King Lear Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
famous critique based on his legendary and influential
Shakespeare notes and lectures.
Of all Shakespeare's plays Macbeth is the most rapid,
Hamlet the slowest in movement. Lear combines length
with rapidity,like the hurricane and the whirlpool
absorbing while it advances. It begins as a stormy day
in summer, with brightness; but that brightness is lurid,
and anticipates the tempest.
It was not without forethought, nor is it without its
due significance, that the division of Lear's kingdom
is in the first six lines of the play stated as a thing
already deter-mined in all its particulars, previously
to the trial of professions, as the relative rewards
of which the daughters were to be made to consider their
several portions. The strange, yet by no means unnatural,
mixture of selfishness, sensibility, and habit of feeling
derived from, and fostered by, the particular rank and
usages of the individual; the intense desire of
being intensely beloved,selfish, and yet characteristic
of the selfishness of a loving and kindly nature alone;the
self-supportless leaning for all pleasure on another's
breast;the craving after sympathy with a prodigal
disinterestedness, frustrated by its own ostentation,
and the mode and nature of its claims;the anxiety,
the distrust, the jealousy, which more or less accompany
all selfish affections, and are amongst the surest contra-distinctions
of mere fondness from true love, and which originate
Lear's eager wish to enjoy his daughter's violent professions,
whilst the inveterate habits of sovereignty convert
the wish into claim and positive right, and an incompliance
with it into crime and treason;these facts, these
passions, these moral verities, on which the whole tragedy
is founded, are all prepared for, and will to the retrospect
be found implied, in these first four or five lines
of the play. They let us know that the trial is but
a trick; and that the grossness of the old king's rage
is in part the natural result of a silly trick suddenly
and most unexpectedly baffled and disappointed.
It may here be worthy of notice, that Lear is the only
serious performance of Shakspeare, the interest and
situations of which are derived from the assumption
of a gross improbability; whereas Beaumont and Fletcher's
tragedies are, almost all of them, founded on some out
of the way accident or exception to the general experience
of mankind. But observe the matchless judgment of our
Shakspeare. First, improbable as the conduct of Lear
is in the first scene, yet it was an old story rooted
in the popular faith,a thing taken for granted
already, and consequently without any of the effects
of improbability. Secondly, it is merely the canvass
for the characters and passions,a mere occasion
for,and not, in the manner of Beaumont and Fletcher,
perpetually recurring as the cause, and sine qua non
of,the incidents and emotions. Let the first scene
of this play have been lost, and let it only be understood
that a fond father had been duped by hypocritical professions
of love and duty on the part of two daughters to disinherit
the third, previously, and deservedly, more dear to
him;and all the rest of the tragedy would retain
its interest undiminished, and be perfectly intelligible.
The accidental is nowhere the groundwork of the passions,
but that which is catholic, which in all ages has been,
and ever will be, close and native to the heart of man,parental
anguish from filial ingratitude, the genuineness of
worth, though confined in bluntness, and the execrable
vileness of a smooth iniquity. Perhaps I ought to have
added the Merchant of Venice;
but here too the same remarks apply. It was an old tale;
and substitute any other danger than that of the pound
of flesh (the circumstance in which the improbability
lies), yet all the situations and the emotions appertaining
to them remain equally excellent and appropriate. Whereas
take away from the Mad Lover of Beaumont and Fletcher
the fantastic hypothesis of his engagement to cut out
his own heart, and have it presented to his mistress,
and all the main scenes must go with it.
Kotzebue is the German Beaumont and Fletcher, without
their poetic powers, and without their vis comica. But,
like them, he always deduces his situations and passions
from marvellous accidents, and the trick of bring-ing
one part of our moral nature to counteract another;
as our pity for misfortune and admiration of generosity
and courage to combat our condemnation of guilt, as
in adultery, robbery, and other heinous crimes;and,
like them too, he excels in his mode of telling a story
clearly and interestingly, in a series of dramatic dialogues.
Only the trick of making tragedy-heroes and heroines
out of shopkeepers and barmaids was too low for the
age, and too unpoetic for the genius, of Beaumont and
Fletcher, inferior in every respect as they are to their
great predecessor and contemporary. How inferior would
they have appeared, had not Shakspeare existed for them
to imitate;which in every play, more or less,
they do, and in their tragedies most glaringly:and
yet(O shame! shame!)they miss no opportunity
of sneering at the divine man, and sub-detracting from
To return to Lear. Having thus in the fewest words,
and in a natural reply to as natural a question,which
yet answers the secondary purpose of attracting our
attention to the difference or diversity between the
characters of Cornwall and Albany,provided the
premisses and data, as it were, for our after insight
into the mind and mood of the person, whose character,
passions, and suffer-ings are the main subject-matter
of the play;from Lear, the persona patiens of
his drama. Shakspeare passes without delay to the second
in importance, the chief agent and prime mover, and
introduces Edmund to our acquaintance. preparing us
with the same felicity of judgment, and in the same
easy and natural way, for his character in the seemingly
casual communication of its origin and occasion. From
the first drawing up of the curtain Edmund has stood
before us in the united strength and beauty of earliest
manhood. Our eyes have been questioning him. Gifted
as he is with high advantages of person, and further
endowed by nature with a powerful intellect and a strong
energetic will, even without any concurrence of circumstances
and accident, pride will necessarily be the sin that
most easily besets him. But Edmund is also the known
and acknowledged son of the princely Gloster: he, therefore,
has both the germ of pride, and the conditions best
fitted to evolve and ripen it into a predominant feeling.
