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It is a chance that does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
O my good master!
Lear. Pr'ythee, away.
What is 't thou say'st?-Her voice was ever soft,
Off. 'Tis true, my lords, he did.
Lear. Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting faulchion
bona, 1612: "Fetch a looking glass, see if his breath will not stain it; or pull some feathers from my pillow, and lay them to his lips." Steevens.
A common experiment of applying a light feather to the lips of a person supposed to be dead, to see whether he breathes. There is the same thought in King Henry IV, P. II, Act IV, sc. iv:
By his gates of breath
"There lies a downy feather, which stirs not."
And to express a total stillness in the air, in Donne's poem called The Calm, there is the like sentiment; which Johnson, in his conversation with Drummond of Hawthornden, highly commended:
in one place lay
"Feathers and dust, to-day and yesterday." Whalley.
3 — murderers, traitors all!] Thus the folio. The quartos read -murderous traitors all. Malone.
4 I have seen the day, with my good biting faulchion
I would have made them ship:] It is difficult for an author who never peruses his first works, to avoid repeating some of the same thoughts in his latter productions. What Lear has just said, had been anticipated by Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor: "I have seen the time with my long sword I would have made your four tall fellows skip like rats." It is again repeated in Othello:
66 I have seen the day
"That with this little arm and this good sword
"I have made my way," &c.
5 If fortune brag of two she lov'd and hated,
One of them we behold.] I suppose by the two whom fortune once
Lear. This is a dull sight: Are you not Kent? Kent. The same; Your servant Kent: Where is your servant Caius ? Lear. He's a good fellow, I can tell you that; He'll strike, and quickly too:—He's dead and rotten. Kent. No, my good lord; I am the very man ; Lear. I'll see that straight.
Kent. That, from your first of difference and decay, Have follow'd your sad steps.
Kent. Nor no man else;
You are welcome hither. all 's cheerless, dark, and
Your eldest daughters have fore-doom'd themselves,
Ay, so I think.
Alb. He knows not what he says;1 and vain it is
loved, and then hated, Kent means, Lear and himself; and that each of them, looking on the other, saw a rare instance of her caprice. He may, however, be only thinking of Lear, the object of her hate.
This is the reading of the folio. The quartos read—lov'd or hated; and they may be right, if the interpretation last given be the true one. Malone.
The meaning of this passage appears to me to be this: If Fortune, to display the plenitude of her power, should brag of two persons, one of whom she had highly elevated, and the other she had wofully depressed, we now behold the latter. The quarto reads-She lov'd or hated, which seems to confirm this explanation; but either reading will express the same sense. M. Mason.
6 This is a dull sight:] This passage is wanting in the quartos. So, in Macbeth:
"This is a sorry sight." Steevens.
of difference and decay,] Decay for misfortunes. Warburton. The quartos read:
That from your life of difference and decay. Steevens.
• Nor no man else;] Kent means, I welcome! No, nor no man else. Malone.
fore-doom'd themselves,] Thus the quartos. The folio reads
Have fore-doom'd themselves is—have anticipated their own doom. To fordo is to destroy. So, in Taylor, the water-poet's character of a strumpet:
"So desperately had ne'er fordone themselves." Again, in A Warning for faire Women, &c. 1599: "Speak who has done this deed? thou hast not fordone thyself, hast thou??
See Vol. II, p. 375, n. 6. Malone.
That we present us to him.
Enter an Officer.
Off. Edmund is dead, my lord.
That's but a trifle here.
To him our absolute power :-You, to your rights;
[To EDG. and Kent. With boot, and such addition as your honours
Have more than merited.3-All friends shall taste
The cup of their deservings.-O, see, see!
Lear. And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life:
he says;] The quartos read-he sees, which may be right.
2 What comfort to this great decay may come,] This great decay is Lear, whom Shakspeare poetically calls so, and means the same as if he had said, this piece of decay'd royalty, this ruin'd majesty. Steevens. A preceding passage in which Gloster laments Lear's frenzy, fully supports Mr. Steevens's interpretation:
"O ruin'd piece of nature! This great world
"Shall so wear out to nought."
Again, in Julius Cæsar:
"Thou art the ruins of the noblest man," &c. Malone.
You, to your rights;
With boot, and such addition as your honours
Have more than merited.] These lines are addressed to Kent as well as to Edgar, else the word honours would not have been in the plural number. By honours is meant honourable conduct. M. Mason. With boot,] With advantage, with increase. Johnson.
And my poor fool is hang'd!] This is an expression of tenderness for his dead Cordelia (not his fool, as some have thought,) on whose lips he is still intent, and dies away while he is searching there for indications of life.
Poor fool, in the age of Shakspeare, was an expression of endear ment. Só, in his Antony and Cleopatra:
poor venomous fool,
"Be angry and despatch."
Again, in King Henry VI, P. III:
"So many weeks ere the poor fools will yean."
Again, in Romeo and Juliet:
"And, preity fool, it stinted and said-ay."
