Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was a courtier, soldier, and poet, who, with the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh and Thomas Wyatt, were the English examples of the Renaissance man. Also like Raleigh and Wyatt, he ran afoul of the reigning monarch, and was dispatched to the Netherlands to fight rather than sail the seas as he wanted. He was killed there at the age of 32. He left a magnificent sonnet sequence called Astrophel and Stella, the single best work of literary theory of the Renaissance, and a long, rambling mixture of various stories set amongst pastoral poetry called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia that was quite popular for the next hundred years, but only read now by academics devoted to the period. All were published after his lifetime, but just as Shakespeare was coming of age on the London stage. Among the stories in the Arcadia was one Shakespeare used for the second plot of King Lear.
It begins quite near the end as we see it in Lear, with the unnamed Prince of Paphlagonia (the Gloucester counterpart) hiding against the bitter winter elements with his son Leonatus (Edgar) when they are discovered by two princes of Galacia. The Prince, blinded, is pleading with Leonatus to leave him there to die if he is not willing to lead him to a cliff to commit suicide. The princes of Galacia wonder about their condition, and hear part of the story from Leonatus, that the blind Prince had been deprived of his sight and his kingdom by his unnatural son, and so wished this son to take him up a rock, to enable him to hurl himself to his death. But the blind Prince intervenes, and tells the story himself, with moans and constant confessions of shame. He was fraudulently carried by his bastard son Plexirtus to dislike, then hate, then order to have killed, his legitimate son Leonatus. The latter was saved only by the Prince’s servants’ having a better nature, letting him escape to live poorly as a private soldier in a nearby country. But Plexirtus gradually usurped everything, finally blinding the old Prince but not killing him, so he might feel the fullest measure of misery and disgrace. He was only salvaged by his son Leonatus.
This lamentable tale moved the two Galacian princes (Pyrocles and Musidorus) to compassion and thoughts of redress when Plexirtus himself arrives with a small force in search of Leonatus. Finding him, a few attack him, but Leonatus kills the first, warns off the rest, and Pyrocles and Musidorus join the frey. It was still three against forty until the King of Pontus, who was stirred by a dream, arrived with a superior force. However, Plexirtus was in turn aided suddenly by Tydes and Telenor, life-long friends who, while not counseling his offenses, nevertheless stood by Plexirtus. They fought the good fight, and could not win, but were sufficient to speed Plexirtus into another country. There he languished, as those he had tyrannized went back to the blind King’s son with great happiness. However, the old Kind still died of a broken heart. Leonatus pursued Plexirtus in revenge, but, against the advice of his two friends, Plexirtus prostrated himself in the torments of his own conscience, begging for his life, which finally moved Leonatus to pardon him. Sadly, his friends were not so lucky, for they were betrayed by the still-wicked Plexirtus and cruelly executed.
It was in the kingdom of Galacia, the season being (as in the depth of winter) very cold, and as then suddenly grown to so extreme and foul a storm, that never any winter (I think) brought forth a fouler child, so that the Princes were even compelled by the hail, that the pride of the wind blew into their faces, to seek some shrouding place which a certain hollow rock offering unto them, they made it their shield against the tempest’s fury. And so staying there, till the violence thereof was passed, they heard the speech of a couple, who not perceiving them, being hid within that rude canopy, held a strange and pitiful disputation, which made them step out, yet in such sort, as they might see unseen. There they perceived an aged man, and a young, scarcely come to the age of a man, both poorly arrayed, extremely weather-beaten, the old man blind, the young man leading him. And yet through all those miseries, in both there seemed to appear a kind of nobleness, not suitable to that affliction. But the first words they heard, were these of the old man.
