These notes are selected from Johnson's edition of King Lear from The Works of William Shakespeare (1765), with a few notes from the edition of 1773. I have chosen just a handful of notes that illustrate the sorts of commentary and emendations Johnson made to Shakespeare's text. Those familiar with Sherbo's volumes in the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson will recognize the debt I owe to that edition. The Shakespearen passages on which Johnson comments are indented; earlier editors' notes appear in [brackets].
There is something of obscurity or inaccuracy in this preparatory scene. The King has already divided his kingdom, and yet when he enters he examines his daughters, to discover in what proportions he should divide it. Perhaps Kent and Gloucester only were privy to his design, which he still kept in his own hands, to be changed or performed as subsequent reasons should determine him.
Lear. Mean time we shall express our darker purpose.
[Warburton: "'Darker,' for more secret; not for indirect, oblique."]
This word may admit a further explication. "We shall express our darker purpose": that is, we have already made known in some measure our design of parting the kingdom; we will now discover what has not been told before, the reasons by which we shall regulate the partition.
This interpretation will justify or palliate the exordial dialogue.
Regan. I find, she names my very deed of love,
Only she comes too short; that I profess
Myself an enemy to all other joys.
"That" seems to stand without relation, but is referred to "find," the first conjunction being inaccurately suppressed. "I find that she names my deed, I find that I profess," &c.
Lear. The sway, revenue, execution of the rest.
[Warburton: "of th' hest."]
I do not see any great difficulty in the words, "execution of the rest," which are in both the old copies. The "execution of the rest" is, I suppose, "all the other business." Dr. Warburton's own explanation of his amendment confutes it; if "hest" be a "regal command," they were, by the grant of Lear, to have rather the "hest" than the "execution."
Kent. Think'st thou, that duty shall have dread to speak,
When pow'r to flatt'ry bows? To plainness honour's bound,
When majesty falls to folly. Reserve thy state,
And in thy best consideration check
This hideous rashness; answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least.
I have given this passage according to the old folio, from which the modern editions have silently departed, for the sake of better numbers, with a degree of insincerity, which, if not sometimes detected and censured, must impair the credit of antient books. One of the editors, and perhaps only one, knew how much mischief may be done by such clandestine alterations.
The quarto agrees with the folio, except that for "reserve thy state," it gives, "reverse thy doom," and has "stoops" instead of "falls to folly."
The meaning of "Answer my life my judgment" is, "Let my life be answerable for my judgment," or "I will stake my life on my opinion."
The reading which, without any right, has possessed all the modern copies is this,
to plainness honourI am inclined to think that "reverse thy doom" was Shakespeare's first reading, as more apposite to the present occasion, and that he changed it afterwards to "reserve thy state," which conduces more to the progress of the action.
Is bound, when majesty to folly falls.
Reserve thy state; with better judgment check
This hideous rashness; with my life I answer,
Thy youngest daughter, &c.
Lear. Which nor our nature, nor our place, can bear;
Our potency made good.
[Theobald: "(Which . . . bear) . . . made good"; Warburton rejects the parentheses, and favors make to made.]
Theobald only inserted the parenthesis; he found "made good" in the best copy of 1623. Dr. Warburton has very acutely explained and defended the reading that he has chosen, but I am not certain that he has chosen right. If we take the reading of the folio, "our potency made good," the sense will be less profound indeed, but less intricate, and equally commodious. "As thou hast come with unreasonable pride between the sentence which I had passed, and the power by which I shall execute it, take thy reward in another sentence which shall make good, shall establish, shall maintain, that power."
If Dr. Warburton's explanation be chosen, and every reader will wish to choose it, we may better read,
Which nor our nature, nor our state can bear,Mr. Davies thinks, that "our potency made good" relates only to "our place." — Which our nature cannot bear, nor our "place," without departure from the "potency" of that place. This is easy and clear.
Or potency make good.
Lear, who is characterized as hot, heady and violent, is, with very just observation of life, made to entangle himself with vows, upon any sudden provocation to vow revenge, and then to plead the obligation of a vow in defence of implacability.
