Prev | Next | Contents


And if here there is 'very Night herself,' she comes 'with stars in her raiment.' Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, the Fool--these form a group not less remarkable than that which we have just left. There is in the world of King Lear the same abundance of extreme good as of extreme evil. It generates in profusion self-less devotion and unconquerable love. And the strange thing is that neither Shakespeare nor we are surprised. We approve these characters, admire them, love them; but we feel no mystery. We do not ask in bewilderment, Is there any cause in nature that makes these kind hearts? Such hardened optimists are we, and Shakespeare,--and those who find the darkness of revelation in a tragedy which reveals Cordelia. Yet surely, if we condemn the universe for Cordelia's death, we ought also to remember that it gave her birth. The fact that Socrates was executed does not remove the fact that he lived, and the inference thence to be drawn about the world that produced him.

Of these four characters Edgar excites the least enthusiasm, but he is the one whose development is the most marked. His behaviour in the early part of the play, granted that it is not too improbable, is so foolish as to provoke one. But he learns by experience, and becomes the most capable person in the story, without losing any of his purity and nobility of mind. There remain in him, however, touches which a little chill one's feeling for him.

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices Make instruments to plague us:
The dark and vicious place where thee he got Cost him his eyes:

--one wishes he had not said to his dying brother those words about their dead father. 'The gods are just' would have been enough.[171] It may be suggested that Shakespeare merely wished to introduce this moral somehow, and did not mean the speech to be characteristic of the speaker. But I doubt this: he might well have delivered it through Albany, if he was determined to deliver it. This trait in Edgar is characteristic. It seems to be connected with his pronounced and conscious religiousness. He interprets everything religiously, and is speaking here from an intense conviction which overrides personal feelings. With this religiousness, on the other side, is connected his cheerful and confident endurance, and his practical helpfulness and resource. He never thinks of despairing; in the worst circumstances he is sure there is something to be done to make things better. And he is sure of this, not only from temperament, but from faith in 'the clearest gods.' He is the man on whom we are to rely at the end for the recovery and welfare of the state: and we do rely on him.

I spoke of his temperament. There is in Edgar, with much else that is fine, something of that buoyancy of spirit which charms us in Imogen. Nothing can subdue in him the feeling that life is sweet and must be cherished. At his worst, misconstrued, contemned, exiled, under sentence of death, 'the lowest and most dejected thing of fortune,' he keeps his head erect. The inextinguishable spirit of youth and delight is in him; he embraces the unsubstantial air which has blown him to the worst; for him 'the worst returns to laughter.'[172] 'Bear free and patient thoughts,' he says to his father. His own thoughts are more than patient, they are 'free,' even joyous, in spite of the tender sympathies which strive in vain to overwhelm him. This ability to feel and offer great sympathy with distress, without losing through the sympathy any elasticity or strength, is a noble quality, sometimes found in souls like Edgar's, naturally buoyant and also religious. It may even be characteristic of him that, when Lear is sinking down in death, he tries to rouse him and bring him back to life. 'Look up, my lord!' he cries. It is Kent who feels that

  he hates him,

That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.

Kent is one of the best-loved characters in Shakespeare. He is beloved for his own sake, and also for the sake of Cordelia and of Lear. We are grateful to him because he stands up for Cordelia, and because, when she is out of sight, he constantly keeps her in our minds. And how well these two love each other we see when they meet. Yet it is not Cordelia who is dearest to Kent. His love for Lear is the passion of his life: it is his life. At the beginning he braves Lear's wrath even more for Lear's sake than Cordelia's.[173] At the end he seems to realise Cordelia's death only as it is reflected in Lear's agony. Nor does he merely love his master passionately, as Cordelia loves her father. That word 'master,' and Kent's appeal to the 'authority' he saw in the old King's face, are significant. He belongs to Lear, body and soul, as a dog does to his master and god. The King is not to him old, wayward, unreasonable, piteous: he is still terrible, grand, the king of men. Through his eyes we see the Lear of Lear's prime, whom Cordelia never saw. Kent never forgets this Lear. In the Storm-scenes, even after the King becomes insane, Kent never addresses him without the old terms of respect, 'your grace,' 'my lord,' 'sir.' How characteristic it is that in the scene of Lear's recovery Kent speaks to him but once: it is when the King asks 'Am I in France?' and he answers 'In your own kingdom, sir.'

In acting the part of a blunt and eccentric serving-man Kent retains much of his natural character. The eccentricity seems to be put on, but the plainness which gets him set in the stocks is but an exaggeration of his plainness in the opening scene, and Shakespeare certainly meant him for one of those characters whom we love none the less for their defects. He is hot and rash; noble but far from skilful in his resistance to the King; he might well have chosen wiser words to gain his point. But, as he himself says, he has more man than wit about him. He shows this again when he rejoins Lear as a servant, for he at once brings the quarrel with Goneril to a head; and, later, by falling upon Oswald, whom he so detests that he cannot keep his hands off him, he provides Regan and Cornwall with a pretext for their inhospitality. One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one's head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one's friends.