“Well Leonatus,” (said he), “since I cannot persuade thee to lead me to that which should end my grief, and thy trouble, let me now entreat thee to leave me. Fear not, my misery cannot be greater then it is, and nothing doth become me but misery. Fear not the danger of my blind steps, I cannot fall worse then I am. And do not I pray thee, do not obstinately continue to infect thee with my wretchedness. But fly, fly from this region only worthy of me. “
“Dear father,” (answered he), “do not take away from me the only remnant of my happiness. While I have power to do you service, I am not wholly miserable.”
“Ah my son,” (said he, and with that he groaned, as if sorrow strove to break his heart), “how evil fits it me to have such a son, and how much doth thy kindness upbraid my wickedness?”
These doleful speeches, and some others to like purpose (well showing they had not been born to the fortune they were in) moved the Princes to go out unto them, and ask the younger what they were? “Sirs,” (answered he with a good grace, and made the more agreeable by a certain noble kind of piteousness), “I see well you are strangers, that know not our misery, so well here known, that no man dare know, but that we must be miserable. Indeed our state is such, as though nothing is so needful unto us as pity, yet nothing is more dangerous unto us, then to make our selves so known as may stir pity. But your presence promiseth that cruelty shall not over-run hate. And if it did, in truth our state is sunk below the degree of fear.”
“This old man (whom I lead) was lately rightful Prince of this country of Paphlagonia, by the hard-hearted ungratefulness of a son of his, deprived, not only of his kingdom (whereof no foreign forces were ever able to spoil him) but of his sight, the riches which Nature grants to the poorest creatures. Whereby, and by other his unnatural dealings, he hath been driven to such grief, as even now he would have had me to have led him to the top of this rock, thence to cast himself headlong to death. And so would have made me, who received my life of him, to be the worker of his destruction. But noble Gentlemen, said he, if either of you have a father, and feel what dutiful affection is engraffed in a son’s heart, let me entreat you to convey this afflicted Prince to some place of rest and security. Amongst your worthy acts it shall be none of the least, that a king of such might and fame, and so unjustly oppressed, is in any sort by you relieved.
But before they could make him answer, his father began to speak. “Ah my son, said he, how evil an Historian are you, that leave out the chief knot of all the discourse—My wickedness, my wickedness. And if thou doest it to spare my ears, (the only sense now left me proper for knowledge) assure thy self thou doest mistake me. And I take witness of that Sun which you see (with that he cast up his blind eyes, as if he would hunt for light) and wish my self in worse case then I do wish my self, which is as evil as may be, if I speak untruly, that nothing is so welcome to my thoughts, as the publishing of my shame. Therefore know you Gentlemen (to whom from my heart I wish that it may not prove some ominous foretoken of misfortune to have met with such a miser as I am) that whatsoever my son (Oh God, that truth binds me to reproach him with the name of my son) hath said is true. But besides those truths, this also is true, that having had in lawful marriage, of a mother fit to bear royal children, this son (such a one as partly you see, and better shall know by my short declaration) and so enjoyed the expectations in the world of him, till he was grown to justify their expectations (so as I needed envy no father for the chief comfort of mortality, to leave another oneself after me) I was carried by a bastard son of mine (if at least I be bound to believe the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother) first to mislike, then to hate, lastly to destroy, or to do my best to destroy this son (I think you think) undeserving destruction. What ways he used to bring me to it, if I should tell you, I should tediously trouble you with as much poisonous hypocrisy, desperate fraud, smooth malice, hidden ambition, and smiling envy, as in any living person could be harbored. But I list it not. No remembrance of naughtiness delights me but mine own; and me thinks, the accusing his traps might in some manner excuse my fault, which certainly I loathe to do. But the conclusion is, that I gave orders to some servants of mine, whom I thought as apt for such charities as my self, to lead him out into a forest, and there to kill him.
