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Do-It-Yourself Lear

The Complete King Lear, 1608–1623 (1623), 149

by William Shakespeare, prepared by Michael Warren
University of California Press, Part 4: The First Folio (1623) in photographic facsimile, 54 pp., Part 1 available separately, $45.00

At the World Shakespeare Congress held in Washington, DC in April 1976, Michael Warren read a short paper on “Quarto and Folio King Lear and the Interpretation of Albany and Edgar”1—a paper hailed by some as the start of a new era in textual studies and deplored by others as a will-o’-the-wisp that would lure the weak-minded to their destruction. Mr. Warren, a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Cruz, took issue with the traditional view “that there is one primal lost text, an ‘ideal King Lear‘ that Shakespeare wrote, and that we have two corrupt copies of it,” the Quarto and Folio versions (hereafter Q or Q1 and F). Instead he proposed that Shakespeare had revised King Lear, and that this explains most of the differences between Q and F. So many words and longer passages differ in the two texts, he maintained, that Q and F should not be conflated (or jumbled together), as hitherto, but “should be treated as two versions of a single play, both having authority.” If accepted, this theory has momentous implications for Shakespeare’s editors.

Mr. Warren’s prize exhibits were Albany and Edgar, whose roles differ so much in the two texts that “one is obliged to interpret their characters differently in each.” Both Albany and Edgar lose and gain speeches in F (which is thought to be the later version), and some of the speeches are switched from one to the other, notably the play’s last one:

Edg. The waight of this sad time we must obey,
Speake what we feele, not what we ought to say:
The oldest hath borne most, we that are yong,
Shall neuer see so much, nor liue so long. (V.iii. 324–327, F)

Q assigns this speech to Albany. In the past editors have assumed that one of the texts is corrupt, whereas Mr. Warren argues that Shakespeare changed his mind, and that other changes affecting Albany and/or Edgar show that “a substantial and consistent recasting of certain aspects of the play has taken place.” Edgar, “a young man over-whelmed by his experience” in Q, becomes in F “a young man who has learned a great deal, and who is emerging as the new leader of the ravaged society.”

One might have expected that Mr. Warren’s theory would give him no peace until he had brought out an edition of each of the two texts of King Lear. The Complete King Lear turns out to be both more and less ambitious. It offers not two but four texts—parallel texts of Q1 (1608) and F (1623) (Part 1); and also photographic facsimiles of the First Quarto (2); the Second Quarto (1619) (3); and the First Folio (4). Mr. Warren therefore publishes “the ‘textual raw material’ for the study of the problems of King Lear” (perhaps we should say photographic reproductions of the raw material?), a do-it-yourself kit rather than editions, as usually understood, of the Q1 and F versions. Since recent work has indicated that the Second Quarto influenced the printer’s copy for the F text, Q2 had to be included, and future editors of the play and advanced students will of course be grateful to Mr. Warren for so painstakingly assembling the evidence (if they can afford to pay the price).

What exactly has he done? For (2), (3), and (4),

the pages of print are reproduced here in their invariant, corrected, and uncorrected states…. The pages from invariant and corrected formes [in effect, groups of pages]…come first, revealing the text of the book as the printer might ideally have conceived it; next the pages from the uncorrected states of the variant formes are reproduced.

Consequently Mr. Warren does not reproduce the pages of (2), (3), and (4) from a single surviving copy, since Jacobean printers bound together corrected and uncorrected sheets, whichever lay at hand. Instead he gives us formes chosen from the many surviving copies of each. If this conflation seems not very different from the jumbling together of Q1 and F passages in the old-fashioned “ideal King Lear,” it can also claim to follow an established practice, as in the excellent Norton facsimile of the First Folio (1968).

Mr. Warren examined ninety-two copies of F in the United States and England, finally choosing his formes exclusively from “the ample holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library.” Now “pages of King Lear that have been reproduced in other facsimiles were eliminated from consideration in order to extend the number of exemplars of pages available to scholars for examination,” one of many sensible policies that meant more work for the editor. As regards (1), this is arranged in four parallel columns, reproducing the corrected and uncorrected/invariant versions of Q1 and F—speech by speech, not page by page, so that one’s eye can move easily from one text to another.

Getting the three basic texts photographed in their various states must have been a wearying business, even though the printing history of each had been carefully analyzed by others—by W.W. Greg and P.W.M. Blayney (Q1), by Letitia Skinner Dace (Q2), and by Charlton Hinman (F). Preparing a properly annotated edition of Q1 and of F will be a more demanding exercise, for it will involve an evaluation (not merely a very brief summary, as here) of all the books and essays that grew out of Mr. Warren’s short paper—an aftergrowth of mixed quality.

