John Robert Seeley.

Three essays on Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear online

. (page 1 of 9)
Online LibraryJohn Robert SeeleyThree essays on Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear → online text (page 1 of 9)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook












THE following Essays, by Pupils of the City of London
School, are selected from a number of similar compo-
sitions for which the first award of Prizes was made,
(in April, 1851,) under an Endowment established by
for encouraging in the School a study of the Works ol





A Parallel between Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Lear
and the CEdipus in Colono of Sophocles ; stating the
general design of each Play, and contrasting the Cha-
racters introduced, in their points of similarity and
dissimilarity , 1


On the Character of the Religious Belief and Feeling which
pervade the Tragedy of King Lear. Illustrated by short
quotations 53


On the Tragedy of King Lear; quoting and illustrating
such passages as allude to the Usages of the Times in
which Shakespeare lived 95



I CONCEIVE that in the subject proposed, the
comparison is not so much between two poets as
between two systems. Had .ZEschylus been put
in opposition to Sophocles, it would have been
for us to have decided, as those judges would have
done who, in ancient times at the feast of Bacchus,
weighed the merits of the contending bards, and ad-
judged the ivy-wreath. Or had Webster's Duchess
of Amalfi been brought into comparison with King
Lear, the question would still have been one of
individual merit. But when a poem composed
by the military compeer of Pericles for the applause
of a generation which had seen that mighty states-
man on the bema* and followed him to the field
a poem preserved in mouldy manuscripts during
eighteen centuries, and rescued from an oblivion
deep as the grave, at a period when the British
stage was but beginning its career, is compared
with a drama of the Elizabethan age, which has
never been absent from the theatre, and which
time has not yet antiquated, the question becomes

* The orator's platform.

immeasurably wider. We are no longer comparing
Shakespeare with Sophocles, but modern art with
ancient, Britain with Attica, Christianity with
Paganism. Is there, then, no difference of design,
of principle, of dramatic art, concealed under the
superficial coincidence of a dialogical form, and
a so-called tragical conclusion ? Many such dif-
ferences undoubtedly there are, and that not merely
in the detail or the unimportant machinery of the
plot, or in the trifling discrepancies of metre and
diction, but in the moral of the piece, in the
conception of character, in the degree of imitation
of life, in fact, in every point of moment wherein
any difference could rationally be conceived to
exist. And yet the Greek drama and our own
are not altogether heterogeneous creations. The
points of divergence are neither capricious nor
unaccountable, nor is it difficult to discern a law
in them; where there is not identity there is
commonly analogy. These analogies and dissimi-
larities could scarcely be better traced and illustrated
than by a parallel between two pieces, both highly
characteristic of the school which shaped and of the
genius which gave them birth, and both acknow-
ledged masterpieces of their kind the (Edipus at
Colonus and King Lear. To accomplish this, then,
I consider the principal object of this Essay.

We are accustomed to call these two poems
tragic dramas. Both words are Greek, and both
words properly convey ideas indigenous to Greece.

They are of that class which an undiscerning
reverence for the antique has made of universal
use. It is of importance that their significations
should be rightly ascertained. A drama in its
simplest and most comprehensive meaning signifies
a fact, not a fact narrated, but re-called, re-enacted.
And the addition of the qualifying tragic superadds
an idea of religion, and a reference to a divine
purpose fulfilled and discerned in the fact re-
presented. The (Edipus Coloneus, therefore, as
a drama of the Attic system, is the representation
of an incident wherein the sequence of cause and
effect, as designed and directed by Divine Wisdom,
is revealed and distinctly marked. For tragedy
among the Greeks was, from first to last, a religious
institution. The populace assembled to behold
it, not as a pastime, but as a solemn rite and
mystery belonging to their Bacchic festival. And
when the rude hymn of the periods antecedent to
Thespis became matured, in the fulness of time,
into that superb combination of the lyric and
the dramatic, wherein the heterogeneous elements
were arranged and united into a musical contrast
by the poet's inspiration, no change passed over
the sacred and solemn nature of the institution.
The rights of religion in it were inalienable; and
though the direct worship of Bacchus was merged
in a more comprehensive spirit of devotion, which
addressed the whole number of the immortals, yet
that spirit of devotion lost none of its fervency.


and only declined with the drama itself. It was
its Helicon.

