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I turn now to those two strongly contrasted groups of good and evil beings; and to the evil first. The members of this group are by no means on a level. Far the most contemptible of them is Oswald, and Kent has fortunately expressed our feelings towards him. Yet twice we are able to feel sympathy with him. Regan cannot tempt him to let her open Goneril's letter to Edmund; and his last thought as he dies is given to the fulfilment of his trust. It is to a monster that he is faithful, and he is faithful to her in a monstrous design. Still faithfulness is faithfulness, and he is not wholly worthless. Dr. Johnson says: 'I know not well why Shakespeare gives to Oswald, who is a mere factor of wickedness, so much fidelity'; but in any other tragedy this touch, so true to human nature, is only what we should expect. If it surprises us in King Lear, the reason is that Shakespeare, in dealing with the other members of the group, seems to have been less concerned than usual with such mingling of light with darkness, and intent rather on making the shadows as utterly black as a regard for truth would permit.
Cornwall seems to have been a fit mate for Regan; and what worse can be said of him? It is a great satisfaction to think that he endured what to him must have seemed the dreadful disgrace of being killed by a servant. He shows, I believe, no redeeming trait, and he is a coward, as may be seen from the sudden rise in his courage when Goneril arrives at the castle and supports him and Regan against Lear (II. iv. 202). But as his cruelties are not aimed at a blood-relation, he is not, in this sense, a 'monster,' like the remaining three.
Which of these three is the least and which the most detestable there can surely be no question. For Edmund, not to mention other alleviations, is at any rate not a woman. And the differences between the sisters, which are distinctly marked and need not be exhibited once more in full, are all in favour of 'the elder and more terrible.' That Regan did not commit adultery, did not murder her sister or plot to murder her husband, did not join her name with Edmund's on the order for the deaths of Cordelia and Lear, and in other respects failed to take quite so active a part as Goneril in atrocious wickedness, is quite true but not in the least to her credit. It only means that she had much less force, courage and initiative than her sister, and for that reason is less formidable and more loathsome. Edmund judged right when, caring for neither sister but aiming at the crown, he preferred Goneril, for he could trust her to remove the living impediments to her desires. The scornful and fearless exclamation, 'An interlude!' with which she greets the exposure of her design, was quite beyond Regan. Her unhesitating suicide was perhaps no less so. She would not have condescended to the lie which Regan so needlessly tells to Oswald:
It was great ignorance, Gloster's eyes being out, To let him live: where he arrives he moves All hearts against us: Edmund, I think, is gone, In pity of his misery, to dispatch His nighted life.
Her father's curse is nothing to her. She scorns even to mention the gods. Horrible as she is, she is almost awful. But, to set against Regan's inferiority in power, there is nothing: she is superior only in a venomous meanness which is almost as hateful as her cruelty. She is the most hideous human being (if she is one) that Shakespeare ever drew.
I have already noticed the resemblance between Edmund and Iago in one point; and Edmund recalls his greater forerunner also in courage, strength of will, address, egoism, an abnormal want of feeling, and the possession of a sense of humour. But here the likeness ends. Indeed a decided difference is observable even in the humour. Edmund is apparently a good deal younger than Iago. He has a lighter and more superficial nature, and there is a certain genuine gaiety in him which makes one smile not unsympathetically as one listens to his first soliloquy, with its cheery conclusion, so unlike Iago's references to the powers of darkness,
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Even after we have witnessed his dreadful deeds, a touch of this sympathy is felt again when we hear his nonchalant reflections before the battle:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love: Each jealous of the other, as the stung Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take? Both? one? or neither?
Besides, there is nothing in Edmund of Iago's motive-hunting, and very little of any of the secret forces which impelled Iago. He is comparatively a straightforward character, as straightforward as the Iago of some critics. He moves wonder and horror merely because the fact that a man so young can have a nature so bad is a dark mystery.
Edmund is an adventurer pure and simple. He acts in pursuance of a purpose, and, if he has any affections or dislikes, ignores them. He is determined to make his way, first to his brother's lands, then--as the prospect widens--to the crown; and he regards men and women, with their virtues and vices, together with the bonds of kinship, friendship, or allegiance, merely as hindrances or helps to his end. They are for him divested of all quality except their relation to this end; as indifferent as mathematical quantities or mere physical agents.
A credulous father and a brother noble, ... I see the business,
he says, as if he were talking of x and y.