Yet hitherto no reason appears why it should be other
than the not unusual pride of person, talent, and birth,
a pride auxiliary, if not akin, to many virtues, and
the natural ally of honourable impulses. But alas! in
his, own presence his own father takes shame to himsself
for the frank avowal that he is his father.he
has 'blushed so often to acknowledge him that he is
now brazed to it!' Edmund hears the circumstances of
his birth spoken of with a most degrading and licentious
levity,his mother described as a wanton by her
own paramour, and the remembrance of the animal sting,
the low criminal gratifications connected with her wantonness
and prostituted beauty, assigned as the reason, why
'the whoreson must be acknowledged!' This, and the consciousness
of its notoriety; the gnawing conviction that every
show of respect is an effort of courtesy, which recalls,
while it represses, a contrary feeling;this is
the ever trickling flow of wormwood and gall into The
wounds of pride.the corrosive virus which inoculates
pride with a venom not its own, with envy, hatred, and
a lust for that power which in its blaze of radiance
would hide the dark spots on his disc.with pangs
of shame personally undeserved, and therefore felt as
wrongs, and with a blind ferment of vindictive working
towards the occasions and causes, especially towards
a brother, whose stainless birth and lawful honours
were the constant remembrancers of his own debasement,
and were ever in the way to prevent all chance of its
being unknown, or overlooked and forgotten. Add to this,
that with excellent judgment, and provident for the
claims of the moral sense,for that which, relatively
to the drama, is called poetic justice, and as the fittest
means for reconciling the feelings of the spectators
to the horrors of Gloster's after sufferings,
at least, of rendering them somewhat less unendurable;
(for I will not disguise my conviction, that in this
one point the tragic in this play has been urged beyond
the outermost mark and ne plus ultra of the dramatic)Shakspeare
has precluded all excuse and palliation of the guilt
incurred by both the parents of the base-born Edmund,
by Gloster's confession that he was at the time a married
man, and already blest with a lawful heir of his fortunes.
The mournful alienation of brotherly love, occasioned
by the law of primogeniture in noble families, or rather
by the unnecessary distinctions engrafted thereon, and
this in children of the same stock, is still almost
proverbial on the continent,especially, as I know
from my own observation, in the south of Europe,and
appears to have been scarcely less common in our own
island before the Revolu-tion of 1688, if we may judge
from the characters and sentiments so frequent in our
elder comedies. There is the younger brother, for instance,
in Beaumont and Fletcher's play of the Scornful Lady,
on the one side, and Oliver in Shakspeare's As You Like
It, on the other. Need it be said how heavy an aggravation,
in such a case, the stain of bastardy must have been,
were it only that the younger brother was liable to
hear his own dishonour and his mother's infamy related
by his father with an excusing shrug of the shoulders,
and in a tone betwixt waggery and shame!
By the circumstances here enumerated as so many predisposing
causes, Edmund's character might well be deemed already
suffciently explained; and our minds prepared for it.
But in this tragedy the story or fable constrained Shakspeare
to introduce wickedness in an outrageous form in the
persons of Regan and Goneril. He had read nature too
heedfully not to know, that courage, intellect, and
strength of character are the most impressive forms
of power, and that to power in itself, without reference
to any moral end, an inevitable admiration and complacency
appertains, whether it be displayed in the conquests
of a Buonaparte or Tamerlane, or in the foam and the
thunder of a cataract. But in the exhibition of such
a character it was of the highest importance to prevent
the guilt from passing into utter monstrosity,which
again depends on the presence or absence of causes and
temptations sufficient to account for the wickedness,
without the necessity of recurring to a thorough fiendishness
of nature for its origination. For such are the appointed
relations of intellectual power to truth, and of truth
to goodness, that it becomes both morally and poetically
unsafe to present what is admirable,what our nature
compels us to admire in the mind, and what is
most detestable in the heart, as co-existing in the
same individual without any apparent connection, or
any modification of the one by the other. That Shakspeare
has in one instance, that of Iago, approached to this,
and that he has done it successfully, is, perhaps, the
most astonishing proof of his genius, and the opulence
of its resources. But in the present tragedy, in which
he was compelled to present a Goneril and a Regan, it
was most carefully to be avoided;and there-fore
the only one conceivable addition to the inauspicious
influences on the preformation of Edmund's character
is given, in the information that all the kindly counteractions
to the mischievous feelings of shame, which might have
been derived from co-domestication with Edgar and their
common father, had been cut off by his absence from
home, and foreign education from boyhood to the present
time, and a prospect of its continuance, as if to preclude
all risk of his interference with the father's views
for the elder and legitimate son:
He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again.