Lear. Away! By Jupiter.
Shakespeare makes his Lear too much a mythologist: he had Hecate and Apollo before.
France. Sure, her offence
Must be of such unnatural degree,
That monsters it; or your fore-vouch'd affection
Fall into taint.
The common books read,
or your fore-vouch'd affectionThis line has no clear or strong sense, nor is this reading authorised by any copy, though it has crept into all the late editions. The early quarto reads,
Fall'n into taint: —
or you for vouch'd affectionsThe folio,
Fal'n into taint.
or your fore-vouch'd affection"Taint" is used for "corruption" and for "disgrace." If therefore we take the oldest reading it may be reformed thus:
Fall into taint.
sure her offenceHer offence must be prodigious, or "you" must "fall into reproach" for having "vouched affection" which you did not feel.
Must be of such unnatural degree,
That monsters it; or you for vouch'd affection
Fall into taint.
If the reading of the folio be preferred, we may with a very slight change produce the same sense.
sure her offenceThat is, "falls into reproach" or "censure."
Must be of such unnatural degree,
That monsters it, or your fore-vouch'd affection
Falls into taint.
But there is another possible sense. "Or" signifies "before," and "or ever" is "before ever"; the meaning in the folio may therefore be, "Sure her crime must be monstrous before your affection can be infected with hatred." Let the reader determine.
As I am not much a friend to conjectural emendation I should prefer the latter sense, which requires no change of reading.
Edmund. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom.
[Warburton suggests plage, for place or country.]
The word "plague" is in all the old copies: I can scarcely think it right, nor can I yet reconcile myself to the emendation proposed, though I have nothing better to offer.
Edmund. An essay or taste of my virtue.
Though "taste" may stand in this place, yet I believe we should read, "assay" or "test" of my virtue: they are both metallurgical terms, and properly joined. So in Hamlet,
Bring me to the test.
Edmund. I promise you, the effects, he writes of, succeed unhappily.
The folio edition commonly differs from the first quarto, by augmentations or insertions, but in this place it varies by omission, and by the omission of something which naturally introduces the following dialogue. The quarto has the passage thus:
"I promise you, the effects, he writes of, succeed unhappily, as of unnaturalness between the child and parent, death, dearth, dissolutions of ancient amities, divisions in state, menaces and maledictions against king and nobles, needless diffidences, banishment of friends, dissipation of courts, nuptial breaches, and I know not what."It is easy to remark, that in this speech, which ought, I think, to be inserted as it now is in the text, Edmund, with the common craft of fortune-tellers, mingles the past and future, and tells of the future only what he already foreknows by confederacy, or can attain by probable conjecture.
Gonerill. Old fools are babes again; and must be us'd
With checks, as flatteries when they're seen abus'd.
[Theobald called the lines "very fine," and emended them to read "with checks, like flatt'ries when they are seen abus'd." Warburton emended fools to folks, and emended the second line to "with checks, not flatt'ries when they're seen abus'd."]
These lines hardly deserve a note, though Mr. Theobald thinks them "very fine." Whether "fools" or "folks" should be read is not worth enquiry. The controverted line is yet in the old quarto, not as the editors represent it, but thus:
With checks as flatteries when they are seen abus'd.I am in doubt whether there is any errour of transcription. The sense seems to be this: "Old men must be treated with checks, when as they are seen to be deceived with flatteries": or, "when they are once weak enough to be seen abused by flatteries, they are then weak enough to be used with checks." There is a play of the words "used" and "abused." To "abuse" is, in our authour, very frequently the same as to "deceive." This construction is harsh and ungrammatical; Shakespeare perhaps thought it vitious, and chose to throw away the lines rather than correct them, nor would now thank the officiousness of his editors, who restore what they do not understand.
Fool. Lend less than thou owest.
That is, "Do not lend all that thou hast." To "owe" in old English is "to possess." If "owe" be taken for "to be in debt," the more prudent precept would be,
Lend more than thou owest.
Lear. No, lad, teach me.
Fool. That lord, that counsel'd thee to give away thy land,
Come, place him here by me! do thou for him stand;
The sweet and bitter fool will presently appear,
The one, in motley here; the other, found out there.
