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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

IV. Early English Tragedy

§ 18. The True Chronicle History of King Leir

Apart from the use made of it by Shakespeare, The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella (printed 1605 and probably acted 1594) has an interest of its own, though few will be found to subscribe to the opinion that “the whole of this old drama is incomparably and in every respect superior to Shakespeare’s adaptation.” But it may be freely admitted that the old play is well contrived, and written in a light, easy style which is not unpleasing. In spite of its absurd disguises and coincidences, it is an organic whole, and not a mere succession of events taken haphazard from the chronicle, its main sources being, indeed, Warner, Mirror for Magistrates, and The Faerie Queene. The contrast between the bearing of Cordella and her sisters is made more natural by the fact that they have an advantage over her in being informed beforehand that they will lose nothing by compliance with their father’s test of affection; and the characters are clearly, though not deeply, conceived. There is a solitary Senecan aphorism (“For fear of death is worse than death itself”); but the play is free, alike from the tedious commonplaces of academic tragedy, and from the extravagant rhetoric which Tamburlaine had brought into vogue. This is partly due to the dramatist’s vein of humour, not always duly restrained, but seasoned with salt enough to withstand the changes of time. Occasionally, he seems to criticise the absurdity of his own dramatic expedients. There is more point than was, perhaps, apparent to the author in Mumford’s comment upon the disguised king’s extraordinary speed in the wooing of Cordella:

  • Have Palmers weeds such power to win fayre Ladies?
  • Fayth, then I hope the next that falles is myne:
  • Upon condition I no worse might speed,
  • I would for ever weare a Palmers weed.
  • I like an honest and playne dealing wench,
  • That sweares (without exceptions) I will have you.
  • These soppets, that know not whether to love a man or no,
  • except they first go aske their mothers leave, by this hand, I
  • hate them ten tymes worse then poyson.
  • KING.
  • What resteth then our happinesse to procure?
  • Fayth, go to Church, to make the matter sure.
  • KING.
  • It shall be so, because the world shall say,
  • King Leirs three daughters were wedded in one day:
  • The celebration of this happy chaunce,
  • We will deferre, untill we come to Fraunce.
  • I like the wooing, that’s not long a doing.
  • Well, for her sake, I know what I know:
  • Ile never marry whilest I live,
  • Except I have one of these Brittish Ladyes,
  • My humour is alienated from the mayds of Fraunce.