Act i. sc. i.
Coy. Nothing, my lord.
Lear. Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.
Cor. Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more, nor less.
There is something of disgust at the ruthless hypocrisy
of her sisters, and some little faulty admixture of
pride and sullenness in Cordelia's 'Nothing;' and her
tone is well contrived, indeed, to lessen the glaring
absurdity of Lear's conduct, but answers the yet more
important purpose of forcing away the attention from
the nursery-tale, the moment it has served its end,
that of supplying the canvass for the picture. This
is also materially furthered by Kent's opposition, which
displays Lear's moral incapability of resigning the
sovereign power in the very act of disposing of it.
Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in
all Shakspeare's characters, and yet the most in-dividualized.
There is an extraordinary charm in his bluntness, which
is that only of a nobleman arising from a contempt of
overstrained courtesy, and combined with easy placability
where goodness of heart is apparent. His passionate
affection for, and fidelity to, Lear act on our feelings
in Lear's own favour: virtue itself seems to be in company
Ib. sc. 2. Edmund's speech:
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, &c.
Warburton's note upon a quotation from Vanini.
Poor Vanini!Any one but Warburton would have
thought this precious passage more characteristic of
Mr. Shandy than of atheism. If the fact really were
so, (which it is not, but almost the contrary,) I do
not see why the most confirmed theist might not very
naturally utter the same wish. But it is proverbial
that the youngest son in a large family is commonly
the man of the greatest talents in it; and as good an
authority as Vanini has said incalescere in venerem
ardentius, spei sobolis injuriosum esse.
In this speech of Edmund you see, as soon as a man
cannot reconcile himself to reason, how his conscience
flies off by way of appeal to nature, who is sure upon
such occasions never to find fault, and also how shame
sharpens a predisposition in the heart to evil. For
it is a profound morale that shame will naturally generate
guilt; the oppressed will be vindictive, like Shylock,
and in the anguish of undeserved ignominy the delusion
secretly springs up, of getting over the moral quality
of an action by fixing tne mind on the merephysical
Ib. Edmund's speech:
This is the excellent foppery of the world! that,
when we are sick in fortune, (often the surfeit of our
own behaviour,) we make guilty of our disasters, the
sun, the moon, and the stars, &c.
Thus scorn and misanthropy are often the anticipations
I and mouthpieces of wisdom in the detection of superstitions.
Both individuals and nations may be free from such prejudices
by being below them, as well as by rising above them.
Ib. sc. 3. The Steward should be placed in exact antithesis
to Kent, as the only character of utter irredeem-able
baseness in Shakspeare. Even in this the judgment and
invention of the poet are very observable; for
what else could the willing tool of a Goneril be? Not
a vice but this of baseness was left open to him.
Ib. sc. 4. In Lear old age is itself a character,its
natural imperfections being increased by life-long habits
of receiving a prompt obedience. Any addition of individuality
would have been unnecessary and painful; for the relations
of others to him, of wondrous fidelity and of frightful
ingratitude, alone sufficiently distinguish him. Thus
Lear becomes the open and ample play-room of nature's
Knight. Since my young lady's going into France,
Sir; the tool hath much pin'd away,
The Fool is no comic buffoon to make the groundlings
laugh,no forced condescension of Shakspeare's
genius to the taste of his audience. Accordingly the
poet prepares for his introduction, which he never does
with any of his common downs and fools, by bringing
him into living connection with the pathos of the play.
He is as wonderful a creation as Caliban;his wild
babblings, and inspired idiocy, articulate and gauge
the horrors of the scene.
The monster Goneril prepares what is necessary, while
the character of Albany renders a still more maddening
grievance possible, namely, Regan and Cornwall in perfect
sympathy of monstrosity. Not a sentiment, not an image,
which can give pleasure on its own account, is admitted;
whenever these creatures are introduced, and they are
brought forward as little as possible, pure horror reigns
throughout. In this scene and in all the early speeches
of Lear, the one general sentiment of filial ingratitude
prevails as the main spring of the feelings;in
this early stage the outward object causing the pressure
on the mind, which is not yet sufficiently familiarized
with the anguish for the imagination to work upon it.
Gon. Do you mark that, my lord?
Alb. I cannot be so partial, Goneril,
To the great love I bear you.
