"KING LEAR" IN THE CONTEXT OF SHAKESPEARE
KING LEAR is a difficult play. Friendly and hostile critics agree on that, though they do not agree on the nature or importance of the difficulties. Johnson and the eighteenth century, for the most part, balked at what they considered the wanton cruelty of Cordelia's death and acquiesced in Tate's revision. To Coleridge , Lamb, Hazlitt, King Lear was Shakespeare's greatest creation but impossible to act; their solution, and Bradley's after them, was to remove the play from the theater and stage it with subtlety and insight in their own imaginations. In our day Granville-Barker wisely refused to accept this compromise; he restored the play to the boards and ably defended its effectiveness there. Then, when balance seems regained, Mr. Murry questions boldly the integrity of King Lear both as poetry and drama.
Apparently Mr. Murry's Shakespeare could not have written King Lear except in an off-moment. Mr. Murry could almost believe that Shakespeare himself was on the edge of madness when he wrote it, and suggests that King Lear and Timon and Troilus and Cressida may be taken as evidence of "uncontrollable despair, lit by gleams of illumination."1 But his somewhat occult opinions should not keep us from seriously considering his reflection that in King Lear Shakespeare was "if not perfunctory, uncertain," that he did not "master his vision," that the play is an "artefact,"2 a professional work (in the highest sense, of course), the attempt of a superlative craftsman to subdue intractable material. Such charges justify reopening the case.
Though in this instance the critic can only look at familiar matter in a different light, any illumination, however fitful, is worth trying, so important is King Lear not only in itself but in