Similar in origin, although widely different in
its subsequent history, was the British drama.
Invented by priests, and made subservient in the
first instance to the interests of religion, it resembled,
though in humbler guise and on a less ambitious
scale, the pantomimic representations of the principal
events of the Evangelical history, still annually
exhibited at Rome during the festival of the Holy
Week. But the same great event which decided
the political destinies of Great Britain, determined
also the course of her dramatic history. The
founders of our national theatre, after the accession
of Queen Elizabeth, dropped the religious character
of the drama, and leaving holy things to a more
appropriate sphere, established other principles and
a new basis of dramatic art. The Greeks had
made their tragic Muse a priestess of religion ;
the English taught her to minister to their thirst
for recreation and love of pastime. The former
attracted auditors as suppliants to a shrine, by
addressing their respect for religion and their
affection for their national deities, and fascinated
them by gratifying their love of moral beauty and
grace; the latter addressed that fellow-feeling for
and sympathy with human nature in the extremity
of misfortune and peril, which leads us to hold
our breath with a painful interest, while the tale
goes round the Christmas fire, of murders com-

mitted in the silent night, and of the ghost that
scares those who walk the churchyard after dark.
The former only is the Tragic Drama, the latter
is the Romance.

Yet, although not essentially, the romance is
often accidentally tragic. For if the principle of
tragedy consist, as we have said, in ideas of religion
and of Providence, that principle must almost of
necessity enter into any drama in which the
catastrophe is either terrible or mournful. Death
and the grave are among the most strongly sug-
gestive objects of solemn and religious sentiments
that we can conceive. And dreadful or serious
incident of this kind is almost indispensable to a
production whose principal object is to enchain the
sympathies and to fascinate the audience.

The QEdipus Coloneus is essentially a tragic
drama. It is the punishment of unnatural sin by
supernatural means. If the subject were simply the
death of the hero, it would not at once follow that
the piece would be a tragedy. But it is a death by
the judgment of God, and a judgment mysteriously
foretold by the oracle of Apollo, and more mysteri-
ously executed by the agency of the Erinyes.* It has
throughout the fearful majesty of a stern religion.

King Lear is accidentally a tragic drama. There
is no manifestation of Providence in the death of the
sovereign or of his heroic daughter. But the de-
struction of the three criminals, terribly struck down

* The Furies or destroying Angels of Greek mythology.


in the successful climax of their iniquity, is acknow-
ledged, and represented by the poet, as a dispensation
of vengeance. Their death is accomplished, not in-
deed by miraculous suspension, but by all-wise direc-
tion of natural laws. The poet's commentary is :

" The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to scourge us."

Yet this tremendous incident is not interwoven
with the design of the play, nor in any way essential
to it. It is rather a point of detail, an unintentional
coincidence with the primary law of the Greek

It is then, I hope, obvious that King Lear is not
in the strict (i.e., the Greek) sense of the word, a
tragedy, although some scenes may accidentally
possess a tragic tendency. Upon this principle,
then, I intend to proceed ; viz., that while the poem
of the Greek tragedian is a sacrifice to piety and
religious feeling, that of Shakespeare can be con-
sidered only as a story told for effect and interest ;
a study of human nature in extreme anguish and
distortion, demanding and extorting a sympathetic
impression of pity and terror from all who bear the
image or partake the feelings of humanity.

To establish this fundamental proposition was
the single object of this introductory chapter. I
believe that I shall find it a convenient centre from
which to deduce all that I have thought and read
upon the proposed subject of the Essay. I purpose
now to add a full account of both the plays which

we are discussing, in my next two chapters. A
fourth chapter will wind up the subject, with a full
exposition of such similarities or discrepancies as
may be observed in the general design, and in the
characters introduced.


FORTUNATELY for our purpose, the story of
CEdipus and that of Lear, in their historical, or
rather unhistorical, character are very similiar. Both
belong to that extensive and pre-eminently poetical
class of tales, which, springing up in the earlier ages
of national prosperity, are preserved, no one knows
how, until they are incorporated without question in
the annals of the country.

These romantic and many of them beautiful
legends may delight the reader by their individual
grace, but they will at the same time offend his eye
by the false perspective of their relative position.
Stretching back into the most remote periods, they
notwithstanding bring us into such proximity with,
and familiar knowledge of, the most primitive peo-
ples as contemporary history can rarely attain to.
The same roving fancy produced them which created
those strange tales of father Jove, his multitu-
dinous amours and his conjugal quarrels. They
have long lost credit with the historical, though they


continue to delight the poetical, reader. The old
British lays, preserved as they have been by the
tedious old proser, Geoffrey, though immeasurably
inferior to the stately epics of the Greek bards, and
many of them extremely dull, are not without re-
deeming strokes of a more fertile genius; and the
legends of Arthur, Merlin, Sabrina, Cymbeline, and
Lear, have furnished some of our leading poets with
occasional themes.

