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CONCERNING "KING LEAR"
IT is easy to prove that, of late years and especially since the beginning of the great romantic period, the realm of poetry -- which had hardly been touched upon since the definite loss of the vast, but uninhabitable provinces of the epic poem -- has gradually shrunk in dimensions and become actually reduced to a few isolated towns in the mountain. It will probably continue there, long-lived and impregnable, and will gain in purity and intensity all that it has lost elsewhere in extent and abundance. Little by little it will strip itself of its vain didactic, descriptive and narrative ornaments, soon to be itself alone, that is to say the only voice that can reveal to us the things which silence hides from us, which human speech no longer utters and which music does not yet express.
Lyric poetry will always exist: it is immortal, because it is necessary. But what fate has the future or even the present in store, I will not say for the dramatist or playwright, but for the tragic poet proper, for the writer who strives to maintain a certain lyrical quality in his work by representing in it things greater and finer than the things of real life?
It is certain that the lyric tragedy of the Greeks, that classical tragedy as conceived by Corneille and Racine, that the romantic tragedy of the Germans and Victor Hugo all derive their poetry from sources that are definitely dried up. The great drama of the crowds, in which it was believed that an unknown and inexhaustible source had been discovered, has hitherto yielded only mediocre and indifferent results. And the new mysteries of our modern life, which have taken the place of all the others and in the direction of which Ibsen attempted certain excavations, these mysteries have been for too short a time in direct contact with man to erect and visibly and efficaciously to govern the words and actions of the character of a play. And yet there is no disguising the fact and the poetic instinct of humanity has always felt its presentiment: a drama is not really true until it is greater and finer than life.
Let us, in the interval preceding the time when the poets shall know whither to turn their steps, examine one of the most famous examples of those dramas which enlarge the truth without violating it, one of those rare dramas which, after more than three centuries, still remain green and living in all their parts: I allude to Shakspeare's King Lear.
It is safe to declare, as I once said -- not without some little exaggeration, for it is impossible to avoid exaggeration in the light and exquisite attack of fever which seizes all Shakspeare's devoted admirers whenever one of his masterpieces is revived -- it is safe to declare, after surveying the literatures of every period and of every country, that the tragedy of the old king constitutes the mightiest, the vastest, the most stirring, the most intense dramatic poem that has ever been written. Were we to be asked from the height of another planet which is the synthetic and representative play, the archetypal play of the human stage, the play in which the ideal of the loftiest scenic poetry is most fully realised, it seems to me certain that, after due deliberation, all the poets of our earth, the best judges in this exigency, would with one voice name King Lear. They could only for a moment weigh the claims of two or three masterpieces of the Greek stage, or else -- for virtually Shakspeare can be compared with none save himself -- of that other miracle of his genius, the tragic story of Hamlet Prince o f Denmark.
Prometheus, the Orestes, OEdipus Tyrannus are wonderful but isolated trees, whereas King Lear is a marvellous forest. Let us admit that Shakspeare's poem is less clear, not so evident, not so visibly harmonious, not so pure in outline, not so perfect in the rather conventional sense of the word; let us grant that it has faults as enormous as its good qualities: this fact none the less remains, that it surpasses all the others in the mass, the rarity, the density, the strange mobility, the prodigious bulk of the tragic beauties which it contains. I know that the total beauty of a work is not to be estimated by weight or volume; that the dimensions of a statue do not necessarily bear a relation to its aesthetic value. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that abundance, variety and ampleness add certain vital, unaccustomed elements to beauty; that it is easier to be successful with one statue of middling size and of a calm movement than with a group of twenty statues of superhuman dimensions, endowed with passionate and yet coordinate gestures; that it is less difficult to write one tragic and mighty act in which three or four persons play their parts than to write five which are filled with a whole moving crowd and which maintain that same tragic and powerful note on an equal level during a period five times as long as the other. Well, by the side of King Lear, the longest Greek tragedies are little more than plays in one act.
On the other hand, if we try to compare it with Hamlet, we shall probably find that its thought is less active, less acute, less profound, less quivering, less prophetic. By way of compensation, however, how much more vigorous, massive and irresistible does the spirit of the work appear! Certain clusters, certain rays of light on the platform of Elsinore reach and, for a moment, illumine, like gleams from beyond the tomb, more inaccessible darknesses; but here the column of smoke and flame lights up in a permanent and uniform' manner a whole stretch of the night. The subject is simpler, more general and more normally human, the colouring more monotonous, but more majestically and more harmoniously superb, the intensity more constant and more widespread, the lyricism more continuous, more overflowing and more illusive and yet more natural, nearer to the realities of everyday life, more familiarly stirring, because it springs not from thought, but from passion, because it surrounds a situation which, although exceptional, is, nevertheless, universally possible, because it does not necessarily require a metaphysical hero like Hamlet and because it immediately affects the primitive and almost invariable soul of man.
