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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 chroniclesť 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 aull 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, Shukspeare Illustrated, vol. iii. p. 302.
+ 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 und his three Daughters. To the tune of When flying Fame.
King Leir once ruled in this land,
With princely power and peace;
That might his joys increase.
Three daughters fair had he,
As fairer could not be.
So on a time it pleas'd the king
A question thus to move,
Could shew the dearest love:
Quoth he, then let me hear
The kindest will appear.
To whom the eldest thus began;
Dear father, mind, quoth she,
My blood shall render'd be:
20 And for your sake my bleeding heart
Shall here be cut in twain, Ere that I see your reverend age
The smallest grief sustain.
And so will I, the second said ;
Dear father, for your sake,
I'll gently undertake:
With diligence and love;
Discomforts may remove.
The aged king reply'd;
How is thy love ally'd ?
Which to your grace I owe,
And that is all I'll show.
And wilt thou shew no more, quoth he,
Than doth thy duty bind ?
When as no more I find :
Thou art no child of mine; Nor any part of this my realm
By favour shall be thine.
Thy elder sisters loves are more
Than well I can demand,
My kingdome and my land,
That lovingly I may
Until my dying day.
Thus flattering speeches won renown,
By these two sisters here:
Yet was her love more dear:
Went wandring up and down, Unhelp'd, unpity'd, gentle maid,
Through many an English town:
Untill at last in famous France
She gentler fortunes found;
The fairest on the ground:
And this fair lady seen,
Her father king Leir this while
Forgetful of their promis'd loves,
Full soon the same decay'd;
The eldest of the twain,
And most of all his train.
For whereas twenty men were wont
To wait with bended knee: She gave
allowance but to ten,
So took she all away,
He would no longer stay.
Am I rewarded thus, quoth he,
In giving all I have
For what I lately gave?
My second child, I know, Will be more kind and pitiful,
And will relieve my woe.
Full fast he hies then to her court;
Where when she heard his moan Return'd him answer, That she griev'd
That all his means were gone :