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KING LEAR was written at some
period between Shakespeare's fortieth and forty-fourth year, in the full vigour and maturity of his genius. It is deeply stamped with all the most marked peculiarities of the style and cast of thought predominant in all his later works. It is, in this sense, one of the most—perhaps, indeed, the most Shakespearian of Shakespeare's dramas. It is remarkable, even among them, for the boldest use of language, sometimes in reviving old words, or employing them in some obsolete sense ; sometimes in the coinage of others, warm from his own mint; and frequently in the free adaptation of familiar phrases to new and impressive significations. In no one of his dramas do we find more of that crowd of images and weight of thought, under which, even his
own mastery of language is oppressed until his expressions become hurried and imperfect. No one of them is more conspicuous for his magnificent originality of rhythm unshackled by the stricter rules of metrical regularity, and flexible to the expression of every varying emotion or gust of passion, yet delighting most in a grave and solemn harmony, unknown to the more artificial metre of his predecessors, and even to his own earlier poetry. But above all the characteristics of Shakespeare's matured genius,—of the full development of his intellectual grandeur, as distinguished from mere imaginative and poetical power—is that most conspicuous in LEAR; the pervading tendency to deep ethical reflection, constantly expanding the emotions of the individuals or the incidents of his scene into large and general truth, sometimes condensing high lessons of “the morals of the heart” into an epithet, or a parenthetical phrase, sometimes pouring them out in the eloquence of natural passion, or more rarely embodying them in the form of didactic declamation.
The comparison of Lear with any of Shakespeare's earlier works, as for instance with RoMEO AND JULIET in its original form, will show how much all these characteristics of his greater works were formed by the gradual workings of his own mind, in framing to itself its own language and melody, and moulding its own original habits of thought.
There was another tragedy by an older writer on the same subject, and under the same name, which was still acted. This was printed in 1605, not long before Shakespeare's LEAR, so that the precise period when the latter was written, or first represented, cannot be distinctly ascertained, in consequence of the two plays bearing the same title ; but a near approximation may be made from the evidence pointed out by Stevens, and since augmented and improved by the remarks of later editors.
Upon bringing together the parts of this evidence, we can pronounce with certainty, (with Collier,) that LEAR “ was not written until after the appearance of Harsnet's · Discovery of Popish Impostors,' in 1603, because from it, as Stevens established, are taken the names of various fiends mentioned by Edgar in the course of his pretended madness," as well as several other allusions to the incidents of supposed demoniac possession, made familiar to the audiences of that day by the notoriety of the imposture, and of the conspiracy with which it was alleged that they were connected. As this, with other slighter circumstances, fixes the date after 1603, so on the other hand, in the entry of the first edition of this play, in the “ Stationers' Register,” “the following minute memorandum,” says Collier, “ was procured to be made by Butter," the original publisher of the first edition :
“ 26 Nov. 1607. Na. Butter and Jo. Busby] Entred for their Copie under thande of Sir Geo. Bucke, Kt. and the Wardens, a
booke called Mr. Willin Shakespeare, his Historye of Kinge Lear, as yt was played before the King's Majestie at Whitehall, upon St. Stephen's night at Christmas last, by his Majesties Servants playing usu
ally at the Globe on the Bank-side." This establishes that Shakespeare's King LEAR had been played at court on the 26th December, 1606; and, as it was not usual to represent a new piece at court until it had gained popularity before a more promiscuous, and probably a less tolerant audience, Lear had doubtless been written and acted at least some few months perhaps a year or two-before the close of 1606.