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Percy's Reliques - King Leir and his Three Daughters.

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,[ 1] 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[ 2] 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 Twenty Plays of Shakspeare, republished from the quarto impressions by George Steevens, Esq. 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 rulèd in this land
With princely power and peace;
And had all things with hearts content,
That might his joys increase.
Amongst those things that nature gave,
Three daughters fair had he,
So princely seeming beautiful,
As fairer could not be.

So on a time it pleas'd the king
A question thus to move,
Which of his daughters to his grace
Could shew the dearest love:
"For to my age you bring content,"
Quoth he, "then let me hear,
Which of you three in plighted troth
The kindest will appear."

To whom the eldest thus began;
"Dear father, mind," quoth she,
"Before your face, to do you good,
My blood shall render'd be
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,
The worst of all extremities
I'll gently undertake:
And serve your highness night and day
With diligence and love;
That sweet content and quietness
Discomforts may remove."

"In doing so, you glad my soul,"
The aged king reply'd;
"But what sayst thou, my youngest girl,
How is thy love ally'd?"
"My love" (quoth young Cordelia then)
"Which to your grace I owe,
Shall be the duty of a child,
And that is all I'll show."

"And wilt thou shew no more," quoth he,
"Than doth thy duty bind?
I well perceive thy love is small,
When as no more I find.
Henceforth I banish thee my court,
Thou art no child of mine;
Nor any part of this my realm
By favour shall be thine.

"Thy elder sisters loves are more
Then well I can demand;
To whom I equally bestow
My kingdome and my land,
My pompal state and all my goods,
That lovingly I may
With those thy sisters be maintain'd
Until my dying day."

Thus flattering speeches won renown,
By these two sisters here;
The third had causeless banishment,
Yet was her love more dear:
For poor Cordelia patiently
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;
Though poor and bare, yet she was deem'd
The fairest on the ground:
Where when the king her virtues heard,
And this fair lady seen,
With full consent of all his court
He made his wife and queen.

Her father king Leir this while
With his two daughters staid:
Forgetful of their promis'd loves,
Full soon the same decay'd;
And living in queen Ragan's court,
The eldest of the twain,
She took from him his chiefest means,
And most of all his train.

For whereas twenty men were wont
To wait with bended knee:
She gave allowance but to ten,
And after scarce to three;
Nay, one she thought too much for him;
So took she all away,
In hope that in her court, good king,
He would no longer stay.

"Am I rewarded thus," quoth he,
"In giving all I have
Unto my children, and to beg
For what I lately gave?
I'll go unto my Gonorell:
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:
But no way could relieve his wants;
Yet if that he would stay
Within her kitchen, he should have
What scullions gave away.

When he had heard, with bitter tears,
He made his answer then;
"In what I did let me be made
Example to all men.
I will return again," quoth he,
"Unto my Ragan's court;
She will not use me thus, I hope,
But in a kinder sort."

Where when he came, she gave command
To drive him thence away:
When he was well within her court
(She said) he would not stay.
Then back again to Gonorell
The woeful king did hie,
That in her kitchen he might have
What scullion boys set by.

But there of that he was deny'd,
Which she had promis'd late:
For once refusing, he should not
Come after to her gate.
Thus twixt his daughters, for relief
He wandred up and down;
Being glad to feed on beggars food,
That lately wore a crown.

And calling to remembrance then
His youngest daughters words,
That said the duty of a child
Was all that love affords:
But doubting to repair to her,
Whom he had banish'd so,
Grew frantick mad; for in his mind
He bore the wounds of woe:

Which made him rend his milk-white locks,
And tresses from his head,
And all with blood bestain his cheeks,
With age and honour spread.
To hills and woods and watry founts
He made his hourly moan,
Till hills and woods and sensless things,
Did seem to sigh and groan.

Even thus possest with discontents,
He passed o're to France,
In hopes from fair Cordelia there,
To find some gentler chance;
Most virtuous dame! which when she heard,
Of this her father's grief,
As duty bound, she quickly sent
Him comfort and relief:

And by a train of noble peers,
In brave and gallant sort,
She gave in charge he should be brought
To Aganippus' court;
Whose royal king, with noble mind
So freely gave consent,
To muster up his knights at arms,
To fame and courage bent.

And so to England came with speed,
To repossesse king Leir
And drive his daughters from their thrones
By his Cordelia dear.
Where she, true-hearted noble queen,
Was in the battel slain;
Yet he, good king, in his old days,
Possest his crown again.

But when he heard Cordelia's death,
Who died indeed for love
Of her dear father, in whose cause
She did this battle move;
He swooning fell upon her breast,
From whence he never parted:
But on her bosom left his life,
That was so truly hearted.

The lords and nobles when they saw
The end of these events,
The other sisters unto death
They doomed by consents;
And being dead, their crowns they left
Unto the next of kin:
Thus have you seen the fall of pride,
And disobedient sin.


1. Mrs. Lennox, Shakspeare Illustrated, vol. iii. p. 302.

2. See Jeffery of Monmouth, Holingshed, &c. who relate Leir's History in many respects the same as the ballad.

Youth And Age.

This song is found in the little collection of Shakspeare's Sonnets, intitled The Passionate Pilgrime,[1] the greatest part of which seems to relate to the amours of Venus and Adonis, being little effusions of fancy, probably written while he was composing his larger poem on that subject. The following seems intended for the mouth of Venus, weighing the comparative merits of youthful Adonis and aged Vulcan. In the Garland of Good-Will it is reprinted, with the addition of four more such stanzas, but evidently written by a meaner pen.

CRABBED Age and Youth
Cannot live together;
Youth is full of pleasance,
Age is full of care:
Youth like summer morn,
Age like winter weather,
Youth like summer brave,
Age like winter bare:
Youth is full of sport,
Ages breath is short;
Youth is nimble, Age is lame:
Youth is hot and bold,
Age is weak and cold;
Youth is wild, and Age is tame.
Age, I do abhor thee,
Youth, I do adore thee;
O, my love, my love is young!
Age, I do defie thee;
Oh sweet shepheard, hie thee,
For methinks thou stayst too long!

*** See Malone's Shakespeare, vol. x. p. 325.


1. Mentioned above, Book ii Song xii.


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