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The story of this Tragedy has been told in many an ancient ballad, and other ingenious works; but Mr. Malone ¿poses, that Shakspeare is more indebted for his fable to "The true Chronicle History of King Lear and three Daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, bn to any other production.
Camden, in his Remains, gives the following account of an English King, which is also similar to the story of Leir, or Lear.
"Ina, King of the West Saxons, had three daughters, of whom, upon a time, he demanded, whether they did love him, and so would do during their lives, above all others? The two elder sware deeply they would; the youngest, but the wisest, told her father flatly, that albeit she did love, honour, and reverence him, and so would whilst she lived, as much as nature and daughterly duty at the uttermost could expect; yet she did think that one day it would come to pass, that she should affect another more fervently, meaning her husband, when she were married."
This relation, the Commentator imagines, may probably have been applied to King Lear; whom Geoffrey of Monmouth says, "Nobly governed his country for sixty years, and died about eight hundred years before the birth of Christ."
Notwithstanding the number of histories and books of fiction, that have promulgated this piteous tale of a monarch and his children, it remains a doubt
among the most learned on the subject, whether such an event, as here described, ever, in reality, occurred.
But, if it never did before the time of Shakspeare, certainly something very like it has taken place since. Lear is not represented much more affectionate to his daughters by Shakspeare, than James the Second is by Hume. James's daughters were, besides, under more than ordinary obligations to their king and father, for the tenderness he had evinced towards their mother, in raising her from an humble station to the elevation of his own; and thus preserving these two princesses from the probable disgrace of illegitimate birth.
Even to such persons as hold it was right to drive King James from the throne, it must be a subject of lamentation, that his beloved children were the chief instruments of those concerned. When the King was informed that his eldest daughter, Mary, was landed, and proceeding to the metropolis, in order to dethrone him, he called, as the historian relates, for the Princess Anne-and called for her by the tender description of his "dear, his only remaining daughter." On the information given to his Majesty in return, that "she had forsook the palace, to join her sister," the king wept and tore his hair.
Lear, exposed on a bleak heath, suffered not more than James, at one of our sea-ports, trying to escape to France. King Lear was only pelted by a storm, King James by his merciless subjects.
Not one of Shakspeare's plays more violently agitates the passions than this Tragedy; parents and
children are alike interested in every character, and instructed by each. There is, nevertheless, too much of ancient cruelty in many of the events. An audience finds horror prevail over compassion, on Gloster's loss of his eyes: and though Dr. Johnson has vindicated this frightful incident, by saying, “Shakspeare well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote;" yet this argument is no apology for the correctors of Shakspeare, who have altered the Drama to gratify spectators more refined, and yet have not expunged this savage and improbable act.
The nice distinction which the author has made between the real and the counterfeit madman in this tragedy, is a part of the work particularly admired by the experienced observers of that fatal disorder; and to sum up the whole worth of the production, the reader may now say of it, with some degree of qualification, what Tate said before he had employed much time and taste on the alteration: "It is a heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolished, yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceived I had seized a treasure."
It is curious and consolatory for a minor critic to observe, how the great commentators on Shakspeare differ in their opinions.
Tate alters the Play of King Lear, and instead of suffering the good Cordelia to die of grief, as Shak. speare had done, he rewards her with life, love, and a throne. Addison, in his Spectator, condemns him for this; Dr. Johnson commends him for it;