Lear. Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool. All thy other titles thou hast given away;
that thou wast born with.
Kent. This is not altogether fool, my Lord.
Fool. No, faith; lords, and great men will not let me; if I had a monopoly on't, they would have part on't: nay, the ladies, too, they'll not let me have all fool to myself, they'll be snatching. Give me an egg, nuncle, and I'll give thee two crowns.
This dialogue, from "No, lad, teach me," down to, "Give me an egg," was restored from the first edition by Mr. Theobald. It is omitted in the folio, perhaps for political reasons, as it seemed to censure monopolies.
Fool. Whoop, Jug.
There are in the fool's speeches several passages which seem to be proverbial allusions, perhaps not now to be understood.
Lear. Which, like an engine, wrencht my frame of nature
From the fixt place.
Mr. Edwards conjectures that an engine is the "rack." He is right. To "engine" is, in Chaucer, to strain upon the rack. Appendix
Lear. With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks.
[Warburton proposes emending cadent to candent, "hot, scalding."]
This emendation, if "candent" be a word any where to be found, is elegant, but not necessary.
Lear. That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them. — blasts and fogs upon thee!
Th' untented woundings of a father's curse
Pierce every sense about thee! Old fond eyes,
Beweep this cause again.
I will transcribe this passage from the first edition, that it may appear to those who are unacquainted with old books, what is the difficulty of revision, and what indulgence is due to those that endeavour to restore corrupted passages.
"That these hot tears, that breake from me perforce, should make the worst blasts and fogs upon the untender woundings of a father's curse, peruse every sense about the old fond eyes, beweep this cause again," &c.
Lear. I did her wrong —
He is musing on Cordelia.
Lear. To tak't again perforce!
He is meditating on the resumption of his royalty.
Regan. Occasions, noble Glo'ster, of some prize.
[Warburton emends prize to poise, for weight.]
Why not "prize" or "price" for value?
Kent. If I had thee in Lipsbury pinfold, I would make thee care for me.
The allusion which seems to be contained in this line I do not understand. In the violent eruption of reproaches which bursts from Kent in this dialogue, there are some epithets which the commentators have left unexpounded, and which I am not very able to make clear. Of a "three-suited knave" I know not the meaning, unless it be that he has different dresses for different occupations. "Lilly-liver'd" is "cowardly"; "white-blooded" and "white-liver'd" are still in vulgar use. An "one-trunk inheriting slave" I take to be a wearer of old cast-off cloaths, an inheritor of torn breeches.
Of this word I do not clearly see the force.
Kent. Take Vanity the puppet's part.
Alluding to the mysteries or allegorical shews, in which Vanity, Iniquity, and other vices, were personified.
Kent. Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter!
I do not well understand how a man is reproached by being called "zed," nor how "Z" is an "unnecessary letter." Scarron compares his deformity to the shape of "Z," and it may be a proper word of insult to a crook-backed man; but why should Gonerill's steward be crooked, unless the allusion be to his bending or cringing posture in the presence of his superiours? Perhaps it was written, "thou whoreson C (for 'cuckold') thou unnecessary letter." C is a letter unnecessary in our alphabet, one of its two sounds being represented by S, and one by K. But all the copies concur in the common reading.
Kent. Good King, that must approve the common saw,
That out of heaven's benediction com'st
To the warm sun!
That art now to exemplify the common proverb,
That out of, &c.That changes better for worse. Hanmer observes, that it is a proverbial saying, applied to those who are turned out of house and home to the open weather. It was perhaps first used of men dismissed from an hospital, or house of charity, such as was erected formerly in many places for travellers. Those houses had names properly enough alluded to by "Heaven's Benediction."
Kent. I know, 'tis from Cordelia,
Who hath most fortunately been inform'd
Of my obscured course, and shall find time
From this enormous state seeking to give
Losses their remedies.
