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King Leir and his three Daughters.
The reader has here an ancient ballad on the subject of King Lear, which (as a sensible female critic has well observed)* bears so exact an analogy to the argument of Shakspeare's play, that his having copied it could not be doubted, if it were certain that it was written before the tragedy. Here is found the hint of Lear's madness, which the old chronicles † do not mention, as also the extravagant cruelty exercised on him by his daughters: in the death of Lear they likewise very exactly coincide. The misfortune is, that there is nothing to assist us in ascertaining the date of the ballad but what little evidence arises from within; this the reader must weigh, and judge for himself.
It may be proper to observe, that Shakspeare was not the first of our dramatic poets who fitted the story of LEIR to the stage. His first 4to. edition is dated 1608; but three years before that, had been printed a play entitled The true Chronicle History of Leir and his three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, as it hath been divers and sundry times lately acted, 1605, 4to. This is a very poor and dull performance, but happily excited Shakspeare to undertake the subject, which he has given with very different incidents. It is remarkable, that neither the circumstances of Leir's madness; nor his retinue of a select number of knights; nor the affecting deaths of Cordelia and Leir, are found in that first dramatic piece in all which Shakspeare concurs with this ballad.
But to form a true judgment of Shakspeare's merit, the curious reader should cast his eye over that previous sketch: which he will find printed at the end of the
* Mrs. Lennox. Shakspeare Illustrated, vol. iii.
See Jeffery of Monmouth, Holingshed, &c., who relate Leir's history in many respects the same as the ballad.
Twenty Plays of Shakspeare, republished from the quarto impressions by George Steevens, with such elegance and exactness, as led us to expect that fine edition of all the works of our great dramatic poet, which he hath since published.
The following ballad is given from an ancient copy in the Golden Garland, bl. let. entitled, A lamentable Song of the Death of King Leir and his three Daughters. To the tune of When flying Fame.
KING Leir once ruled in this land,
That might his joys increase.
Amongst those things that nature gave,
So princely seeming beautiful,
So on a time it pleas'd the king
For to my age you bring content,
To whom the eldest thus began;
And for your sake my bleeding heart
And so will I, the second said;
I'll gently undertake:
And serve your highness night and day
That sweet content and quietness
In doing so, you glad my soul,
But what sayst thou, my youngest girl,
My love (quoth young Cordelia then)
Shall be the duty of a child,
And that is all I'll show.
And wilt thou shew no more, quoth he,
I well perceive thy love is small,
Henceforth I banish thee my court,
Thy elder sisters loves are more
My kingdome and my land,
With those thy sisters be maintain'd
Thus flattering speeches won renown,
Went wandring up and down,
Untill at last in famous France
She gentler fortunes found;
Where when the king her virtues heard,
And this fair lady seen,
With full consent of all his court
Her father king Leir this while
Forgetful of their promis'd loves,
And living in queen Ragan's court,
The eldest of the twain.
She took from him his chiefest means,
For whereas twenty men were wont
gave allowance but to ten, And after scarce to three:
Nay, one she thought too much for him,
In hope that in her court, good king,
Am I rewarded thus, quoth he,
Unto my children, and to beg
My second child, I know,
Full fast he hies then to her court;
That all his means were gone :