Not to beat about the bush, the “revision theory” has adduced reasons that suggest various strategies of revision, most probably authorial revision—yet has not grappled convincingly with the contrary evidence, or has ignored difficulties that still need to be resolved. To take one example from Mr. Warren’s own paper, itself a model of lucidity: he fails to mention one fact that may be relevant—understandably, since he was asked for a short paper and could not explore all the side issues. He did not mention that there are quite a lot of other speeches in Q Lear that are reassigned to a different speaker in F. Are they all authorial revisions or could some be corruptions?

The Oxford Shakespeare, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, committed as it was to the revision theory, seems to assume that Shakespeare changed his mind not only about Albany and Edgar but about such speeches as “Gon. [F: “Alb.”] That were the most, if hee should husband you.”; “Bast. Let the drum strike, and proue my title good” [F: “Reg. Let the Drum strike, and proue my title thine”]; “Gon. [F: “Bast.”] Aske me not what I know”; “Lear. [F: “Kent.”] Breake hart. I prethe [“prythee”] breake.”2 These are all instances from the final scene, where the Albany/Edgar switches are defended by Mr. Warren as revisions—does he think that the others are revisions as well? If so, why should Shakespeare suddenly reshuffle speech prefixes so extensively in this scene and at other points in the play?

Now a related question. Is there any evidence elsewhere that Shakespeare revised his plays by reassigning speeches to different speakers? Or that other dramatists have done so, on the scale envisaged by Mr. Warren and the Oxford editors? I am reminded of Alexander Pope’s preface to his edition of Shakespeare (1725). Pope, a meticulous poet himself, marveled at Shakespeare’s “wonderful preservation” of every character’s speech habits, “which is such throughout his plays, that had all the speeches been printed without the very names of the persons, I believe one might have applied them with certainty to every speaker.” That may be going too far; nonetheless, many others have confirmed the same point, that Shakespeare excelled in making his dramatis personae speak “in character”—he, surely, would be the last writer to switch around speakers’ names quite so freely?

True, when an acting company went on provincial tour, or reduced a large cast to more manageable proportions, minor roles were sometimes reassigned. In the case of Henry V someone—not necessarily the author—even switched round the Dauphin and Bourbon in the Agincourt scenes. In “bad quartos” (unauthorized memorial reconstructions) minor parts could be confused. But is it likely that Shakespeare reassigned the speeches of key characters, whose voices are quite distinctive?

Lear. Who is it that can tell me who I am? Lears shadow? I would learne that, for by the markes of soueraintie, knowledge, and reason, I should bee false perswaded I had daughters.

Foole. Which they, will make an obedient father.

Lear. Your name faire gentlewoman?

(I.4.229 ff., Q, printed as prose)

Lear. Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Foole. Lears shadow.

Lear. Your name, faire Gentlewoman?


Is this an author revising a first draft? It would be unwise, at any rate, to rule out other possible explanations.

Mr. Warren’s account of the Albany/Edgar changes is plausible, taken on its own. But when one considers the other changed “speech prefixes” in Lear, i.e., the names of the characters whose speeches follow, there are too many for comfort. In this dilemma it helps to glance at Sir Thomas More, which contains a scene of three pages that are fairly generally thought to be by Shakespeare—the only surviving dramatic manuscript in his hand (all his other plays only survive as printed texts). The three pages are relevant because some of the speech prefixes here were added later. In the heat of composition, it seems, Shakespeare poured out the dialogue and did not bother to insert all the necessary speech prefixes and stage directions—intending to tidy them later, or perhaps leaving this task to someone else. (Three important studies of Sir Thomas More have just appeared and, among other things, have greatly enlarged our understanding of Shakespeare’s writing habits3 ). Some of the “revised” speech prefixes in Lear, then, might be explained as errors in Q1, owing to the fact that Shakespeare left blanks or abbreviated names in this “foul papers” text.

The complexities of the “contrary evidence” can also be illustrated from a much-praised essay, Gary Taylor’s “The War in ‘King Lear.’ ” 4 Mr. Taylor noticed that Q and F “present coherent but distinct accounts” of the war with France.