One fact about Kent is often overlooked. He is an old man. He tells Lear that he is eight and forty, but it is clear that he is much older; not so old as his master, who was 'four-score and upward' and whom he 'loved as his father,' but, one may suppose, three-score and upward. From the first scene we get this impression, and in the scene with Oswald it is repeatedly confirmed. His beard is grey. 'Ancient ruffian,' 'old fellow,' 'you stubborn ancient knave, you reverent braggart'--these are some of the expressions applied to him. 'Sir,' he says to Cornwall, 'I am too old to learn.' If his age is not remembered, we fail to realise the full beauty of his thoughtlessness of himself, his incessant care of the King, his light-hearted indifference to fortune or fate.[174] We lose also some of the naturalness and pathos of his feeling that his task is nearly done. Even at the end of the Fourth Act we find him saying,

My point and period will be throughly wrought Or well or ill, as this day's battle's fought.

His heart is ready to break when he falls with his strong arms about Edgar's neck; bellows out as he'd burst heaven (how like him!);

  threw him on my father,

Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him That ever ear received; which in recounting His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life Began to crack. Twice then the trumpet sounded, And there I left him tranced;

and a little after, when he enters, we hear the sound of death in his voice:

  I am come

To bid my king and master aye goodnight.

This desire possesses him wholly. When the bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought in he asks merely, 'Alack, why thus?' How can he care? He is waiting for one thing alone. He cannot but yearn for recognition, cannot but beg for it even when Lear is bending over the body of Cordelia; and even in that scene of unmatched pathos we feel a sharp pang at his failure to receive it. It is of himself he is speaking, perhaps, when he murmurs, as his master dies, 'Break, heart, I prithee, break!' He puts aside Albany's invitation to take part in the government; his task is over:

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go: My master calls me; I must not say no.

Kent in his devotion, his self-effacement, his cheerful stoicism, his desire to follow his dead lord, has been well likened to Horatio. But Horatio is not old; nor is he hot-headed; and though he is stoical he is also religious. Kent, as compared with him and with Edgar, is not so. He has not Edgar's ever-present faith in the 'clearest gods.' He refers to them, in fact, less often than to fortune or the stars. He lives mainly by the love in his own heart.[175]

* * * * *

The theatrical fool or clown (we need not distinguish them here) was a sore trial to the cultured poet and spectator in Shakespeare's day. He came down from the Morality plays, and was beloved of the groundlings. His antics, his songs, his dances, his jests, too often unclean, delighted them, and did something to make the drama, what the vulgar, poor or rich, like it to be, a variety entertainment. Even if he confined himself to what was set down for him, he often disturbed the dramatic unity of the piece; and the temptation to 'gag' was too strong for him to resist. Shakespeare makes Hamlet object to it in emphatic terms. The more learned critics and poets went further and would have abolished the fool altogether. His part declines as the drama advances, diminishing markedly at the end of the sixteenth century. Jonson and Massinger exclude him. Shakespeare used him--we know to what effect--as he used all the other popular elements of the drama; but he abstained from introducing him into the Roman plays,[176] and there is no fool in the last of the pure tragedies, Macbeth.

But the Fool is one of Shakespeare's triumphs in King Lear. Imagine the tragedy without him, and you hardly know it. To remove him would spoil its harmony, as the harmony of a picture would be spoiled if one of the colours were extracted. One can almost imagine that Shakespeare, going home from an evening at the Mermaid, where he had listened to Jonson fulminating against fools in general and perhaps criticising the Clown in Twelfth Night in particular, had said to himself: 'Come, my friends, I will show you once for all that the mischief is in you, and not in the fool or the audience. I will have a fool in the most tragic of my tragedies. He shall not play a little part. He shall keep from first to last the company in which you most object to see him, the company of a king. Instead of amusing the king's idle hours, he shall stand by him in the very tempest and whirlwind of passion. Before I have done you shall confess, between laughter and tears, that he is of the very essence of life, that you have known him all your days though you never recognised him till now, and that you would as soon go without Hamlet as miss him.'