Hamlet, Macbeth, Prometheus, the Orestes, OEdipus belong to a class of poems which are more exalted than the others because they are unfolded on a sort of sacred mountain girt about by a certain mystery. This is what, in the hierarchy of the masterpieces, places Hamlet incontestably above Othello, for instance, although Othello is as passionately, as profoundly and, doubtless, more normally human. They owe to this mountain which carries them between heaven and earth the best part of their sombre and sublime power. Now, if we examine the formation of this mountain, we become aware that the elements which compose it are borrowed from a variable and arbitrary supernaturalism; it is a "beyond" of a contestable character and appearance, which are religious or superstitious, transitory, therefore, or local. But -- and this it is that gives it a place apart among the four or five great dramatic poems of the world -- in King Lear there is no supernaturalism proper. The gods, the inhabitants of the great imaginary worlds do not meddle with the action; fatality itself is here quite inward, is no more than passion run mad; and yet the immense drama unravels its five acts on a summit as high, as overladen with spells, poetry and unwonted anxieties as though all the traditional forces of heaven and hell had vied in ardour to superstruct its peaks. The absurdity of the original anecdote (all the great masterpieces, being intended to represent typical actions of a necessarily far-fetched exclusive and excessive character, are founded on a more or less absurd anecdote) disappears in the sublime magnificence of the height at which it is developed. Study more closely the structure of that summit: it is formed solely of enormous human strata, of gigantic blocks of passion, of reason, of general and almost familiar sentiments, overthrown, heaped up, superimposed by an awful tempest, but one profoundly suited to all that is most human in human nature.
That is why King Lear remains the youngest of the great tragic works, the only one which time has not withered. It needs, an effort of our good-will, a forgetting of our condition and of our present certainties for us to be sincerely and wholly stirred by the spectacle of Hamlet, Macbeth or OEdipus. On the other hand, the wrath, the roars of pain, the prodigious curses of the old man, of the outraged father seem to issue from our modern hearts and brains; they rise up under our own sky; and, in respect of all the profound truths that form the spiritual and sentimental atmosphere of our planet, there is nothing essential to be added to them, nothing to be withdrawn from them. Were Shakspeare to return among us upon earth, he could no longer write Hamlet or Macbeth. He would feel that the main august and gloomy ideas upon which those poems rest would no longer carry them, whereas he would not need to alter a situation nor a line in King Lear.
The youngest, the most unchangeable of tragedies is also the most organically lyrical dramatic poem that was ever realised, the only one in the world in which the magnificence of the language does not once impair the probability, the naturalness of the dialogue. There is not a poet but knows that it is almost impossible on the stage to ally beautiful images with natural expression. There is no denying it: no scene in the mightiest tragedy or in the most hackneyed comedy, as Alfred de Vigny said, is ever more than a conversation between two or three people who have met to talk of their affairs. They have therefore to talk; and, in order to give us that which is the most necessary illusion on the stage, the illusion of reality, they must depart as little as possible from the language employed in everyday life. But, in this rather elementary life, we hardly ever express in words anything that is brilliant or profound in our inner existence. If our habitual thoughts mingle with great and beautiful spectacles, with the highest mysteries of nature, they remain within ourselves in a latent condition, in a condition of dreams, of ideas, of mute feelings which, at the very most, betray themselves sometimes by a word, a phrase nobler or truer than those of our probable and usual conversation. Now, the drama being able to express hardly anything that would not be expressed in life, it follows that all the higher part of existence remains unformulated there, lest it should shatter the indispensable illusion. The poet has therefore to choose: he will be lyrical or merely eloquent, but unreal (and this is the mistake of our classical tragedies, of the plays of Victor Hugo and of almost all the French and German romanticists, a few scenes of Goethe excepted), or else he will be natural, but dry, prosaic and dull. Shakspeare did not escape the dangers of this choice. In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, and in most of his historical plays, he pours forth into rhetoric and incessantly sacrifices to the splendour, to the abundance of his metaphors the imperious, essential precision and commonplace of every speech and cue.
On the other hand, in his great masterpieces he makes no mistake; but the very manner in which he surmounts the difficulty reveals all the gravity of the problem. He achieves his end only with the aid of a sort of subterfuge to which he always resorts. As it seems to be accepted that a hero who expresses his inner life in all its magnificence cannot remain probable and human on the stage except on condition that he be represented as mad in real life (for it is understood that here the mad alone express that hidden life), Shakspeare systematically unsettles the reason of his protagonists and thus opens the dike that held captive the swollen lyrical flood. Henceforward, he speaks freely by their mouths; and beauty invades the stage without fearing lest it be told that it is out of place. Henceforward, also, the lyricism of his great works is more or less high, more or less wide in proportion to the madness of his hero. Thus it is intermittent and restrained in Macbeth and Othello, because the hallucinations of the Thane of Cawdor and the rages of the Moor of Venice are no more than passional crises; it is slow and pensive in Hamlet, because the madness of the Prince of Denmark is torpid and meditative; but no otherwhere does it overflow as in King Lear, torrential, uninterrupted and irresistible, hurling together, in immense and miraculous images, the oceans, the forests, the tempests and the stars, because the magnificent insanity of the dispossessed and desperate old king extends from the first scene to the very last.
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