This passage, which some of the editors have degraded, as spurious, to the margin, and others have silently altered, I have faithfully printed according to the quarto, from which the folio differs only in punctuation. The passage is very obscure, if not corrupt. Perhaps it may be read thus:
Cordelia — has been — informed.Cordelia is informed of our affairs, and when the "enormous" care of "seeking her fortune" will allow her time, she will employ it in remedying losses. This is harsh; perhaps something better may be found. I have at least supplied the genuine reading of the old copies. "Enormous" is unwonted, out of rule, out of the ordinary course of things.
Of my obscured course, and shall find time
From this enormous state-seeking, to give
Losses their remedies.
[s.d.] Changes again to the Earl of Glo'ster's castle.
It is not very clearly discovered why Lear comes hither. In the foregoing part he sent a letter to Glo'ster, but no hint is given of its contents. He seems to have gone to visit Glo'ster while Cornwall and Regan might prepare to entertain him.
Fool. All, that follow their noses are led by their eyes, but blind men; and there's not a nose among twenty, but can smell him that's stinking.
There is in this sentence no clear series of thought. If he that follows his nose is led or guided by his eyes, he wants no information from his nose. I persuade myself, but know not whether I can persuade others, that our authour wrote thus:
"All men are led by their eyes, but blind men, and they follow their noses, and there's not a nose among twenty but can smell him that's stinking."Here is a succession of reasoning. You ask, why the King has no more in his train? Why, because men who are led by their eyes see that he is ruined, and if there were any blind among them, who, for want of eyes, followed their noses, they might by their noses discover that it was no longer fit to follow the King.
Fool. But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly;
The knave turns fool, that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
I think this passage erroneous, though both the copies concur. The sense will be mended if we read,
But I will tarry; the fool will stay,That I stay with the King is a proof that I am a fool, the wise men are deserting him. There is knavery in this desertion, but there is no folly.
And let the wise man fly;
The fool turns knave, that runs away;
The knave no fool, —
Lear. This act persuades me,
That this remotion of the Duke and her
Is practice only.
"Practice" is in Shakespeare, and other old writers, used commonly in an ill sense for "unlawful artifice."
Regan. You less know how to value her desert,
Than she to scant her duty.
The word "scant" is directly contrary to the sense intended. The quarto reads,
slack her duty,which is no better. May we not change it thus:
You less know how to value her desert,To "scan" may be to "measure" or "proportion." Yet our authour uses his negatives with such licentiousness, that it is hardly safe to make any alteration. — "Scant" may mean to "adapt," to "fit," to "proportion"; which sense seems still to be retained in the mechanical term "scantling."
Than she to scan her duty.
Lear. Do you but mark, how this becomes the house.
[Theobald found the phrase becomes the house unintelligible, and revised it to read becomes the use. Warburton defended "becomes the house," calling it a "most expressive phrase."]
With this "most expressive phrase" I believe no reader is satisfied. I suspect that it has been written originally,
Ask her forgiveness?"Becomes the house," and "becometh thus," might be easily confounded by readers so unskilful as the original printers.
Do you but mark how this becometh — thus.
Dear daughter, I confess, &c.
Lear. Look'd black upon me.
[Theobald emended black to blank. Warburton defended black, because a serpent turns black "when it swells with rage and venom."]
To "look black," may easily be explained to "look clowdy or gloomy." See Milton:
So frown'd the mighty combatants, that hell
Grew darker at their frown.
Lear. Thy tender hefted nature.
This word, though its general meaning be plain, I do not critically understand.
Lear. Those wicked creatures yet do look well-favour'd,
When others are more wicked.
[Warburton includes a long note, suggesting wrinkled instead of wicked in both lines, "which connection the word 'well-favour'd' might have led to."]
I have given this long note, because the editor seems to think his correction of great importance. I was unwilling to deny my reader any opportunity of conviction which I have had myself, and which perhaps may operate upon him, though it has been ineffectual to me, who, having read this elaborate and ostentatious remark, still think the old reading best. The commentator's only objection to the lines as they now stand, is the discrepancy of the metaphor, the want of opposition between "wicked" and "well-favoured." But he might have remembered what he says in his own preface concerning "mixed modes." Shakespeare, whose mind was more intent upon notions than words, had in his thoughts the pulchritude of virtue, and the deformity of wickedness; and though he had mentioned "wickedness" made the correlative answer to "deformity."
