THE DRAMA OF MADNESS: "LEAR"
Ever since Lessing and Goethe it has been the fashion to praise
Shakespeare as a demi-god; whatever he wrote is taken to be the rose of
perfection. This senseless hero-worship, which reached idolatry in the
superlatives of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" and elsewhere in England,
was certain to provoke reaction, and the reaction has come to vigorous
expression in Tolstoi, who finds nothing to praise in any of
Shakespeare's works, and everything to blame in most of them, especially
in "Lear." Lamb and Coleridge, on the other hand, have praised "Lear" as
a world's masterpiece. Lamb says of it:
"While we read it, we see not Lear; but we are Lear,--we are in his
mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of
daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason we discover a
mighty irregular power of reasoning, immethodised from the ordinary
purposes of life, but exerting its powers, as the wind bloweth where it
listeth, at will upon the corruptions and abuses of mankind."
Coleridge calls "Lear," "the open and ample playground of Nature's
These dithyrambs show rather the lyrical power of the writers than the
Tolstoi, on the other hand, keeps his eyes on the object, and sets
himself to describe the story of "Lear" "as impartially as possible." He
says of the first scene:
"Not to mention the pompous, characterless language
of King Lear, the same in which all Shakespeare's kings
speak, the reader or spectator cannot conceive that a
king, however old and stupid he may be, could believe
the words of the vicious daughters with whom he had
passed his whole life, and not believe his favourite
daughter, but curse and banish her; and therefore, the
spectator or reader cannot share the feelings of the
persons participating in this unnatural scene."
He goes on to condemn the scene between Gloucester and his sons in the
same way. The second act he describes as "absurdly foolish." The third
act is "spoiled, by the characteristic Shakespearean language." The
fourth act is "marred in the making," and of the fifth act, he says:
"Again begin Lear's awful ravings, at which one feels ashamed, as at
unsuccessful jokes." He sums up in these words:
"Such is this celebrated drama. However absurd it
may appear in my rendering (which I have endeavoured
to make as impartial as possible), I may confidently say
that in the original it is yet more absurd. For any man
of our time--if he were not under the hypnotic suggestion
that this drama is the height of perfection--it would
be enough to read it to its end (were he to have sufficient
patience for this) in order to be convinced that, far from
being the height of perfection, it is a very bad, carelessly-composed
production, which, if it could have been of
interest to a certain public at a certain time, cannot evoke
amongst us anything but aversion and weariness. Every
reader of our time who is free from the influence of suggestion
will also receive exactly the same impression from
all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention
the senseless dramatized tales, 'Pericles,' 'Twelfth
Night,' 'The Tempest,' 'Cymbeline,' and 'Troilus and
Every one must admit, I think, that what Tolstoi has said of the
hypothesis of the play is justified. Shakespeare, as I have shown, was
nearly always an indifferent playwright, careless of the architectural
construction of his pieces, contemptuous of stage-craft. So much had
already been said in England, if not with the authority of Tolstoi.
It may be conceded, too, that the language which Shakespeare puts into
Lear's mouth in the first act is "characterless and pompous," even
silly; but Tolstoi should have noticed that as soon as Lear realizes the
ingratitude of his daughters, his language becomes more and more simple
and pathetic. Shakespeare's kings are apt to rant and mouth when first
introduced; he seems to have thought pomp of speech went with royal
robes; but when the action is engaged even his monarchs speak naturally.
The truth is, that just as the iambics of Greek drama were lifted above
ordinary conversation, so Shakespeare's language, being the language
mainly of poetic and romantic drama, is a little more measured and, if
you will, more pompous than the small talk of everyday life, which seems
to us, accustomed as we are to prose plays, more natural. Shakespeare,
however, in his blank verse, reaches heights which are not often reached
by prose, and when he pleases, his verse becomes as natural-easy as any
prose, even that of Tolstoi himself. Tolstoi finds everything Lear says
"pompous," "artificial," "unnatural," but Lear's words:
"Pray do not mock me,
I am a very foolish-fond old man
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less,
And, to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind."
touch us poignantly, just because of their childish simplicity; we feel
as if Lear, in them, had reached the heart of pathos. Tolstoi, I am
afraid, has missed all the poetry of Lear, all the deathless phrases.