Again, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where Julia is speaking
of her lover Proteus:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
"Alas, poor fool! why do I pity him?"
I may add, that the Fool of Lear was long ago forgotten. Having filled the space allotted him in the arrangement of the play, he appears to have been silently withdrawn in the 6th scene of the third Act. That the thoughts of a father, in the bitterest of all moments, while his favourite child lay dead in his arms, should recur to the antick who had formerly diverted him, has somewhat in it that I cannot reconcile to the idea of genuine sorrow and despair.
Besides this, Cordelia was recently hanged; but we know not that the Fool had suffered in the same manner, nor can imagine why he should. The party adverse to Lear was little interested in the fate of his jester. The only use of him was to contrast and alleviate the sorrows of his master; and, that purpose being fully answered, the poet's solicitude about him was at an end.
The term-poor fool might indeed have misbecome the mouth of a vassal commiserating the untimely end of a princess, but has no impropriety when used by a weak, old, distracted king, in whose mind the distinctions of nature only survive, while he is uttering his last frantick exclamations over a murdered daughter.
Should the foregoing remark, however, be thought erroneous, the reader will forgive it, as it serves to introduce some contradictory observations from a critick, in whose taste and judgment too much confidence cannot easily be placed. Steevens.
I confess, I am one of those who have thought that Lear means his Fool, and not Cordelia. If he means Cordelia, then what I have always considered as a beauty, is of the same kind as the accidental stroke of the pencil that produced the foam.-Lear's affectionate remembrance of the Fool in this place, I used to think, was one of those strokes of genius, or of nature, which are so often found in Shakspeare, and in him only.
Lear appears to have a particular affection for this Fool, whose fidelity in attending him, and endeavouring to divert him in his distress, seems to deserve all his kindness.
Poor fool and knave, says he, in the midst of the thunder storm, have one part in my heart that's sorry yet for thee.
It does not, therefore, appear to me, to be allowing too much consequence to the Fool, in making Lear bestow a thought on him, even when in still greater distress. Lear is represented as a good-natured, passionate, and rather weak old man; it is the old age of a cockered spoilt boy. There is no impropriety in giving to such a character those tender domestick affections, which would ill become a more heroick character, such as Othello, Macbeth, or Richard III.
The words-No, no, no life; I suppose to be spoken, not tenderly, but with passion: Let nothing now live;-let there be universal destruction;-Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?
It may be observed, that as there was a necessity, the necessity of propriety at least, that this Fool the favourite of the author, of Lear, and consequently of the audience, should not be lost or forgot, it
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
ought to be known what became of him.-However, it must be acknowledged, that we cannot infer much from thence; Shakspeare is not always attentive to finish the figures of his groups.
I have only to add, that if an actor, by adopting the interpretation mentioned above, of applying the words poor fool to Cordelia, the audience would, I should imagine, think it a strange mode of expressing the grief and affection of a father for his dead daughter, and that daughter a queen. The words poor fool, are undoubtedly expressive of endearment; and Shakspeare himself, in another place speaking of a dying animal, calls it poor dappled fool: but it never is, nor never can be, used with any degree of propriety, but to commiserate some very inferior object, which may be loved, without much esteem or respect. Sir J. Reynolds.
It is not without some reluctance that I express my dissent from the friend whose name is subscribed to the preceding note; whose observations on all subjects of criticism and taste are so ingenious and just, that posterity may be at a loss to determine, whether his consummate skill and execution in his own art, or his judgment on that and other kindred arts, were superior. But magis amica veritas should be the motto of every editor of Shakspeare; in conformity to which I must add, that I have not the smallest doubt that Mr. Steevens's interpretation of these words is the true one. The passage indeed before us appears to me so clear, and so inapplicable to any person but Cordelia, that I fear the reader may think any further comment on it altogether superfluous.
It is observable that Lear from the time of his entrance in this scene to his uttering these words, and from thence to his death, is wholly occupied by the loss of his daughter. He is diverted indeed from it for a moment by the intrusion of Kent, who forces himself on his notice; but he instantly returns to his beloved Cordelia, over whose dead body he continues to hang. He is now himself in the agony of death; and surely, at such a time, when his heart is just breaking, it would be highly unnatural that he should think of his Fool. But the great and decisive objection to such a supposition is that which Mr. Steevens has mentioned-that Lear has just seen his daughter hanged, having unfortunately been admitted too late to preserve her life, though time enough to punish the perpetrator of the act: but we have no authority whatsoever for supposing his Fool hanged also.
Whether the expression-poor fool-can be applied with propriety only to inferior objects, for whom we have not much respect or esteem, is not, I conceive, the question. Shakspeare does not always use his terms with strict propriety, but he is always the best commentator on himself, and he certainly has applied this term in another place to the young, the beautiful, and innocent, Adonis, the object of somewhat more than the esteem of a goddess:
"For pity now she can no more detain him;
Again, though less appositely, in Twelfth Night: