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...
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