"I am a man,
More sinn'd against than sinning,"
and the new-coined phrase passed at once into the general currency. Who,
too, can ever forget his description of the poor?
"Poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?"
The like of that "looped and windowed raggedness" is hardly to be found
in any other literature. In the fourth and fifth acts Lear's language is
simplicity itself, and even in that third act which Tolstoi condemns as
"incredibly pompous and artificial," we find him talking naturally:
"Ha! here 's three on's are sophisticated: thou art
the thing itself, unaccommodated man is no more but
such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art."
There is still another reason why some of us cannot read "Lear" with the
cold eyes of reason, contemptuously critical. "Lear" marks a stage in
Shakespeare's agony. We who know the happy ingenuousness of his youth
undimmed by doubts of man or suspicions of woman, cannot help
sympathizing with him when we see him cheated and betrayed, drinking the
bitter cup of disillusion to the dregs. In "Lear" the angry brooding
leads to madness; and it is only fitting that the keynote of the
tragedy, struck again and again, should be the cry.
"O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet Heaven!
Keep me in temper: I would not be mad."
"Lear" is the first attempt in all literature to paint madness, and not
the worst attempt.
In "Lear," Shakespeare was intent on expressing his own disillusion and
naked misery. How blind Lear must have been, says Tolstoi; how
incredibly foolish not to know his daughters better after living with
them for twenty years; but this is just what Shakespeare wishes to
express: How blind I was, he cries to us, how inconceivably trusting and
foolish! How could I have imagined that a young noble would be grateful,
or a wanton true? "Lear" is a page of Shakespeare's autobiography, and
the faults of it are the stains of his blistering tears.
"Lear" is badly constructed, but worse was to come. The next tragedy,
"Timon," is merely a scream of pain, and yet it, too, has a deeper than
artistic interest for us as marking the utmost limit of Shakespeare's
suffering. The mortal malady of perhaps the finest spirit that has ever
appeared among men has an interest for us profounder than any tragedy.
And to find that in Shakespeare's agony and bloody sweat he ignores the
rules of artistry is simply what might have been expected, and, to some
of us, deepens the personal interest in the drama.
In "Lear" Edgar is peculiarly Shakespeare's mouthpiece, and to Edgar
Shakespeare gives some of the finest words he ever coined:
"The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us."
Here, too, in what Edgar says of himself, is the moral of all passion:
it is manifestly Shakespeare's view of himself:
"A most poor man, made tame to Fortune's blows,
Who by the art of knowing and feeling sorrows
Am pregnant to good pity."
Then we find the supreme phrase--perhaps the finest ever written:
Their going hence even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all."
Shakespeare speaks through Lear in the last acts as plainly as through
Edgar. In the third scene of the fifth act Lear talks to Cordelia in the
very words Shakespeare gave to the saint Henry VI. at the beginning of
his career. Compare the extracts on pages 118-9 with the following
passage, and you will see the similarity and the astounding growth in
"... Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; ..."
More characteristic still of Shakespeare is the fact that when Lear is
at his bitterest in the fourth act, he shows the erotic mania which is
the source of all Shakespeare's bitterness and misery; but which is
utterly out of place in Lear. The reader will mark how "adultery" is
"... Ay, every inch a king:
When I do stare, see how the subject quakes.
I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die: die for adultery! No:
The wren goes to 't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; ...
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above;
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends'; ..."
Thus Lear raves for a whole page: Shakespeare on his hobby: in the same
erotic spirit he makes both Goneril and Regan lust after Edmund.
The note of this tragedy is Shakespeare's understanding of his insane
blind trust in men; but the passion of it springs from erotic mania and
from the consciousness that he is too old for love's lists. Perhaps his
imagination never carried him higher than when Lear appeals to the
heavens because they too are old:
"... O heavens,
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Allow obedience, if yourselves are old,
Make it your cause."