The apparent motive for many of the major Folio changes from the Quarto text is to strengthen the structure of act IV…. The Folio has done this by cutting superfluities (IV,iii, much of IV,ii, the ending of IV vii) and strengthening the narrative line, largely by accelerating and clarifying the movement toward war…. In the last two acts of the Folio there remains but one (indirect) allusion to French intervention, being in fact Cordelia’s disclaimer of territorial ambitions: “No blown ambition doth our arms incite…” (IV,iv,27).

Mr. Taylor’s argument hinges on “one small but fundamental detail,” a stage direction in Act V, Scene ii: “the Quarto’s Powers of France become in the Folio simply drum and colours…and soldiers, without indication of nationality.” He knows that “Elizabethan theatres could produce recognizably foreign armies,” and thinks that F Lear, “though deriving from theatrical copy, does not ask for one.” Why, then, drums and colours in the stage direction? Colours (= flags) could be used to distinguish the two armies; F tells us, after all, that. Cordelia comes with “the Army of France” (III.vii.2), and the colours of her soldiers (compare IV.iv.1) would immediately establish their identity. Far from “systematically removing verbal and visual reminders of the French presence,” as Mr. Taylor thinks, the F version only seems to rely more completely on the visual evidence. The fact that Lear asks, in both Q and F, “Am I in France?” (IV.vii.76), in a scene in which he has recovered his wits, supports this reading. He thinks he must be in France because he recognizes French colours.

This suggestion does not rebut the revision theory in general, only its local application. I do not believe that the reviser deliberately excised “an extraneous political complication,” as Mr. Taylor would have it. The colors make their point on their own, so further references to French invaders were cut, as were other information-giving passages, when someone saw that this would tighten a sprawling play.

Mr. Warren and Mr. Taylor attended the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in 1980, participating in the seminar on “The textual problem in King Lear.” They, and others of the same persuasion, published their new ideas in a book of almost five hundred pages, reviewed by the present writer, who wondered why the eleven contributors proposed so many revision strategies.

Too many, perhaps? Shakespeare, we are told, changed his conception of several characters, tightened his plot (cutting out duplications, choric speeches, and other “superfluities”), and reinforced the play’s central ideas and images.5

And of course those who believe in the revision of King Lear do not always agree among themselves. Surveying earlier theories on political censorship in the play, Mr. Taylor accepted some instances and rejected others. He proposed simpler explanations of some differences between the two texts. “The omission of the mad trial is, without question, the Folio’s most surprising cut”:

Edg. The foule fiend bites my backe,

Foole. He’s mad, that trusts in the tamenes of a Wolfe, a horses health, a boyes loue, or a whores oath.

Lear. It shalbe done, I wil arraigne them straight,

Come sit thou here most learned Iustice

Thou sapient sir sit here, no you shee Foxes….

(III.vi.17–56, Q)

This passage, he suggested, may have been omitted from F “because Shakespeare decided that, in part, it failed” (as a result of “uncertainty of focus”). When he added that some omissions “could easily arise from simple inadvertence, by a scribe or by a compositor,” he conceded a point that we must not lose sight of. The scale of revision may be greater in King Lear than in Shakespeare’s other plays, yet the kinds of conscious and unconscious “revision” are often similar. The Folio omits some passages that are not essential (e.g., some referring to the French invasion) or that are confusing or poorly written, and no doubt left out others through inadvertence. Also, the Folio adds words and passages that look like inadvertent omissions from Q—a most damaging point against revision, if it could be proved.

Why cling to the revision theory, when some of the most influential supporting arguments appear to be less compelling than was once supposed? One reason for taking it seriously is that there are clear signs of revision elsewhere in Shakespeare’s writings. He personally signed a document that contains a good deal of revision, for which only he could be responsible. Everyone knows that he named his wife just once in his will, “Item I gyve vnto my wief my second best bed with the furniture.” Who remembers, though, that this is an interlineation, an afterthought, as was the bequest “to my ffellowes John Hemynge Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell xxvjs viijd peece to buy them Ringes”?

A will is not a play. Nevertheless we can assert categorically that Shakespeare’s plays also incorporate revisions (most famously Macbeth, with its Folio stage direction “Enter Hecat, and the other three Witches,” IV.i.38)—or cry out for revision (Timon, an untidy, unfinalized text). In Love’s Labour’s Lost the Quarto inadvertently printed a first draft and also a revised version of the same speech:

From womens eyes this doctrine I
They are the Ground, the Bookes,
   the Achadems,
From whence doth spring the true
   Promethean fire…

This became

From womens eyes this doctrine I
They sparcle still the right
   promethean fier,
They are the Bookes, the Artes, the
(IV.iii.302 ff.)