Gentleman. That things might change, or cease, tears his white hair.
The first folio ends the speech at "change, or cease," and begins again with Kent's question, "But who is with him?" The whole speech is forcible, but too long for the occasion, and properly retrenched.
Kent. There's division,
Although as yet the face of it is cover'd
With mutual cunning, 'twixt Albany and Cornwall,
Who have, (as who have not, whom their great stars
Throne and set high?) servants, who seem no less;
Which are to France the spies and speculations
Intelligent of our state. What hath been seen,
Either in snuffs and packings of the Dukes;
Or the hard rein, which both of them have borne
Against the old kind king; or something deeper,
Whereof, perchance, these are but furnishings.
[But true it is, from France there comes a power
Into this scatter'd kingdom; who already,
Wise in our negligence, have secret fee
In some of our best ports, and are at point
To shew their open banner. — Now to you]
[Theobald defended the italic lines as easy to understand; Pope considered the passage necessary. Warburton proposed scathed for scatter'd, and secret seize for secret sea, a corruption or emendation of fee in Q1.]
The true state of this speech cannot from all these notes be discovered. As it now stands it is collected from two editions: the lines which I have distinguished by italicks are found in the folio, not in the quarto; the following lines inclosed in crotchets are in the quarto, not in the folio. So that if the speech be read with omissions of the italicks, it will stand according to the first edition; and if the italicks are read, and the lines that follow them omitted, it will then stand according to the second. The speech is now tedious because it is formed by a coalition of both. The second edition is generally best, and was probably nearest to Shakespeare's last copy, but in this passage the first is preferable; for in the folio, the messenger is sent, he knows not why, he knows not whither. I suppose Shakespeare thought his plot opened rather too early, and made the alteration to veil the event from the audience; but trusting too much to himself, and full of a single purpose, he did not accommodate his new lines to the rest of the scene.
The learned critick's emendations are now to be examined. "Scattered" he has changed to "scathed"; for "scattered," he says, gives "the idea of an anarchy, which was not the case." It may be replied that "scathed" gives the idea of ruin, waste and desolation, "which was not the case." It is unworthy a lover of truth, in questions of great or little moment, to aggravate or extenuate for mere convenience, or for vanity yet less than convenience. "Scattered" naturally means "divided, unsettled, disunited."
Next is offered with great pomp a change of "sea" to "seize," but in the first edition the word is "fee," for "hire," in the sense of having any one in "fee," that is, "at devotion for money." "Fee" is in the second quarto changed to "see," from which one made "sea" and another "seize."
Kent. Man's nature cannot carry
Th' affliction, nor the fear.
So the folio, the later editions read, with the quarto, "force" for "fear," less elegantly.
Fool. "He that has an a little tyny wit,
With heigh ho, the wind and the rain;
Must make content with his fortunes fit,
Though the rain it raineth every day."
I fancy that the second line of this stanza had once a termination that rhymed with the fourth; but I can only fancy it; for both the copies agree. It was once perhaps written,
With heigh ho, the wind and the rain in his way.The meaning seems likewise to require this insertion. "He that has wit, however small, and finds wind and rain in his way, must content himself by thinking, that somewhere or other it raineth every day, and others are therefore suffering like himself." Yet I am afraid that all this is chimerical, for the burthen appears again in the song at the end of Twelfth Night, and seems to have been an arbitrary supplement, without any reference to the sense of the song.
Fool. I'll speak a prophecy ere I go.
[Pope, bothered by the irregular meter, proposed or e'er I go, but Warburton rejected it as ungrammatical, and noted that there are two prophecies; he therefore suggested or two e'er I go.]
The sagacity and acuteness of Dr. Warburton are very conspicuous in this note. He has disentangled the confusion of the passage, and I have inserted his emendation in the text. "Or e'er" is proved by Mr. Upton to be good English, but the controversy was not necessary, for "or" is not in the old copies.
