William Shakespeare (15641616). The Tragedy of King Lear. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
KING LEAR is, in its picture of the tragic effect of human weakness and human cruelty, the most overpowering of the works of Shakespeare. It was written about 1605, in the middle of that period of his activity when he was interested, for whatever reason, in portraying the suffering and disaster that are entailed by defects of character, and the terrible cost at which such defects are purged away; and not even Hamlet displays these things so irresistibly.
The germ of the story is found in the folk-lore of many ages and countries. Attached to the name of Lear, the legend assumed pseudo-historical form with Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, was handed down through the long line of Latin and English chroniclers, appeared in collections of tales, found a place in Spensers Faerie Queene, and was dramatized by an anonymous playwright about ten years before the date of Shakespeares drama. To Shakespeare himself is due the tragic catastrophe which takes the place of the traditional fortunate ending, according to which the French forces were victorious, and Lear was restored to his kingdom. He first makes Lear go mad; invents the banishment of Kent and his subsequent disguise; creates the Fool; and, finally, connects with Lear the whole story of Gloucester and his sons.
This skilfully interwoven underplot is taken from Sidneys Arcadia, in which a story is told of a king turned against his legitimate son by the slanders of his bastard. The pretended madness of Edgar, and the love of the wicked daughters for Edmund are inventions of Shakespeares.
But these details are not the only means by which the improbable legend is converted into the most tremendous of tragedies. This is done chiefly by the intensity with which the characters are conceived: the imperiousness and intellectual grasp of Lear, the force and subtlety of Edmund, the venom of the wicked daughters, the tenderness of Cordelia, the impassioned loyalty of Kent, the unselfishness of Edgar, and the poignant candor of the faithful Fool.