Gon. Pray you content, &c.
Observe the baffled endeavour of Goneril to act on
the fears of Albany, and yet his passiveness, his inertia;
he is not convinced, and yet he is afraid of looking
into the thing. Such characters always yield to those
who will take the trouble of governing them, or for
them. Perhaps, the influence of a princess, whose choice
of him had royalized his state, may be some little excuse
for Albany's weakness.
Ib. sc. 5.
Lear. O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper! I would not be mad!
The mind's own anticipation of madness! The deepest
tragic notes are often struck by a half sense of an
impend-ing blow. The Fool's conclusion of this act by
a grotesque prattling seems to indicate the dislocation
of feeling that has begun and is to be continued.
Act ii. sc. i. Edmund's speech:
Thou unpossessing bastard! &c.
Thus the secret poison in Edmund's own heart steals
forth; and then observe poor Gloster's
Loyal and natural boy!
as if praising the crime of Edmund's birth!
Ib. Compare Regan's
What, did my father's godson seek your life?
He whom my father named?
with the unfeminine violence of her
All vengeance comes too short, &c.
and yet no reference to the guilt, but only to the
accident, which she uses as an occasion for sneering
at her father. Regan is not, in fact, a greater monster
than Goneril, but she has the power of casting more
Ib. sc. 2. Cornwall's speech:
This is some fellow,
Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect
A saucy roughness, &c.
In thus placing these profound general truths in the
mouths of such men as Cornwall, Edmund, Iago, &c.
Shakspeare at once gives them utterance, and yet shows
how indefinite their application is.
Ib. sc. 3. Edgar's assumed madness serves the great
purpose of taking off part of the shock which would
otherwise be caused by the true madness of Lear, and
further displays the profound difference between the
two. In every attempt at representing madness throughout
the whole range of dramatic literature, with the single
exception of Lear, it is mere lightheadedness, as especially
in Otway. In Edgar's ravings Shakspeare all the while
lets you see a fixed purpose, a practical end in view;in
Lear's, there is only the brooding of the one anguish,
an eddy without progression.
Ib. sc. 4. Lear's speech:
The king would speak with Cornwall; the dear father
Would with his daughter speak, &c.
No, but not yet: may be he is not well, &c.
The strong interest now felt by Lear to try to find
excuses for his daughter is most pathetic.
Ib. Lear's speech:
Thy sister's naught;O Regan, she bath tied
Sharp-tooth'd unkindness, like a vulture, here.
I can scarce "speak to thee;thou'lt not believe
With how deprav'd a qualityO Regan!
Reg. I pray you. Sir, take patience; I have hope,
You less know how to value her desert,
Than she to scant her duty.
Lear. Say, how is that?
Nothing is so heart-cutting as a cold unexpected defence
or palliation of a cruelty passionately complained of,
or so expressive of thorough hard-heartedness. And feel
the excessive horror of Regan's 'O, Sir, you are old!'and
then her drawing from that universal object of reverence
and indulgence the very reason for her frightful conclusion
Say, you have wrong'd her!
All Lear's faults increase our pity for him. We refuse
to know them otherwise than as means of his sufferings,
and aggravations of his daughter's ingratitude.
Ib. Lear's speech:
O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous, &c.
Observe that the tranquillity which follows the first
stunning of the blow permits Lear to reason.
Act iii. sc. 4. O, what a world's convention of agonies
is here! All external nature in a storm, all moral nature
convulsed,the real madness of Lear, the feigned
madness of Edgar, the babbling of the Fool, the desperate
fidelity of Kentsurely such a scene was never
conceived before or since! Take it but as a picture
for the eye only, it is more terrific than any which
a Michel Angelo, inspired by a Dante, could have conceived,
and which none but a Michel Angelo could have executed.
Or let it have been uttered to the blind, the bowlings
of nature would seem converted into the voice of conscious
humanity. This scene ends with the first symptoms of
positive derangement; and the intervention of the fifth
scene is particularly judicious, the interruption
allowing an interval for Lear to appear in full madness
in the sixth scene.
Ib. sc. 7. Gloster's blinding:
What can I say of this scene?There is my reluctance
to think Shakspeare wrong, and yet
Act iv. sc. 6. Lear's speech:
Ha! Goneril!with a white beard!They
flattered me like a dog; and told me, I had white hairs
in my beard, ere the black
ones were there. To say Ay and No to every thing that
I said! Ay and No too was no good divinity. When
the rain came to wet me once, &c.
The thunder recurs, but still at a greater distance
from our feelings.
Ib. sc. 7. Lear's speech:
Where have I been? Where am I?Fair daylight?
I am mightily abused.I should even die with pity
To see another thus, &c.
How beautifully the affecting return of Lear to reason,
and the mild pathos of these speeches prepare the mind
for the last sad, yet sweet, consolation of the aged