Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Greatest of Shakespeare’s Tragedies
By Henry Hallam (1777–1859)
From Literature of Europe

IF originality of invention did not so much stamp almost every play of Shakespeare that to name one as the most original seems a disparagement to others, we might say, that this great prerogative of genius was exercised above all in Lear. It diverges more from the model of regular tragedy than Macbeth or Othello, and even more than Hamlet; but the fable is better constructed than in the last of these, and it displays full as much of the almost superhuman inspiration of the poet as the other two. Lear himself is, perhaps, the most wonderful of dramatic conceptions, ideal to satisfy the most romantic imagination, yet idealised from the reality of nature. Shakespeare, in preparing us for the most intense sympathy with this old man, first abases him to the ground; it is not Œdipus, against whose respected age the gods themselves have conspired; it is not Orestes, noble-minded and affectionate, whose crime has been virtue; it is a headstrong, feeble, and selfish being, whom, in the first act of the tragedy, nothing seems capable of redeeming in our eyes; nothing but what follows, intense woe, unnatural wrong. Then comes on that splendid madness, not absurdly sudden, as in some tragedies, but in which the strings that keep his reasoning power together give way one after the other in the frenzy of rage and grief. Then it is that we find what in life may sometimes be seen, the intellectual energies grow stronger in calamity, and especially under wrong. An awful eloquence belongs to unmerited suffering. Thoughts burst out, more profound than Lear in his prosperous hour could ever have conceived; inconsequent, for such is the condition of madness, but in themselves fragments of coherent truth, the reason of an unreasonable mind.

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