It is impossible at this distance of time, and in
the absence of the earlier poems (those of Pisander
and Stesichorus) in which was contained the (Edipo-
dean mythus, to decide how much Sophocles found,
and how much he invented. The tale in its original
form may in all probability have been something
like the following.

In the days when the states of Greece were under
the rule of despotic sovereigns, the line of Labdacus
reigned over Thebes, and Labdacus was the father
of Laius.

Now, the crimes* of Laius had displeased the
gods, so that when he besought the Delphic god
that he might beget children, Apollo laid a curse
upon him, saying, that from the hand of his offspring
he should meet his death. So when the child was
born, Laius commanded that he should be exposed
on Mount Cithaeron ; but the god watched over the

c yap

Ztvg Kpovicijg HtXoTrog aTvyepdlc apaion Trtdrj
nv tyi\ov ripTratrae vioV Xp/o-yuoc SoOtiQ Aaiy

fulfilment of his predictions. A shepherd found the
young (Edipus and carried him to Corinth to King
Polybus, and he was brought up at Corinth as
the king's son. When he was grown up, being
informed by chance of the mystery which hung over
his birth, he inquired at Delphi. Then the god re-
vealed to him the decree of the fates, that his father
should fall by his hand, and further, that he should
be united in unnatural wedlock with his mother.
So the affrighted youth returned no more to Corinth,
and being led by destiny, took the way to Thebes.
And meeting, in a place where three ways met, the
Theban king his father, with his train of attendants,
and being wantonly attacked by them, he ^was
roused to anger and slew the whole company. On
his arrival at Thebes he found the city of Cadmus
oppressed by a portentous evil; for the Sphinx,
an unnatural and blood-thirsty monster, having the
head of a woman, combined with the body and
savage nature of a brute beast, haunted the country
and destroyed many people. But in those days,
ere yet the kingly office was disgraced by tyranny
or degraded by unworthiness, a royal nature was
not concealed by rags nor lost its superiority when
it lost its power. The kingly wisdom of CEdipus
vanquished and destroyed the Sphinx, and adding
the right of merit to that of descent, he assumed
again with superior glory the alienated sceptre
of his ancestors. The unwitting parricide receives
now with the same unconsciousness the hand of


his widowed mother. But the vengeance of the
gods tarries not. Withered by the visitation of pes-
tilence, the Theban state is commanded by Apollo
to make inquisition for the blood of their former
sovereign. The shepherds of Mount Cithseron
give conclusive evidence, and the dreadful deeds
of (Edipus are brought to light. The miserable
queen, thus awakened from her deceitful dream of
prosperity, dies by her own hand; and the king
himself, after lingering through his remaining years
under the torments of the Erinyes, is yet found
worthy to fall in battle,* and is buried with funeral
honours in the temple of Ceres at Eteon. j*

TJiis is the original mythus, to which Homer, in
the single mention which he makes of the name of
(Edipus, bears indirect testimony. But a younger
legend, and one perhaps of Attic origin, recom-
mended itself as possessing many advantages to an

* "

ig To.(j)ov

II. if/. 679.

j- Lysimachus, quoted by the Scholiast, gives the following de-
tailed account of his funeral : OI&'TTOV e rfXeurr/o-avroj; KCU
t&v (f)i\(t>v iv &fi(3aig 6cnrTtv avrov diavoovfjilvwv /caXvov oi
0/7/3a7oi ta rag Trpoyfyevij/itVag ^vp^opag ae ovrog acreflovg.
Qi $ KopiffCLvrtg avrbv eg nva TOTTOV rrjg IBotiariag KaXovfJiEvov
Keov e'Scupav avrov. Fty^o/itvwv Ze rulg iv rrj Kwfjiri KCITOIKOIHTIV
arv^/uarwv TIV&V OLr\QivTQ alriav el^ai rr\v Ot&Vov ra0ryv
EKtXevov rovg <f)i\ovc avaipziv CLVTOV K rijg \wpag. Qi oe airopov-
fj,vot Tolg Zvfjifiaivovffiv aviXovreg KOfj.iffay elg Erew^ov.
BovAojueyot $e \aOpa ra^v Troirjaaadat KaradaTTTOVcri rvKrog iv
upw ArmrjTpog ayvoi}aavftQ rov TOTTOV. Karcujtavovg yiyvo-
p.vov Tre/i^avrcc ot TOV Erewyov KarotKovvrfg rov QOV iTnjpdtTwv
ri iroi&ffiv. 'O $ Otbg UTTEV p.rj Kivtlv TOV IKTTJV Ttjg BLOV.