Lear. In, boy, go first. [To the Fool.] You houseless poverty —
Nay, get thee in; I'll pray, and then I'll sleep —
These two lines were added in the authour's revision, and are only in the folio. They are very judiciously intended to represent that humility, or tenderness, or neglect of forms, which affliction forces on the mind.
Lear. Those pelican daughters.
The young pelican is fabled to suck the mother's blood.
Edgar. Says suum, mun, nonny, dolphin my boy, boy, Sessey: let him trot by.
Of this passage I can make nothing. I believe it corrupt: for wildness, not nonsense, is the effect of a disordered imagination. The quarto reads, "hay no on ny, Dolphins, my boy, cease, let him trot by." Of interpreting this there is not much hope or much need. But any thing may be tried. The madman, now counterfeiting a proud fit, supposes himself met on the road by some one that disputes the way, and cries "Hey! — No —" but altering his mind condescends to let him pass, and calls to his boy Dolphin (Rodolph) not to contend with him. "On — Dolphin, my boy, cease. Let him trot by."
Edgar. But mice, and rats, and such small deer.
Sir Thomas Hanmer reads "geer," and is followed by Dr. Warburton. But "deer" in old language is a general word for wild animals.
Edgar. "Child Rowland to the dark tower came."
This word is in some of our ballads. There is a song of "Child Walter, and a Lady."
Edgar. "Sleepest, or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm."
This seems to be a stanza of some pastoral song. A shepherd is desired to pipe, and the request is enforced by a promise, that though his sheep be in the corn, i.e. committing a trespass by his negligence, implied in the question, "Sleepest thou or wakest?" yet a single tune upon his pipe shall secure them from the pound.
Edgar. Sessey, come.
Here is "Sessey" again, which I take to be the French word cessez pronounced "cessey," which was, I suppose, like some others in common use among us. It is an interjection enforcing cessation of any action, like, "be quiet, have done." It seems to have been gradually corrupted into, "so, so."
Edgar. Poor Tom, thy horn is dry.
Men that begged under pretence of lunacy used formerly to carry a horn, and blow it through the streets.
Kent. Opprest Nature sleeps.
The lines inserted from the quarto are in italicks. The omission of them in the folio is certainly faulty: yet I believe the folio is printed from Shakespeare's last revision, carelessly and hastily performed, with more thought of shortening the scenes, than of continuing the action.
Edgar. Yet better thus, and known to be contemn'd
Than still contemn'd and flatter'd.
The meaning is, "'Tis better to be thus contemned, and known to yourself to be contemned." Or perhaps there is an errour, which may be rectified thus:
Yet better thus unknown to be contemn'd.When a man divests himself of his real character he feels no pain from contempt, because he supposes it incurred only by a voluntary disguise which he can throw off at pleasure. I do not think any correction necessary.
Edgar. Five fiends have been in poor Tom at once; of lust, as Obidicut; Hobbididen, prince of dumbness; Mahu, of stealing; Mohu, of murder; and Flibbertigibbet, of mopping and mowing; who since possesses chamber-maids and waiting-women.
The passage in italicks is omitted in the folio, because I suppose as the story was forgotten, the jest was lost.
Glo'ster. That slaves your ordinance.
[Warburton suggests braves in place of slaves.]
The emendation is plausible, yet I doubt whether it be right. The language of Shakespeare is very licentious, and his words have often meanings remote from the proper and original use. To "slave" or "beslave" another is to "treat" him "with terms of indignity"; in a kindred sense, to "slave the ordinance," may be, "to slight or ridicule it."
Albany. She that herself will sliver, and dis-branch,
From her maternal sap, perforce must wither.
[Warburton suggests material in place of maternal.]
I suppose no reader doubts but the word should be "maternal." Dr. Warburton has taken great pains without much success, and indeed without much exactness of attention, to prove that "material" has a more proper sense than "maternal," and yet seems glad at last to infer from an apparent errour of another press that "material" and "maternal" mean the same.
Albany. A man, a prince by him so benefited?