This seems a fair deserving, and must draw me That which my father loses; no less than all: The younger rises when the old doth fall:
he meditates, as if he were considering a problem in mechanics. He preserves this attitude with perfect consistency until the possibility of attaining his end is snatched from him by death.
Like the deformity of Richard, Edmund's illegitimacy furnishes, of course, no excuse for his villainy, but it somewhat influences our feelings. It is no fault of his, and yet it separates him from other men. He is the product of Nature--of a natural appetite asserting itself against the social order; and he has no recognised place within this order. So he devotes himself to Nature, whose law is that of the stronger, and who does not recognise those moral obligations which exist only by convention,--by 'custom' or 'the curiosity of nations.' Practically, his attitude is that of a professional criminal. 'You tell me I do not belong to you,' he seems to say to society: 'very well: I will make my way into your treasure-house if I can. And if I have to take life in doing so, that is your affair.' How far he is serious in this attitude, and really indignant at the brand of bastardy, how far his indignation is a half-conscious self-excuse for his meditated villainy, it is hard to say; but the end shows that he is not entirely in earnest.
As he is an adventurer, with no more ill-will to anyone than good-will, it is natural that, when he has lost the game, he should accept his failure without showing personal animosity. But he does more. He admits the truth of Edgar's words about the justice of the gods, and applies them to his own case (though the fact that he himself refers to fortune's wheel rather than to the gods may be significant). He shows too that he is not destitute of feeling; for he is touched by the story of his father's death, and at last 'pants for life' in the effort to do 'some good' by saving Lear and Cordelia. There is something pathetic here which tempts one to dream that, if Edmund had been whole brother to Edgar, and had been at home during those 'nine years' when he was 'out,' he might have been a very different man. But perhaps his words,
Some good I mean to do, Despite of mine own nature,
suggest rather that Shakespeare is emphasising the mysterious fact, commented on by Kent in the case of the three daughters of Lear, of an immense original difference between children of one father. Stranger than this emergence of better feelings, and curiously pathetic, is the pleasure of the dying man in the thought that he was loved by both the women whose corpses are almost the last sight he is to see. Perhaps, as we conjectured, the cause of his delay in saving Lear and Cordelia even after he hears of the deaths of the sisters is that he is sunk in dreamy reflections on his past. When he murmurs, 'Yet Edmund was beloved,' one is almost in danger of forgetting that he had done much more than reject the love of his father and half-brother. The passage is one of several in Shakespeare's plays where it strikes us that he is recording some fact about human nature with which he had actually met, and which had seemed to him peculiarly strange.
What are we to say of the world which contains these five beings, Goneril, Regan, Edmund, Cornwall, Oswald? I have tried to answer this question in our first lecture; for in its representation of evil King Lear differs from the other tragedies only in degree and manner. It is the tragedy in which evil is shown in the greatest abundance; and the evil characters are peculiarly repellent from their hard savagery, and because so little good is mingled with their evil. The effect is therefore more startling than elsewhere; it is even appalling. But in substance it is the same as elsewhere; and accordingly, although it may be useful to recall here our previous discussion, I will do so only by the briefest statement.
On the one hand we see a world which generates terrible evil in profusion. Further, the beings in whom this evil appears at its strongest are able, to a certain extent, to thrive. They are not unhappy, and they have power to spread misery and destruction around them. All this is undeniable fact.
On the other hand this evil is merely destructive: it founds nothing, and seems capable of existing only on foundations laid by its opposite. It is also self-destructive: it sets these beings at enmity; they can scarcely unite against a common and pressing danger; if it were averted they would be at each other's throats in a moment; the sisters do not even wait till it is past. Finally, these beings, all five of them, are dead a few weeks after we see them first; three at least die young; the outburst of their evil is fatal to them. These also are undeniable facts; and, in face of them, it seems odd to describe King Lear as 'a play in which the wicked prosper' (Johnson).
Thus the world in which evil appears seems to be at heart unfriendly to it. And this impression is confirmed by the fact that the convulsion of this world is due to evil, mainly in the worst forms here considered, partly in the milder forms which we call the errors or defects of the better characters. Good, in the widest sense, seems thus to be the principle of life and health in the world; evil, at least in these worst forms, to be a poison. The world reacts against it violently, and, in the struggle to expel it, is driven to devastate itself.
If we ask why the world should generate that which convulses and wastes it, the tragedy gives no answer, and we are trying to go beyond tragedy in seeking one. But the world, in this tragic picture, is convulsed by evil, and rejects it.
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