“But those thieves (better natured to my son than myself) spared his life, letting him go to learn to live poorly, which he did, giving himself to be a private soldier in a country here by. But as he was ready to be greatly advanced for some noble pieces of service which he did, he heard news of me, who (drunk in my affection to that unlawful and unnatural son of mine) suffered my self so to be governed by him, that all favor and punishments passed by him, all offices and places of importance distributed to his favorites, so that ere I was aware, I had left my self nothing but the name of a King, which he shortly wearied of too, with many indignities (if any thing may be called an indignity, which was laid upon me) threw me out of my seat, and put out my eyes. And then (proud in his tyranny) let me go, neither imprisoning, nor killing me, but rather delighting to make me feel my miser—misery indeed, if ever there were any, full of wretchedness, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltiness.
“And as he came to the crown by so unjust means, as unjustly he kept it, by force of stranger soldiers in Cittadels, the beasts of tyranny, and murderers of liberty, disarming all his own countrymen, that no man durst show himself a well-willer of mine. To say the truth (I think) few of them being so (considering my cruel folly to my good son, and foolish kindness to my unkind bastard), but if there were any who felt a pity of so great a fall, and had yet any sparks of unslain duty left in them towards me, yet durst they not show it, scarcely with giving me alms at their doors, which yet was the only sustenance of my distressed life, no body daring to show so much charity as to lend me a hand to guide my dark steps, till this son of mine (God knows, worthy of a more virtuous, and more fortunate father) forgetting my abominable wrongs not reckoning danger, and neglecting the present good way he was in of doing himself good, came hither to do this kind office you see him perform towards me, to my unspeakable grief, not only because his kindness is a glass even to my blind eyes of my naughtiness, but that above all griefs, it grieves me he should desperately adventure the loss of his well-deserving life for mine, that yet owe more to Fortune for my deserts, as if he would carry mud in a chest of Crystal. For well I know, he that now reigneth, how much so ever (and with good reason) he despiseth me, of all men despised, yet he will not let slip any advantage to make away him, whose just title (ennobled by courage and goodness) may one day shake the seat of a never secure tyranny. And for this cause I craved of him to lead me to the top of this rock, indeed I must confess, with meaning to free him from so serpentine a companion as I am. But he finding what I purposed, only therein since he was borne, showed himself disobedient unto me. And now Gentlemen, you have the true story, which I pray you publish to the world, that my mischieuous proceedings may be the glory of his filial piety, the only reward now left for so great a merit. And if it may be, let me obtain that of you, which my son denies me. For never was there more pity in saving any, then in ending me, both because then my agony shall end, and so you shall preserve this excellent young man, who else willfully follows his own ruin.”
The matter in itself lamentable, lamentably expressed by the old Prince (which needed not take to himself the gestures of pity, since his face could not put of the marks thereof) greatly moved the two Princes to compassion, which could not stay in such hearts as theirs without seeking remedy. But by and by the occasion was presented. For Plexirtus (so was the bastard called) came thither with forty horse, only of purpose to murder this brother, of whose coming he had soon advertisement, and thought no eyes of sufficient credit in such a matter, but his own. And therefore came himself to be actor, and spectator. And as soon as he came, not regarding the weak (as he thought) guard of but two men, commanded some of his followers to set their hands to his, in the killing of Leonatus. But the young Prince (though not otherwise armed but with a sword) how falsely so ever he was dealt with by others, would not betray himself, but bravely drawing it out, made the death of the first that assaulted him, warn his fellows to come more warily after him. But then Pyrocles and Musidorus were quickly become parties (so just a defense deserving as much as old friendship) and so did behave them among that company (more injurious than valiant) that many of them lost their lives for their wicked master.
Yet perhaps had the number of them at last prevailed, if the King of Pontus (lately by them made so) had not come unlooked for to their succor. Who (having had a dream which had fixt his imagination vehemently upon some great danger, presently to follow those two Princes whom he most dearly loved) was come in all hast, following as well as he could their track with a hundred horses in that country, which he thought (considering who then reigned) a fit place enough to make the stage of any Tragedy.