[Warburton: "After this line, I suspect a line or two to be wanting, which upbraids her for her sister's cruelty to Glo'ster. And my reason is, that in her answer we find these words,
Fools do these villains pity, who are punish'dwhich evidently allude to Glo'ster's case. Now I cannot conceive that she would here apologize for what was not objected to her. But I suppose the players thought the speech too long; which has occasion'd thro'out, and more particularly in this play, the retrenchment of numerous lines and speeches; many of which have been restored by the care and discernment of Mr. Pope."]
Ere they have done their mischief —
Here is a pompous note to support a conjecture apparently erroneous, and confuted by the next scene, in which the account is given for the first time to Albany of Glo'ster's sufferings.
Albany. Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.
Fishes are the only animals that are known to prey upon their own species.
[s.d.] Enter Kent, and a Gentleman.
This scene seems to have been left out only to shorten the play, and is necessary to continue the action. It is extant only in the quarto, being omitted in the first folio. I have therefore put it in italicks.
Kent. Made she no verbal question?
[Warburton: "Why, what kind of question could she make but verbal?" He emended question to quest, "from questus, complaint."]
I do not see the impropriety of "verbal question": such pleonasms are common. So we say, "my ears have heard, my eyes have beheld." Besides, where is the word "quest" to be found?
Regan. Let me unseal the letter. Steward. Madam, I had rather —
I know not well why Shakespeare gives the steward, who is a mere factor of wickedness, so much fidelity. He now refuses the letter, and afterwards, when he is dying, thinks only how it may be safely delivered.
[s.d.] The country, near Dover. Enter Glo'ster, and Edgar, as a peasant.
This scene and the stratagem by which Glo'ster is cured of his desperation, are wholly borrowed from Sidney's Arcadia.
Edgar. How fearful
And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low!
This description has been much admired since the time of Addison, who has remarked, with a poor attempt at pleasantry, that "he who can read it without being giddy has a very good head, or a very bad one." The description is certainly not mean, but I am far from thinking it wrought to the utmost excellence of poetry. He that looks from a precipice finds himself assailed by one great and dreadful image of irresistible destruction. But this overwhelming idea is dissipated and enfeebled from the instant that the mind can restore itself to the observation of particulars, and diffuse its attention to distinct objects. The enumeration of the choughs and crows, the samphire-man and the fishers, counteracts the great effect of the prospect, as it peoples the desert of intermediate vacuity, and stops the mind in the rapidity of its descent through emptiness and horrour.
Edgar. Ten masts at each make not the altitude,
Which thou hast perpendicularly fall'n.
[Pope emended at each to attacht. Theobald rejected the emendation; Warburton argued, "But Mr. Theobald restores again the old nonsense."]
Mr. Pope's conjecture may stand if the word which he uses were known in our authour's time, but I think it is of later introduction. We may say,
Ten masts on end —
Edgar. From the dread summit of this chalky bourn!
"Bourn" seems here to signify a "hill." Its common signification is a "brook." Milton in Comus uses "bosky bourn" in the same sense perhaps with Shakespeare. But in both authours it may mean only a "boundary."
Lear. This a good block!
I do not see how this "block" corresponds either with his foregoing or following train of thoughts. Madmen think not wholly at random. I would read thus "a good flock." "Flocks" are wooll moulded together. The sentence then follows properly:
It were a delicate stratagem to shoethat is, with "flocks" kneaded to a mass, a practice I believe sometimes used in former ages, for it is mentioned in Ariosto.
A troop of horse with felt; —
Fece nel cader strepito quantoIt is very common for madmen to catch an accidental hint, and strain it to the purpose predominant in their minds. Lear picks up a "flock," and immediately thinks to surprise his enemies by a troop of horse shod with "flocks" or "felt." Yet "block" may stand, if we suppose that the sight of a block put him in mind of mounting his horse.
Avesse avuto sotto i piedi il feltro.
Gentleman. The main descry
Stands on the hourly thought.
The "main" body is "expected" to be "descry'd" every hour. The expression is harsh.
Lear. And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies.
[Warburton suggests an interpretation in which the "spies" "watch" God's "motions."]
I rather take the other meaning. As if we were angels commissioned to survey and report the lives of men, and were consequently endowed with the power of prying into the original motives of action and the mysteries of conduct.
