King Lear (Arden Shakespeare: Third Series).pdf
beyond doubt, i think, some such feelings as these possess us, and, if we follow shakespeare, ought to possess us, from time to time as we read king lear. and some readers will go further and maintain that this is also the ultimate and total impression left by the tragedy. king lear has been held to be profoundly ‘pessimistic’ in the full meaning of that word,the record of a time when contempt and loathing for his kind had overmastered the poet’s soul, and in despair he pronounced man’s life to be simply hateful and hideous. and if we exclude the biographical part of this view,  the rest may claim some support even from the greatest of shakespearean critics since the days of coleridge, hazlitt and lamb. mr. swinburne, after observing that king lear is ‘by far the most aeschylean’ of shakespeare’s works, proceeds thus:
the early plays of shakespeare show an extraordinary activity of intellect and imagination, an obvious eagerness and an increasing facility of utterance, which is as much the mark of his age as of the great writers of any time. the evidence of this faculty is all along to be seen in the consummate skill with which, almost from the first, he composes his plots and plans, till at length they assume the shape of completed tragedies. there is no play in which he fails to introduce a striking character, so vividly and so intensely developed, that we feel that we are looking at life itself. the characters and events of the plays are the outgrowth of those finer faculties which he traces even in the most commonplace character: in the taverns, the markets, the streets of london, or the scolding of the lusty landlady. 17 the naturalness, truthfulness and vivacity of the writer’s observations in henry v are such as to make us doubt whether any writer of this or any age could have exhibited such a model of all the arts of writing. 18 the tragic structure of hamlet was from the first a finished, not to say perfect, work. it has all the marks of the masterpieces of this great writer. its impressive unities, its comprehensive plan, its progress from the first scene to the last, are such as to place it in the very front rank of shakespeare’s writings. he never fails to introduce his hero with such force of character, that the interest in the event is always increased. and as he is more especially the poet of character, the development of the plot is ever in harmony with the growth of the human soul. 
it was a saying of geoffrey of monmouth, that the kingdom of britain had passed successively into the hands of the danes, the saxons and the jutes. the historia records that the britons finally gave up the fight to king claudius of the romans in the early fifth century, being reduced to the status of serfs under the romans’ rule. this was the historical basis for the opening scene of shakespeare’s play, in which the earl of gloucester (claudius in the historia) is instructed by the messenger that he is to be declared a traitor.
gloster, then, is lear’s double. in the major part of the play the action is set in england. lear and the bastard are absent. yet all the characters, even the burgundian envoy and edmund, are in a sense lear’s doubles.  there is the same kind of difference between them as between the external forms of a man and his living, breathing body. their bodies are different;  their minds are one. edgar, cordelia, albany, and cornwall, though manifestly externalised as external in edmund and in the burgundian envoy, are really only so in their inwardness. they are not the same, but they are one. in the same way, every character of the play, from edmund, who is lear’s eldest son and the most like him, to cordelia, the youngest and the most unlike, is really only so in his inwardness.
the fool is in a sense the most externalised character of the play, for he seems to belong to no one, to be outside the play and yet to be all. he is at the same time the most distinct and the most unifying character. he has been compared to the non-human, the star, the universal, the impersonal, the divine. he is all this, and yet he is all this within each of us. he is the quintessence of inwardness. he is the liberated soul of the play, without being a soul of any external object. he is the very life of external things. for as shakespeare puts it in the last scene of the play, when cordelia is dying in lear’s arms and being kissed by her dying father, ”tis no matter,’ he says, ”tis but the colour of a name: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’