Can We Ever Master King Lear?

‘King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters’; photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872. From left are Lorina Liddell, Edith Liddell, Charles Hay Cameron, and Alice Liddell.
Royal Photographic Society
‘King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters’; photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872. From left are Lorina Liddell, Edith Liddell, Charles Hay Cameron, and Alice Liddell.

Here is the problem: Shakespeare’s King Lear was first printed in 1608 in one of the paperback-size, inexpensive editions known as Quartos and then again in 1623 in the First Folio, the large, handsome, posthumously published collection of his plays, edited by two of his friends and fellow actors. The two texts of the tragedy are not identical. The Quarto Lear contains almost three hundred lines that do not appear in the Folio, while the Folio text includes around a hundred lines that are not in the Quarto. In addition there are hundreds and hundreds of variants, some of them trivial but many of them substantive and intriguing. If you care deeply about the play—if you have undertaken to stage it or to edit it or simply to read it with close attention—you have to grapple with the differences and decide what to make of them.

It was in the eighteenth century that the differences between the two texts were first noticed in print. As Margreta de Grazia showed in her fine book Shakespeare Verbatim (1991), the meteroic rise in Shakespeare’s cultural prestige led in this period to an interest in establishing “authentic” texts.1 (It led as well to regularizing the spelling of the author’s name, which had hitherto flickered among such possibilities as Shakespear, Shakspere, Shaxpere, Shaxberd, and Schaftspere.) Eighteenth-century editors and their successors proceeded routinely to stitch together the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 Folio texts of Lear, salvaging as many lines as possible from both and choosing what they thought Shakespeare must have written or what, in the light of their aesthetic judgment, seemed to them most effective or tasteful.

Often the task was straightforward enough. In the Quarto Lear, after the two elder daughters have uttered their oily flatteries, the king turns to his youngest:

Lear: What can you say to win a third more opulent
Than your sisters?
Cordelia
: Nothing, my lord.
Lear
: How? Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.2

And in the Folio:

Lear: What can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Cordelia
: Nothing, my lord.
Lear
: Nothing?
Cordelia
: Nothing.
Lear
: Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Subtle as the differences are here—the basic situation, after all, is identical—the superiority of the Folio to the Quarto seems apparent. The pause between the old king’s question and his command gives the actor who plays Cordelia the opportunity to command the stage with silence. And the repetition…



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