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Gloster and Albany are the two neutral characters of the tragedy. The parallel between Lear and Gloster, already noticed, is, up to a certain point, so marked that it cannot possibly be accidental. Both are old white-haired men (III. vii. 37); both, it would seem, widowers, with children comparatively young. Like Lear, Gloster is tormented, and his life is sought, by the child whom he favours; he is tended and healed by the child whom he has wronged. His sufferings, like Lear's, are partly traceable to his own extreme folly and injustice, and, it may be added, to a selfish pursuit of his own pleasure. His sufferings, again, like Lear's, purify and enlighten him: he dies a better and wiser man than he showed himself at first. They even learn the same lesson, and Gloster's repetition (noticed and blamed by Johnson) of the thought in a famous speech of Lear's is surely intentional. And, finally, Gloster dies almost as Lear dies. Edgar reveals himself to him and asks his blessing (as Cordelia asks Lear's):
|but his flaw'd heart--|
Alack, too weak the conflict to support-- 'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.
So far, the resemblance of the two stories, and also of the ways in which their painful effect is modified, is curiously close. And in character too Gloster is, like his master, affectionate, credulous and hasty. But otherwise he is sharply contrasted with the tragic Lear, who is a towering figure, every inch a king, while Gloster is built on a much smaller scale, and has infinitely less force and fire. He is, indeed, a decidedly weak though good-hearted man; and, failing wholly to support Kent in resisting Lear's original folly and injustice, he only gradually takes the better part. Nor is his character either very interesting or very distinct. He often gives one the impression of being wanted mainly to fill a place in the scheme of the play; and, though it would be easy to give a long list of his characteristics, they scarcely, it seems to me, compose an individual, a person whom we are sure we should recognise at once. If this is so, the fact is curious, considering how much we see and hear of him.
I will add a single note. Gloster is the superstitious character of the drama,--the only one. He thinks much of 'these late eclipses in the sun and moon.' His two sons, from opposite points of view, make nothing of them. His easy acceptance of the calumny against Edgar is partly due to this weakness, and Edmund builds upon it, for an evil purpose, when he describes Edgar thus:
Here stood he in the dark, his sharp sword out, Mumbling of wicked charms, conjuring the moon, To prove's auspicious mistress.
Edgar in turn builds upon it, for a good purpose, when he persuades his blind father that he was led to jump down Dover cliff by the temptation of a fiend in the form of a beggar, and was saved by a miracle:
As I stood here below, methought his eyes Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses, Horns whelk'd and waved like the enridged sea: It was some fiend; therefore, thou happy father, Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee.
This passage is odd in its collocation of the thousand noses and the clearest gods, of grotesque absurdity and extreme seriousness. Edgar knew that the 'fiend' was really Gloster's 'worser spirit,' and that 'the gods' were himself. Doubtless, however--for he is the most religious person in the play--he thought that it was the gods who, through him, had preserved his father; but he knew that the truth could only enter this superstitious mind in a superstitious form.
The combination of parallelism and contrast that we observe in Lear and Gloster, and again in the attitude of the two brothers to their father's superstition, is one of many indications that in King Lear Shakespeare was working more than usual on a basis of conscious and reflective ideas. Perhaps it is not by accident, then, that he makes Edgar and Lear preach to Gloster in precisely the same strain. Lear says to him:
If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes. I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloster: Thou must be patient; we came crying hither: Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air, We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee: mark.
Edgar's last words to him are:
What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all.
Albany is merely sketched, and he is so generally neglected that a few words about him may be in place. He too ends a better and wiser man than he began. When the play opens he is, of course, only just married to Goneril; and the idea is, I think, that he has been bewitched by her fiery beauty not less than by her dowry. He is an inoffensive peace-loving man, and is overborne at first by his 'great love' for his wife and by her imperious will. He is not free from responsibility for the treatment which the King receives in his house; the Knight says to Lear, 'there's a great abatement of kindness appears as well in the general dependants as in the duke himself also and your daughter.' But he takes no part in the quarrel, and doubtless speaks truly when he protests that he is as guiltless as ignorant of the cause of Lear's violent passion. When the King departs, he begins to remonstrate with Goneril, but shrinks in a cowardly manner, which is a trifle comical, from contest with her. She leaves him behind when she goes to join Regan, and he is not further responsible for what follows. When he hears of it, he is struck with horror: the scales drop from his eyes, Goneril becomes hateful to him, he determines to revenge Gloster's eyes. His position is however very difficult, as he is willing to fight against Cordelia in so far as her army is French, and unwilling in so far as she represents her father. This difficulty, and his natural inferiority to Edmund in force and ability, pushes him into the background; the battle is not won by him but by Edmund; and but for Edgar he would certainly have fallen a victim to the murderous plot against him. When it is discovered, however, he is fearless and resolute enough, beside being full of kind feeling towards Kent and Edgar, and of sympathetic distress at Gloster's death. And one would be sure that he is meant to retain this strength till the end, but for his last words. He has announced his intention of resigning, during Lear's life, the 'absolute power' which has come to him; and that may be right. But after Lear's death he says to Kent and Edgar:
|Friends of my soul, you twain|
Rule in this realm, and the gored state sustain.
If this means that he wishes to hand over his absolute power to them, Shakespeare's intention is certainly to mark the feebleness of a well-meaning but weak man. But possibly he means by 'this realm' only that half of Britain which had belonged to Cornwall and Regan.
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