Athenian dramatist. In this version, the unhappy

son of the unhappy Laius, self-banished and blinded
by his own desperate hand, is said to have wandered
into Attica, attended only by his daughter Antigone,
and to have expired in some unknown manner in the
vicinity of Athens, leaving to the issue of his unhal-
lowed marriage, an awful legacy of quarrels and
mutual slaughter, and an overflowing measure of that
curse, which had gone forth beyond recall against
the haughty, but ill-fated house of the Labdacidae.

This legend, I have said, would probably be pre-
ferred by Sophocles as an Athenian dramatist, as
an Athenian, because it furnished material for a dis-
play, highly acceptable, of course, to an Athenian
audience, of national sentiment; as a dramatist,
because in it the idea of a Providence, rewarding
and retributive, is more impressively developed. For,
besides the strictly poetical character of the (Edipus
at Colonus, it has patriotic, political, and private
aspects highly various and remarkable. But of
these I shall have occasion hereafter to speak.

Our poet probably found no more than the vague
tradition which connected the fate of (Edipus in
some undefined manner with Athens, and conse-
quently with Theseus; the detail and embellish-
ment of the story we may suppose to have been his
own. Hippius Colonus, a little deme* to the north-
west of the city of Athens, naturally suggested itself
as the first resting-place to the journey er from

* The population of Attica was scattered through upwards of
170 demes or hamlets.


Thebes, after his arrival in the city ; and the mys-
terious manner of the ex-king's death, unrelated by
tradition, was the foundation of the closing-scene, in
which the poet supposes CEdipus to be removed
from the society of mortals by the personal inter-
ference of the Avengers. All that lies between
is merely the necessary working of machinery pre-
viously set in motion in the CEdipus Rex. So
little of this drama is founded upon tradition, and so
meagre the pre-existing foundation upon which
it was reared !

/ To the north-west of Athens, as we have said,
and at the distance of ten stadia, is the deme of
Colonus, adorned with an equestrian statue of its
hero-guardian. There are altars and statues of
Neptune and Minerva ; and there too is the sacred
grove of the Furies, by men uninhabited and un-
trodden, where the vine, the olive, and the laurel
flourish, and the song of the nightingale is heard
continually. Hither comes the fallen monarch, a
man self-banished and long a wanderer ; the young
Antigone supports his steps, protecting (frail guar-
dian !) his eyeless old age. They bring with them
words of hope from the gods, and oracles promising
a term of labours ; and even now, though they know
it not, a present destiny is leading them onwards
towards the completion of its decrees. Wearied, the
old man seeks a resting-place within the precincts of
the hallowed grove, resigning himself, like a victim
on the altar, to the sacrificial knife. In a brief
dialogue with a passer-by, he informs himself of the


name of that stately city whose marble fanes and
gilded turrets are rising into the sky at some dis-
tance; is told of the opulence and growing fortune
of the Attic metropolis, then reposing in glorious
tranquillity beneath the benignant sceptre of The-
seus; is warned of his unlawful desecration of the
grove, and being informed of the name by which the
goddesses, who inhabited it, were known among the
people of Attica, recognises therein the fulfilment of
an oracle, and breaking forth into passionate suppli-
cation, refuses to quit the seat to which he has un-
consciously been led. The stranger departs to call
in the aid of his fellow-citizens, and then enter the
chorus in an ecstacy of lyrical frenzy. An agitating
dialogue ensues, in which the name and fortunes of
the unhappy intruder, but too well known through-
out Greece, are revealed, a communication which
is received at first with religious horror, and then
with emotions of pity, by the Athenian citizens,
humane as well as pious. Ismene, his other
daughter, now enters, bringing new responses from
the Delphic god, in which the body of QEdipus is
mysteriously connected with the fortune of states,
and reporting the near arrival of Creon, reigning
king of Thebes, with the purpose of reconducting
him to that land which is to be blessed by his pre-
sence. The chorus regard with silent sympathy
the affectionate meeting of parent and child, and,
attentive to the dictates of religion, counsel a peace-
offering to the venerable sisters, a libation of water
and honey from the fleece-crowned goblet. Ismene


departs upon this errand. Now enters Theseus.
We may conceive with what rapturous applause an
Athenian audience would greet this genuine emblem
of the majesty of their city in that her cloudless day.
He receives his illustrious visitor with compassion-
ate respect, and departs, having with prompt gene-
rosity extended to him the pledge of his protection.

