"WE CAME CRYING HITHER"
FOR many of us today, King Lear seems the uttermost reach of Shakespeare's achievement. Not, certainly, because of its perfections as a well-made play, but because of what we understand to be the grandeur and terror of its vision of what it means to be human. It challenges us like Gerard Manley Hopkins's mind-mountain — "cliffs of fall, Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed" 79 — its abysses wrapped in the enigma of our own ignorance of the meaning of existence, its peaks echoing with cries of triumph and despair that we are hardly sure are not our own.
There are, of course, reasons for this preoccupation. As compared with Hamlet, the nineteenth century's favorite, King Lear speaks of a world more problematical. Action in Hamlet takes place within an order, however corrupt and hypocritical. At the human level, there is the ritualized life of the Renaissance court (of which the duel is the ultimate symbol), its violences hedged and mitigated by rules that, if broken, must be broken covertly: very much the conditions obtaining in Victorian and other European societies of that time. At the cosmic level, a vague but still essentially Christian order frames the arenas of human activity; and we go from thoughts about the all-night crowing of cocks at Christmas to the Almighty's prohibition of suicide to a praying king likening his murder to Cain's and on from there to flights of angels singing a sweet prince to his rest. As for the prince himself, he was easily perceived as a version of a figure much brooded on by nineteenth-century authors: the man of decency and conscience confronting a corrupt society and world.