Edmund. At this time,
We sweat and bleed; the friend hath lost his friend;
And the best quarrels, in the heat, are curst
By those that feel their sharpness. —
The question of Cordelia, and her father,
Requires a fitter place.
This passage, well worthy of restoration, is omitted in the folio.
Edgar. Let's exchange charity.
Our authour by negligence gives his heathens the sentiments and practices of Christianity. In Hamlet there is the same solemn act of final reconciliation, but with exact propriety, for the personages are Christians.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet, &c.
The tragedy of Lear is deservedly celebrated among the dramas of Shakespeare. There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. There is no scene which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or conduct of the action, and scarce a line which does not conduce to the progress of the scene. So powerful is the current of the poet's imagination, that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irresistibly along.
On the seeming improbability of Lear's conduct it may be observed, that he is represented according to histories at that time vulgarly received as true. And perhaps if we turn our thoughts upon the barbarity and ignorance of the age to which this story is referred, it will appear not so unlikely as while we estimate Lear's manners by our own. Such preference of one daughter to another, or resignation of dominion on such conditions, would be yet credible, if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar. Shakespeare, indeed, by the mention of his earls and dukes, has given us the idea of times more civilised, and of life regulated by softer manners; and the truth is, that though he so nicely discriminates, and so minutely describes the characters of men, he commonly neglects and confounds the characters of ages, by mingling customs ancient and modern, English and foreign.
My learned friend Mr. Warton, who has in the Adventurer very minutely criticised this play, remarks, that the instances of cruelty are too savage and shocking, and that the intervention of Edmund destroys the simplicity of the story. These objections may, I think, be answered, by repeating, that the cruelty of the daughters is an historical fact, to which the poet has added little, having only drawn it into a series by dialogue and action. But I am not able to apologise with equal plausibility for the extrusion of Gloucester's eyes, which seems an act too horrid to be endured in dramatick exhibition, and such as must always compel the mind to relieve its distress by incredulity. Yet let it be remembered that our authour well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote.
The injury done by Edmund to the simplicity of the action is abundantly recompensed by the addition of variety, by the art with which he is made to co-operate with the chief design, and the opportunity which he gives the poet of combining perfidy with perfidy, and connecting the wicked son with the wicked daughters, to impress this important moral, that villany is never at a stop, that crimes lead to crimes, and at last terminate in ruin.
But though this moral be incidentally enforced, Shakespeare has suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of chronicles. Yet this conduct is justified by the Spectator, who blames Tate for giving Cordelia success and happiness in his alteration, and declares, that, in his opinion, "the tragedy has lost half its beauty." Dennis has remarked, whether justly or not, that, to secure the favourable reception of Cato, "the town was poisoned with much false and abominable criticism," and that endeavours had been used to discredit and decry poetical justice. A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.
In the present case the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
There is another controversy among the criticks concerning this play. It is disputed whether the predominant image in Lear's disordered mind be the loss of his kingdom or the cruelty of his daughters. Mr. Murphy, a very judicious critick, has evinced by induction of particular passages, that the cruelty of his daughters is the primary source of his distress, and that the loss of royalty affects him only as a secondary and subordinate evil; he observes with great justness, that Lear would move our compassion but little, did we not rather consider the injured father than the degraded king.
The story of this play, except the episode of Edmund, which is derived, I think, from Sidney, is taken originally from Geoffry of Monmouth, whom Hollingshead generally copied; but perhaps immediately from an old historical ballad, of which I shall insert the greater part. My reason for believing that the play was posteriour to the ballad rather than the ballad to the play, is, that the ballad has nothing of Shakespeare's nocturnal tempest, which is too striking to have been omitted, and that it follows the chronicle; it has the rudiments of the play, but none of its amplifications: it first hinted Lear's madness, but did not array it in circumstances. The writer of the ballad added something to the history, which is a proof that he would have added more, if more had occurred to his mind, and more must have occurred if he had seen Shakespeare. [Johnson includes "A lamentable Song of the Death of King Leir and His Three Daughters."]