The action here pauses, and the choral ode mounts.
In that sublime strain, by the reading of which
Sophocles is said to have confounded the accusers
who slandered him for a dotard, they sing thy praise,
O sunny plain of Colonus, flower-enamelled, watered
by fair streams, fertile of vine and olive, blessed by
the favour of sage Pallas and of Morian Jove ; thence
extending their theme as the exulting spirit swells
within them, they recount the glories of the Athe-
nian state, gifted by earth-shaking Neptune with
the prancing steed and with the many-oared galley.
(We must remember that Colonus was sacred to
Neptune.) At the close of the strain Creon enters,
having previously seized Ismene while sacrificing
unattended to the Erinyes. After an angry dialogue,
he carries off Antigone by force, and threatens GEdi-
pus himself. But the turmoil of the conflict reaches
Theseus at the altar of Poseidon, and brings him to
the succour. Creon is arrested, and the city is
roused to the rescue of the kidnapped maidens.
The chorus raises a martial strain, predictive of
victory ; and the reappearance at its close of Theseus
in company with the princesses verifies their con-
fident anticipations. But CEdipus is not yet free


from quarrels, nor spent with cursing ; his son
Polynices, now entering, receives in abundant mea-
sure the paternal malediction for his criminal ingra-
titude, and departs to receive its fulfilment in civil
war and from a brother's hand.

It is evident that this whole succession of scenes
is aimless and useless to the ends of the drama,
except indeed to develop the characters of the dra-
matis personae, as well as for another object which
will be explained hereafter. But now a thunder-
peal, sent not without significance from the celestial
powers, announces the winding up of the mystery.
The hero recognises the signal, and calls for Theseus.
Meanwhile the storm increases, and prostrates the
soul of the chorus with a pious awe. They pour forth
their prayers with incoherent vehemence to the
father of gods. Theseus enters, and to him CEdipus
gives his dying directions concerning the place of
his burial, and enjoins inviolable secrecy respecting
it; prophecies the unfading prosperity of Athens
while the secret of his resting-place should be pre-
served sacredly in the line of kings; and finally
breaks out into solemn appeals to the goddess of the
shades. The two kings leave the stage together.

Then follows a supplicatory ode, and a messenger
enters with tidings of the mysterious removal of the
wanderer from the eyes of men; he recounts in
detail the solemn pomp and circumstance attending
his last moments. The wailings of the bereaved
daughters conclude the drama.


Sophocles died about 405 B.C., at a period when
the loss of the Sicilian armament and the renewed
activity of the Peloponnesian commanders had re-
duced the daring enterprise of the Athenian demo-
cracy to a convulsive struggling to retain that liberty
which seemed about to slip from its grasp. Then
it was that those petty states, which had bowed their
heads in abject terror before the sweep of her fierce
anger, started up around her in the day of her adver-
sity, eager for revenge and bloodshed. Foremost in
the attack and loudest in the bark was Thebes. It
is not surprising, therefore, that the patriotic bard,
whose name was known and respected all over Greece,
should in this, his latest work, have taken advantage
of the story of GEdipus to deter the descendants of
Cadmus from an impious hostility against the land
protected by the bones and the manes of the Theban
QEdipus. From the same source sprang, no doubt,
that fierce spirit of enmity against the hostile metro-
polis of Bceotia, which is perpetually flashing and
blazing in the GEdipus Coloneus; hence came the
mission and defeat of Creon, hence the ascribed
virtue in the tomb of CEdipus, which Sophocles,
presuming probably on the prophetical powers sup-
posed to form a part of the poetical faculty, has
ventured to tack on to the original myth. The
prophecy was not inspired, but the poet did not live

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Online LibraryJohn Robert SeeleyThree essays on Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear → online text (page 1 of 9)