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Shakespeare's Characters: Goneril and Regan (king Lear

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From King Lear. Ed. Henry Norman Hudson. New York: Ginn and Co., 1911.

The characters in King Lear fall into strongly contrasted groups of good and evil beings; and as the main action of the drama is shaped by the energy of evil, it is natural to begin with those in whom that energy prevails.

There is no accounting for the conduct of Goneril and Regan but by supposing them possessed with a strong original impulse of malignity. The main points of their action were taken from the old story. Character, in the proper sense of the term, they have none in the legend; and the dramatist invested them with characters suitable to the part they were believed to have acted.

Whatever of soul these beings possess is all in the head; they have no heart to guide or inspire their understanding, and but enough of understanding to seize occasions and frame excuses for their heartlessness. Without affection, they are also without shame; there being barely so much of human blood in their veins as may suffice for quickening the brain without sending a blush to the cheek. With a sort of hell-inspired tact, they feel their way to a fitting occasion, but drop the mask as soon as their ends are reached, caring little or nothing for appearances after their falsehood has done its work. There is a smooth, glib rhetoric in their professions of love, unwarmed with the least grace of real feeling, and a certain wiry virulence and intrepidity of mind in their after-speaking, that is very terrible. No touch of nature finds a response in their bosoms; no atmosphere of comfort can abide their presence: we feel that they have somewhat within that turns the milk of humanity to venom, which all the wounds they can inflict are but opportunities for casting.

The subordinate plot of the drama serves the purpose of relieving the improbability of their behavior. Some have indeed censured this plot as an embarrassment to the main one, forgetting, perhaps, that to raise and sustain the feelings at any great height there must be some breadth of basis. A degree of evil which, if seen altogether alone, would strike us as superhuman, makes a very different impression when it has the support of proper sympathies and associations. This effect is in a good measure secured by Edmund's independent concurrence with Goneril and Regan in wickedness. It looks as if some malignant planet had set the elements of evil astir in many hearts at the same time; so that "unnaturalness between the child and the parent" were become, it would seem, the order of the day.



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