Nineteenth and earlier twentieth century critical views on King Lear

Sigmund Freud: ‘Let us now recall the moving final scene, one of the culminating points of tragedy in modern drama. Lear carries Cordelia’s dead body on to the stage. Cordelia is Death … She is the Death-goddess who … bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.’                  

Leo Tolstoy: ‘For any man of our time – if he were not under the hypnotic suggestion that this drama is the height of perfection – it would be enough to read it to its end (were he to have sufficient patience for this) in order to be convinced that … it is a very bad, carelessly composed production … But such free-minded individuals, not inoculated with Shakespeare worship, are no longer to be found in our Christian society.’ 
George Orwell: ‘Throughout his plays the acute social critics, the people who are not taken in by accepted fallacies, are buffoons, villains, lunatics or persons who are shamming insanity or are in a state of violent hysteria. Lear is a play in which this tendency is particularly well marked. It contains a great deal of veiled social criticism – a point Tolstoy misses – but it is all uttered either by the Fool, by Edgar when he is pretending to be mad, or by Lear during his bouts of madness.’
Andrew Cecil Bradley 1891A.C.Bradley: ‘The improbabilities in King Lear surely far surpass those of the other great tragedies in number and in grossness. And they are particularly noticeable in the secondary plot … How is it, now, that this defective drama so overpowers us that we are either unconscious of its blemishes or regard them as almost irrelevant? 
‘[What makes the peculiar greatness of King Lear is] the immense scope of the work; the mass and variety of intense experience which it contains; the interpenetration of sublime imagination, piercing pathos, and humour almost as moving as the pathos; the vastness of the convulsion both of nature and of human passion; the vagueness of the scene where the action takes place, and of the movements of the figures which cross this scene; the strange atmosphere, cold and dark, which strikes on us as we enter this scene, enfolding these figures and magnifying their dim outlines like a winter mist; the half-realised suggestions of vast universal powers working in the world of individual fates and passions - all this interferes with dramatic clearness even when the play is read, and in the theatre not only refuses to reveal itself fully through the senses but seems to be almost in contradiction with their reports.’
John W.Draper: ‘The entire plot depends on this division of the kingdom: the quarrels of Goneril and Regan, the disastrous French invasion, the madness and death of Lear, and the distraction of the whole commonwealth that cannot but ensue. Chaos from conflict of authority is the very essence of the play.’ 
William R. Elton: ‘The last Act shatters the foundations of faith itself … the play is not a drama of meaningful suffering and redemption within a just universe ruled by providential higher powers … Its ironical structure is just calculated to destroy faith in both poetic justice and divine justice.’
W.H.Clemen: ‘Goneril, Regan and Edmund are the calculating, cool and unimaginative people who are incapable of ‘creative’ imagery. They have no relationship to nature, to the elemental powers. Their world is the world of reason; they live and speak within the narrow limits of their plans, within the limits drawn by the plot and the given moment of the action. Lear’s language continually points beyond these limits.’ 
Harley Granville-Barker: ‘It will be a fatal error to present Cordelia as a meek saint. She has more than a touch of her father in her. She is as proud as he is, and as obstinate, for all her sweetness and her youth.’
Frank Kermode: ‘The rage of the King (in Act 1 Scene 1) confirms that he cannot be temperate in the absence of ceremony; the love he seeks is not the sort that can be offered in formal or subservient expressions, and he therefore rejects the love of Cordelia and Kent. 
‘Shakespeare concerns himself with the contrast between the two bodies of the king; one lives by ceremony, administers justice in a furred gown, distinguished by regalia which set him above nature. The other is born naked, subject to disease and pain … Lear is stripped.’
L.C.Knights: Lear is a universal allegory … and its dramatic technique is determined by the need to present certain permanent aspects of the human situation … In the scenes on the heath, for example, we … are caught up in a great and almost impersonal poem in which we hear certain voices which echo … each other; all that they say is part of the tormented consciousness of Lear; and the consciousness of Lear is part of the consciousness of human kind. 
‘The theme of King Lear is the decay and fall of the world. 
‘The first sentence of the play suggests Lear is guilty of bias … His suffering is provisionally seen to be related to injustice of his own.
‘The play is a microcosm of the human race.’
G. Wilson Knight: ‘A tremendous soul is, as it were, incongruously geared to a puerile intellect … Lear is mentally a child, in passion a titan.’
Keith Rinehart: ‘When one recalls Cordelia’s qualities – wisdom, duty, measured affection, self-control, inner calm, her approval of the superiority of reason over will, her unwillingness to compromise her inner worth, … her benevolence and endurance – she evokes a familiar moral pattern indeed. She is a stoic.’
R. Speaight: ‘Shakespeare found the story of Lear buried deep in popular legend, but a folk-story is not necessarily a fantasy. A fairy-story will also have its human side, but it generally points a moral and suggests a Utopia. There is, of course, a profound teaching in Lear, but it is the teaching of a terrible experience. More simply and exactly, it is the teaching of the Cross. Nor does it deny Utopia. But Utopia … is not round the corner; it is only the tremendous articulation of a desperate and persisting hope.’
Benjamin T.Spencer: ‘Before the purgatorial heath scenes Lear argues with Goneril that man’s life is distinguished from beasts by just such privileges as having a superfluous number of retainers … Yet linked to this insistence is a blind indifference to the sufferings of others who lack the bare necessities of life.’ 
Theodore Spencer: ‘The unnaturalness of Goneril and Regan is what Lear cannot bear, as Gloucester cannot understand the apparent unnaturalness of Edgar, and Lear’s daughters are fittingly described in those animal images — tigers, wolves, vultures, serpents — which are … scattered everywhere through the play. 
‘The scenes on the heath … should be imagined in relation to the opening of the play; the contrast of visual impression, the contrast in tableau, must be concretely perceived by the eye as the contrast in rhythm and word by the ear. In the opening scene Lear is surrounded by his court: a page holds the crown on a velvet cushion, the King of France, the Duke of Burgundy and a crowd of brilliantly dressed courtiers all wait upon his imperious commands. But in the heath scenes his only companions are a fool, a madman … We see him reduced to relying on the lowest dregs of human nature, his mind in pieces, trying to get reality by stripping off his clothes.’
Caroline Spurgeon: ‘In this play we are conscious all through of the atmosphere of buffeting, strain and strife, and, at moments, of bodily tension to the point of agony. So naturally does this flow from the circumstances of the drama and the mental sufferings of Lear, that we scarcely realize how greatly this sensation in us is increased by the general ‘floating’ mage, kept constantly before us, chiefly by means of the verbs used, but also in metaphor, of a human body in anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, dislocated, flayed, gashed, scalded, tortured, and finally broken on the rack.’
J.Stampfer: ‘The denouement itself, with the gratuitous, harrowing deaths of Cordelia and Lear, controverts any justice in the universe. Chance kills, in despite of the maidenly stars. It would seem, then, by the denouement, that the universe belongs to Edmund, but mankind belongs to Cordelia. In a palsied cosmos, orphan man must either live by the moral law, which is the bond of love, or swiftly destroy himself. To this paradox, too, Shakespeare offers no mitigation in King Lear. The human condition is as inescapable as it is unendurable.’
E.M.M.Taylor: ‘The central theme of Lear, underlined again and again in the mercenary and in the schoolmaster images, is that a man who grossly overvalues material things and the outward trappings of state, virtue, and affection must be schooled by disaster and suffering into truer, more adequate, and more charitable assessment.’
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