Goethe has pronounced the first scene of King Lear absurd. More recent criticism, certainly in view of that judgment harsh, but not without reason, has defended it as unobjectionable, but yet hardly with a convincing, decisive result. It is doubtless only too natural that a hot-blooded gentleman, long accustomed to the exercise of irresponsible power, should reward his children, as well as his servants, not according to their services, but according to their address in flattering his self-love. When did not the flatterer feather his nest more successfully than the faithful, outspoken, independent servant? But in poetry, and especially in drama, the subject-matter of a scene is not to be separated by the understanding from its form. And the form, in which Lear's arbitrary humour expresses itself in this scene, finds its natural and true significance only in facts as the symbol of a whole series of presumable precedents. Is it not the behaviour of a man already unsettled in his understanding, when a father, in solemn assembly, sets his children a lesson in flattery, and when he formally proposes for the required display of bombast a downright cash premium, so that for the blasé vanity of the monarch grown old in the habit of being worshipped, there is no possibility of delusion? And is the scene the first of the part which he plays? It notifies us to expect a reigning king, and the very first words are the words of a man with a crack in his brain. It appears to me that Shakespeare here, in giving motive and a dramatic form to the legend, is lacking in his usual care. This want is assuredly considerably alleviated by the excellent elucidations of the scenes that follow. But the satisfactions subsequently afforded to the understanding cannot be any compensation to us if the imagination has previously had just reason to be offended.
So much at least is clear. It is only the burthen and duties of empire that the tired old king wishes to be rid of. That he regal rights can suffer changes, never occurs to him. This is evident from the utter overthrow of his self-possession when the idea of this personal, indefeasible claim to absolute power is for the first time openly crossed by the complaints of Goneril. Very strikingly for his view of the situation, he makes not the remotest allusion to the substance of her complaint. 'Art thou my daughter?' This is his only reply when she complains of the behaviour of his retinue. It was a monstrous illusion which drove him to that eventful abdication--the idea of the indestructible, all-embracing nature of his personal authority, which he imagines to be wholly independent of what he possesses and can do. He recognizes no other relation to society but claim, right, mercy on his side, prayer, gratitude, devotion from all others. Naturally, the whole airy edifice tumbles into ruins so soon as the open secret becomes clear to him that that mystic regal greatness falls to the ground with the loss of material power, and that the despot's arbitrary humour educates its favourites, even though they be his own children, to be intriguing slaves, when he sets aside their nobler, self-respecting natures as disagreeable opponents, as creatures without court-manners. To the first contradiction which he has met perhaps for many years, Lear opposes a rage, boundless and incapable of all consideration. He raves and foams like some wild torrent around the rock which has rolled down into its waters. To the inquiries of the well-meaning Albany he returns no answer. His wrath blazes out in a half-insane curse upon Goneril, 'the thankless child who has stung him sharper than a serpent's tooth.' Who does not feel the horror of his position? And yet the reckless outburst of his passion certainly qualifies our tribute of sympathy by the violence to which it drives him. We are involuntary reminded of the old experience that ingratitude rarely wounds the true, that is, the disinterested, benefactor, or that its poison has no effect upon the blassed consciousness of genuine humanity, which has its foundation in a free devotion to moral necessity, and not in the quicksand of selfish interest, driven hither and thither by the waves of passion. Of that devotion there is no trace in the behaviour of the irascible king. Revenge, violence, a taking back of what he has given--these are his first thoughts. That by his abdication he has taken a position no longer wholly independent, finds no place in his mind. The presentiment of madness comes over him in the fearful collision of the blind, raging thirst for revenge with the laming consciousness of his lack of power. We are almost tempted to excuse the unfilial fye! fye! of the hard-hearted Regan, when the old man, at the bare mention of the strife with Goneril, breaks out into the well-known curse. And it needs the whole, overpowering impression of his weakness and helplessness, it needs the symbolism of the corresponding uproar of the element, to secure the fulness of tragic sympathy for the despairing old man, exposed on the barren heath to the fury of the storm. The fearful magnificence of this celebrated scene requires no word of praise from the commentator, and its terrible truth to nature makes every word expended upon it sound impertinent. His pain at the ingratitude of those whom he has heaped with favour and fortune, all the keener for the humiliating consciousness of his own unquestionable folly, passes into the fatal stability of the fixed idea, by the hot breath of which the springs of his spiritual life are dried up, until the phantom of madness settles weirdly down upon the dry, burnt-out waste.