace of filial affection, and longs for that awful helplessness which, knowing no appeal save to the generous feelings, is pretty sure to have those feelings for its advocate and intercessor. Knowing, in short, that love is naturally patient and assiduous in proportion to the weakness of its object; and that where virtue or religion exists nothing is so sacred and awful as defencelessness; -knowing this, he of course expects that his children will be the more his children for ceasing to be his subjects; and that they will be all the kinder to him for his inability to resist or resent their unkindness. Nothing can be more touchingly beautiful, than the spectacle of the aged king thus doing away the constraints of authority to admit more unequivocal demonstrations of love, and resigning his power over his children to rest on his power with them.
The first words in the play inform us, that the division of the kingdom has been resolved upon, the terms of the division arranged, and the several portions allotted, before the beginning of the action. “I thought,” says Kent, “the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall :" and Gloster replies, “It did always seem so to us : but now, in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most; foi
equalities are so weighed, that curiosity in neither can. make choice in either's moiety." The trial of professions, therefore, is obviously but a trick of the king's, to surprise his children into expressions which filial modesty and reverence would else forbid. Though the dowries have all been settled beforehand, he would have them seem the rewards and be contended for as the prizes of filial virtue; and in the eagerness of anticipation he forgets that such sentiments as he is appealing to ought to be, and naturally wish to be their own reward ; and therefore are rather silenced than drawn out by any attempt to bribe or buy an expression of them. Not that Lear distrusts his children, but that he has a morbid hungering and thirsting after the outward tokens of affection; is not content to know the heart beats for him, but craves to feel and count over its beatings. Assuming, therefore, and confiding in their plenitude of love, he seeks but to provoke an utterance of it; and he casts about and taxes his invention to spring an excitement upon their feelings, and thus overcome the delicacy that keeps them in reserve. In a word, it is merely the heart's play of a doting father, whose feelings have gotten the better of his judgment, to surprise and betray his children into a rivalry of devotion; one of those childish devices to which a fond affection so naturally resorts, to scare up some fresh, unpremeditated response in the lips of its object. Being, moreover, about to become the nursling of his children, to make his daughters his mother, he very naturally wishes to bind their hearts while subscribing his power; to arm himself with their pledges while investing them with his prerogatives.
Measuring their feelings by his own, he of course anticipates the strongest professions where he feels the deepest attachment. And the same doting fondness which suggested so whimsical a device, makes him angry at its defeat. And the success of his trick with the first two, heightens his irritation at its failure with the third. As his greedy ears “devour up their discourse,” his appetite is sharpened for more; his lust of being loved grows by what it feeds on. Knowing the aptness of a reverential affection to shun all gratuitous utterance, he has aimed to furnish an occasion sufficient to justify the fullest disclosure. Defeated in his plan, and that too where he is at once the surest and the most desirous of success, he uaturally enough flies off in a transport of rage. Cordelia's silence to his request he immediately construes into disobedience to his authority; a thing, of course, "which nor his person nor his place can bear.” Still it is not so much a doubt of her love as a dotage of his trick that frets and chafes him : the device is a pet with him ; and its failure calls in question his skill as well as baulks his desire. Besides, he has looked forward to the trial with somewhat of the uneasy and impatient anxiety with which a child looks forward to a favourite holiday. To the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, who are rivalling for Cordelia's hand, he has made her the chief argument of his praise, setting her forth as the solace of his age, the best hope of his now joyless and declining years; and he has calculated on the trial as the time when all his pride of parentage should be justified, when his hungry heart should eat and be satisfied. In Cordelia's answer, therefore, he experiences all the chagrin, and mortification, and dis