The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of 'King Lear'
Is it really possible that, after so many centuries of tinkering and bickering, the editors still have not produced a text of King Lear as Shakespeare would have wanted it? That the world has persuaded itself that this play is the master’s masterpiece—without noticing that the editors have jumbled together words, lines, and episodes (from Q and F, the quarto text of 1608 and the folio text of 1623) that were actually meant to replace each other, and that sometimes make little sense as now printed? If so, we must salute the text of King Lear as the most successful hoax in the long history of Shakespeare fabrications.
Several books and articles have recently argued that Q and F represent different versions of the play which, like the 1805 and 1850 manuscripts of Words-worth’s The Prelude, should be treated as separate entities and not conflated, as they have been for almost three hundred years, in a single text. Any modern edition of Shakespeare one may consult—the Arden, the Penguin, the Riverside—presents a composite text, usually one that follows F but accepts many readings from Q. Challenging an editorial tradition that has survived for so long, the authors must expect some resistance, and Messrs. Taylor and Warren should perhaps have helped the reader of the most ambitious criticism so far of the “single version” theory by placing it in a wider context. Stanley Wells’s introduction, “The Once and Future King Lear,” was a splendid conference paper given in Stratford on Avon in 1982; it made everyone sit up, read out as it was with conviction and in ringing tones.
On that occasion there was no time to look far beyond King Lear; what one now wants to know is whether the editors of King Lear have been so incompetent (if indeed they have been) because a “single version” theory was fashionable in Shakespeare editing generally—or whether “the two versions of Lear” is a theory that has itself become fashionable only because the discussion has been largely restricted to a single play. “Stanley has really swallowed it,” I heard one delegate mutter, as the applause died down; new though it seems, the “two versions” theory has already had a bandwagon effect, and that will stiffen the resistance.
Yet the idea that Shakespeare revised his plays has been around for a long time. It was once held that the first printed texts of Romeo, Henry V, Merry Wives, and Hamlet were “first drafts,” later improved; according to this view Shakespeare first wrote:
To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep—is that all? Ay, all.
No: to sleep, to dream. Ay, marry, there it goes…
and then thought he could do better. In 1909, however, A.W. Pollard showed that these early texts were not first drafts but unauthorized reconstructions from memory—or “bad quartos”—of the plays as we know them. The first quartos of Richard III and Lear resembled these bad quartos in some respects, though…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.