But then the match had been so ill made for Plexirtus, that his ill-led life, and worse gotten honor should have tumbled together to destruction, had there not come in Tydeus and Telenor, with forty or fifty in their suit, to the defense of Plexirtus. These two were brothers, of the noblest house of that country, brought up from their infancy with Plexirtus, men of such prowess, as not to know fear in themselves, and yet to teach it others that should deal with them, for they had often made their lives triumph over most terrible dangers, never dismayed and ever fortunate, and truly no more settled in their valor, than disposed to goodness and justice, if either they had lighted on a better friend, or could have learned to make friendship a child, and not the father of Virtue. But bringing up (rather than choose) having first knit their minds unto him, (indeed crafty enough, either to hide his faults, or never to show them, but when they might pay home) they willingly held out the course, rather to satisfy him, than all the world, and rather to be good friends, than good men. So as though they did not like the evil he did, yet they liked him that did the evil. And though not counselors of the offense, yet protectors of the offender. Now they having heard of this sodaine going out, with so small a company, in a country full of evil-wishing minds toward him (though they knew not the cause) followed him, till they found him in such case as they were to venture their lives, or else he to lose his, which they did with such force of mind and body, that truly I may justly say, Pyrocles & Musidorus had never till then found any, that could make them so well repeat their hardest lesson in the feats of arms. And briefly so they did, that if they overcame not, yet were they not overcome, but carried away that ungrateful master of theirs to a place of security. Howsoever the Princes labored to the contrary. But this matter being thus far begun, it became not the constancy of the Princes so to leave it; but in all haste making forces both in Pontus and Phrygia, they had in few days, left him but only that one strong place where he was. For fear having been the only knot that had fastened his people unto him, that once united by a greater force, they all scattered from him like so many birds, whose cage had been broken.
In which season the blind King (having in the chief city of his Realm, set the crown upon his son Leonatus head) with many tears (both of joy and sorrow) setting forth to the whole people, his own fault and his son’s virtue, after he had kissed him, and forced his son to accept honor of him (as of his new-become subject) even in a moment died, as it should seem, his heart broken with unkindness and affliction, stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort, as it was able no longer to keep safe his royal spirits. But the new King (having no less lovingly performed all duties to him dead, than alive) pursued on the siege of his unnatural brother, as much for the revenge of his father, as for the establishing of his own quiet, in which siege truly I cannot but acknowledge the prowess of those two brothers, than whom the Princes never found in all their travel two men of greater ability to perform, nor of abler skill for conduct.
But Plexirtus finding, that if nothing else, famine would at last bring him to destruction, thought better by humbleness to creep, where by pride he could not march. For certainly so had nature formed him, and the exercise of craft conformed him to all turnings of sleights, that though no man had less goodness in his soul than he, no man could better find the places whence arguments might grow of goodness to another, though no man felt less pity, no man could tell better how to stir pity, no man more impudent to deny, where proofs were not manifest, no man more ready to confess with a repenting manner of aggravating his own evil, where denial would but make the fault fowler. Now he took this way, that having gotten a passport for one (that pretended he would put Plexirtus alive into his hands) to speak with the King his brother, he himself (though much against the minds of the valiant brothers, who rather wished to die in brave defense) with a rope about his neck, barefooted, came to offer himself to the discretion of Leonatus. Where what submission he used, how cunningly in making greater the fault he made the faultiness the less, how artificially he could set out the torments of his own conscience, with the burdensome comber he had found of his ambitious desires, how finely seeming to desire nothing but death, as ashamed to live, he begged life, in the refusing it, I am not cunning enough to be able to express. But so fell out of it, that though at first sight Leonatus saw him with no other eye, than as the murderer of his father, and anger already began to paint revenge in many colors, ere long he had not only gotten pity, but pardon, and if not an excuse of the fault past, yet an opinion of future amendment, while the poor villains (chief ministers of his wickedness, now betrayed by the author thereof) were delivered to many cruel sorts of death he so handling it, that it rather seemed, he had rather come into the defense of an unremediable mischief already committed, then that they had done it at first by his consent.