The Fool in King Lear has been so favourite a subject with good critics that I will confine myself to one or two points on which a difference of opinion is possible. To suppose that the Fool is, like many a domestic fool at that time, a perfectly sane man pretending to be half-witted, is surely a most prosaic blunder. There is no difficulty in imagining that, being slightly touched in the brain, and holding the office of fool, he performs the duties of his office intentionally as well as involuntarily: it is evident that he does so. But unless we suppose that he is touched in the brain we lose half the effect of his appearance in the Storm-scenes. The effect of those scenes (to state the matter as plainly as possible) depends largely on the presence of three characters, and on the affinities and contrasts between them; on our perception that the differences of station in King, Fool, and beggar-noble, are levelled by one blast of calamity; but also on our perception of the differences between these three in one respect,--viz. in regard to the peculiar affliction of insanity. The insanity of the King differs widely in its nature from that of the Fool, and that of the Fool from that of the beggar. But the insanity of the King differs from that of the beggar not only in its nature, but also in the fact that one is real and the other simply a pretence. Are we to suppose then that the insanity of the third character, the Fool, is, in this respect, a mere repetition of that of the second, the beggar,--that it too is mere pretence? To suppose this is not only to impoverish miserably the impression made by the trio as a whole, it is also to diminish the heroic and pathetic effect of the character of the Fool. For his heroism consists largely in this, that his efforts to outjest his master's injuries are the efforts of a being to whom a responsible and consistent course of action, nay even a responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult, and from whom it is never at the best of times expected. It is a heroism something like that of Lear himself in his endeavour to learn patience at the age of eighty. But arguments against the idea that the Fool is wholly sane are either needless or futile; for in the end they are appeals to the perception that this idea almost destroys the poetry of the character.

This is not the case with another question, the question whether the Fool is a man or a boy. Here the evidence and the grounds for discussion are more tangible. He is frequently addressed as 'boy.' This is not decisive; but Lear's first words to him, 'How now, my pretty knave, how dost thou?' are difficult to reconcile with the idea of his being a man, and the use of this phrase on his first entrance may show Shakespeare's desire to prevent any mistake on the point. As a boy, too, he would be more strongly contrasted in the Storm-scenes with Edgar as well as with Lear; his faithfulness and courage would be even more heroic and touching; his devotion to Cordelia, and the consequent bitterness of some of his speeches to Lear, would be even more natural. Nor does he seem to show a knowledge of the world impossible to a quick-witted though not whole-witted lad who had lived at Court. The only serious obstacle to this view, I think, is the fact that he is not known to have been represented as a boy or youth till Macready produced King Lear.[177]

But even if this obstacle were serious and the Fool were imagined as a grown man, we may still insist that he must also be imagined as a timid, delicate and frail being, who on that account and from the expression of his face has a boyish look.[178] He pines away when Cordelia goes to France. Though he takes great liberties with his master he is frightened by Goneril, and becomes quite silent when the quarrel rises high. In the terrible scene between Lear and his two daughters and Cornwall

  1. iv. 129-289), he says not a word; we have almost forgotten his presence when, at the topmost pitch of passion, Lear suddenly turns to him from the hateful faces that encompass him:
  You think I'll weep;

No, I'll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws Or ere I'll weep. O fool, I shall go mad.

From the beginning of the Storm-scenes, though he thinks of his master alone, we perceive from his words that the cold and rain are almost more than he can bear. His childishness comes home to us when he runs out of the hovel, terrified by the madman and crying out to the King 'Help me, help me,' and the good Kent takes him by the hand and draws him to his side. A little later he exclaims, 'This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen'; and almost from that point he leaves the King to Edgar, speaking only once again in the remaining hundred lines of the scene. In the shelter of the 'farm-house' (III. vi.) he revives, and resumes his office of love; but I think that critic is right who considers his last words significant. 'We'll go to supper i' the morning,' says Lear; and the Fool answers 'And I'll go to bed at noon,' as though he felt he had taken his death. When, a little later, the King is being carried away on a litter, the Fool sits idle. He is so benumbed and worn out that he scarcely notices what is going on. Kent has to rouse him with the words,

Come, help to bear thy master, Thou must not stay behind.

We know no more. For the famous exclamation 'And my poor fool is hanged' unquestionably refers to Cordelia; and even if it is intended to show a confused association in Lear's mind between his child and the Fool who so loved her (as a very old man may confuse two of his children), still it tells us nothing of the Fool's fate. It seems strange indeed that Shakespeare should have left us thus in ignorance. But we have seen that there are many marks of haste and carelessness in King Lear; and it may also be observed that, if the poet imagined the Fool dying on the way to Dover of the effects of that night upon the heath, he could perhaps convey this idea to the audience by instructing the actor who took the part to show, as he left the stage for the last time, the recognised tokens of approaching death.[179]

Something has now been said of the four characters, Lear, Edgar, Kent and the Fool, who are together in the storm upon the heath. I have made no attempt to analyse the whole effect of these scenes, but one remark may be added. These scenes, as we observed, suggest the idea of a convulsion in which Nature herself joins with the forces of evil in man to overpower the weak; and they are thus one of the main sources of the more terrible impressions produced by King Lear. But they have at the same time an effect of a totally different kind, because in them are exhibited also the strength and the beauty of Lear's nature, and, in Kent and the Fool and Edgar, the ideal of faithful devoted love. Hence from the beginning to the end of these scenes we have, mingled with pain and awe and a sense of man's infirmity, an equally strong feeling of his greatness; and this becomes at times even an exulting sense of the powerlessness of outward calamity or the malice of others against his soul. And this is one reason why imagination and emotion are never here pressed painfully inward, as in the scenes between Lear and his daughters, but are liberated and dilated.

Prev | Next | Contents