Something very similar happened in Romeo and Juliet. Of the two reports of Portia’s death in Julius Caesar (IV.iii.145 ff.) one was canceled, and, again, seems to have been printed inadvertently (this is a more controversial instance). Perhaps other curious repetitions in the plays also transmit canceled passages, one of which was printed by mistake—such as the Duke’s repeated proposal to Isabella in the last scene of Measure for Measure, and his inconsistent treatment of Lucio, whom he tells, “Thy slanders I forgive,” only to punish him for slander a moment later.

Another reason for accepting revision in King Lear is that now and then Q and F differ substantially, yet both scan and both make sense.

Thorough tatter’d cloathes great
   Vices do appeare:
Robes, and Furr’d gownes hide all.
   [Plate sinnes with Gold,
and the strong Lance of Iustice,
   hurtlesse breakes:
Arme it in ragges, a Pigmies straw
   do’s pierce it.
None do’s offend, none, I say none,
   Ile able ‘em;
take that of me my Friend, who
   haue the power
to seale th’accusers lips.] Get thee
and like a scuruy Politician, seeme
to see the things thou dost not.
(IV.vi.164 ff., F.; “through tottered raggs, smal vices do appeare,”
1.164, Q.)

I have put the words not found in Q in square brackets, and emended Place as Plate (1.165). Also, where Q and F misprint the speech as prose, I have relined the speech as verse. It will be noticed that Q breaks off and resumes in mid-line. One therefore wonders whether the words in square brackets were deliberately cut in Q (they could hardly be an unconscious omission, with metre and sense unimpaired), or were added later, by the reviser of F. Yet what would be gained by so short a cut?

We seem to be thrown back on the revision theory: Shakespeare stitched some of the play’s most powerful lines into one of its central speeches. Anyone who thinks this far-fetched should study the text of “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet,” a central speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (V,i.2 ff.), where similar seamless stitching is generally thought to have occurred.6

When I first met Mr. Warren—we were the two speakers in a seminar at the Huntington Library in 1982—he urged that we must redesign “our mode of producing Shakespeare texts for study.” We need “the earliest versions in photographic reproduction with their original confusions and corruptions unobscured by the interferences of later sophistication…. All further scholarship belongs in a commentary.” 7

In The Complete King Lear he shows what such editions can be, at their best. If, however, he were to edit the two texts of Lear for, say, an Arden Shakespeare, as in good time he may, or for a theatrical production, how would he set about it? Not, I hope, by following either Q or F too slavishly, as if these texts were above suspicion. (This happened, I think, with the Oxford Shakespeare’s two versions of Lear.) Firm editorial “interference” will be necessary. All “confusions and corruptions” will have to be corrected—and the survival of a second early text will sometimes complicate and sometimes speed the editorial process.

The editor, if not carried away by one side or the other, has to reconcile the evidence for (a) revision in F, and (b) unauthoritative omission and corruption in both Q and F. The two are not always easy to tell apart: therein lies the challenge for future generations. Mr. Warren, who started the present round of “revisionism,” cautiously and correctly warns that “the hypothesis of authorial revision in King Lear has by no means gained total assent.” Preparing The Complete King Lear he has not tried “to advocate any position except this: that no responsible statement about King Lear can be made unless proper attention has first been given to the earliest texts.” His invaluable facsimiles will recharge the batteries of the debate, and should help both sides to see more clearly, which may or may not be what they want. “Get thee glass eyes….”


She Got Lear Right January 17, 1991

  1. 1

    See Shakespeare, Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (University of Delaware Press, 1978), pp. 95–107.

  2. 2

    See The History of King Lear (in William Shakespeare, The Complete Works (Original Spelling Edition), ed. S. Wells and G. Taylor, Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1986), lines 2730, 2742, 2819, 2972.

  3. 3

    See Scott McMillin, The Elizabethan Theatre and “The Book of Sir Thomas More” (Cornell University Press, 1987); Shakespeare and “Sir Thomas More“, ed. T.H. Howard-Hill (Cambridge University Press, 1989); Sir Thomas More, ed. V. Gabrieli and G. Melchiori (The Revels Plays, Manchester University Press, 1990).

  4. 4

    In Shakespeare Survey 33 (1980), pp. 27–34.

  5. 5

    See The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. G. Taylor and M. Warren (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); The New York Review, February 2, 1984, p.16.

  6. 6

    See W.W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio (Oxford University Press/ Clarendon Press, 1955), pp. 241–242.

  7. 7

    Published in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, ed. Jerome J. McGann (University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 23–37.

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