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Wanderings through Classic Literature

Thoughts and musings on my travels through 19th Century Literature

Charles Dickens’ 1848 Review of William Macready’s King Lear

Published in The Examiner – 27th October 1848



MR MACREADY appeared on Wednesday evening in King Lear. The House was crowded in every part before the rising of the curtain, and he was received with deafening enthusiasm. The emotions awakened in the audience by his magnificent performance, and often demonstrated during its progress, did not exhaust their spirits. At the close of the tragedy they rose in a mass to greet him with a burst of applause that made the building ring.

Of the many great impersonations with which Mr Macready is associated, and which he is now, unhappily for dramatic art in England, presenting for the last time, perhaps his Lear is the finest. The deep and subtle consideration he has given to the whole noble play, is visible in all he says and does. From his rash renunciation of the gentle daughter who can only love him and be silent, to his falling dead beside her, unbound from the rack of this tough world, a more affecting, truthful, and awful picture never surely was presented on the stage.

“The greatness of Lear,” writes Charles Lamb, “is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual: the explosions of his passion are terrible as a volcano: they are storms, turning up and disclosing to the bottom of that sea—his mind, with all its vast riches. It is his mind which is laid bare. This case of flesh and blood seems too insignificant to be thought on; even as he himself neglects it. On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, the impotence of rage.”

Not so in the performance of Wednesday Night. It was the mind of Lear on which we looked. The heart, soul, and brain of the ruin’d piece of nature, in all the stages of its ruining, were bare before us. What Lamb writes of the character might have been written of this representation of it, and been a faithful description.

To say of such a performance that this or that point is most observable in it for its excellence, is hardly to do justice to a piece of art so complete and beautiful. The tenderness , the rage, the madness, the remorse, and sorrow, all come of one another, and are linked together in one chain. Only of such tenderness could come such rage; of both combined, such madness; of such a strife of passions and affections, the pathetic cry

                                      Do not laugh at me;
	For, as I am a man, I think this lady
	To be my child Cordelia;

of such a recognition and its sequel, such a broken heart.

Some years have elapsed since we first noticed Miss Horton’s acting of the Fool, restored to the play as one of its most affecting and necessary features, under Mr Macready’s management at Covent Garden. It has lost nothing in the interval. It would be difficult indeed to praise so exquisite and delicate assumption too highly.

Miss Reynolds appeared as Cordelia for the first time, and was not (except in her appearance) very effective. Mr Stuart played Kent, and, but for fully justifying his banishment by his very uproarious demeanour toward his sovereign, played it well. Mr Wallack was a highly meritorious Edgar. We have never seen the part so well played. His manner of delivering the description of Dover cliff—watching his blind father the while, and not looking as if he really saw the scene he describes, as it is the manner of most Edgars to do—was particularly sensible and good. Mr Howe played with great spirit, and Mrs Warner was most wickedly beautiful in Goneril. The play was carefully and well presented, and its effect upon the audience hardly to be conceived from this brief description.

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