Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

King Lear: Notes Towards a Textual Introduction


Editorial challenges

Actors and critics have long called King Lear "Shakespeare's Everest." Editors face a daunting task in working with a play that has not only been the focus of a mountain of critical enquiry and a long and distinguished stage presence, but which poses intricate and tantalizing questions in its textual history. For the editor the play might be thought to be more like the rather less famous Mount Elbrus, close to the border between Russia and Georgia, which is capped by two peaks, its western summit just 21 meters higher at 5,642 meters than its eastern twin: King Lear was published first, in 1608, as the "True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR" (Q1); the Folio of 1623 published it as "THE TRAGEDIE OF KING LEAR" (F). The two versions are significantly different in more than their titles: Q1 includes some 300 lines not in F, and F records about 100 lines not in Q1; in addition there are a large number of individually varying readings in words, phrases, and speech assignments.

1The relationship between the two versions is still intensely debated. Sonia Massai elegantly discusses the editorial history of the play, showing how varying social and ideological pressures shaped the way editors understood the texts ("Working"; see also Urkowitz, "'Base'" and Holderness). From the earliest editions (Rowe, Pope) to the influential Globe edition of 1863-6 there was an assumption that Shakespeare wrote a single play, which had for various reasons been garbled or corrupted in the two variant versions; there was thus a general movement towards the creation of what was thought to be the closest possible approximation to Shakespeare's original through conflating the two editions, and making more or less eclectic decisions on which variant reading to adopt. The debate took a new turn with the development of the New Bibliography, in its aim to make the editorial process grounded less on an editor's critical and interpretive judgment, more on objective data derived from objective knowledge: practices in the theater and print shop and evidence in the printed text as to the nature of the manuscript that lay behind it. It was assumed that certain kinds of stage directions, speech prefixes, and other characteristics of the printed text signaled an origin in the theater, others that the manuscript was the author's holograph in some form, or transcribed by a scribe. Once the origin of the texts was established, the editor would be able to make more informed decisions on variants, since the distance from Shakespeare's original would be defined.

2Two late twentieth-century theoretical discussions have significantly complicated this deceptively neat solution. As our understanding of the processes of the theater, print shop, and the creation of theatrical manuscripts has deepened, we have become more keenly aware of the production of a work as a social and collaborative activity (McGann, McKenzie); a corollary of this increasing awareness has been a willingness to look at each text as a separate snapshot of a play that was in continuing change both on stage and in varying manuscript manifestations. The most important result of this revaluation has been a sustained argument that Shakespeare himself revised the play, and that the Folio version reflects this revision. Following early work by Michael Warren ("Quarto and Folio King Lear") and Steven Urkowitz (Shakespeare's Revision), Warren and Gary Taylor published The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear (1983), a collection of essays that argued strongly that the Folio Lear represents a conscious revision by Shakespeare, largely driven by a perceived intention to make the play more effective in the theater. Three years later the new Oxford Complete Works edited by Taylor and Stanley Wells published two separate versions of Lear, one based on Q1, the other on the Folio. Since this important publication, the debate about the legitimacy of a conflated text has continued and has been extended to include Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and possibly other plays where Quarto and Folio versions differ considerably. Grace Ioppolo put the case against conflation trenchantly:

3Any edition of King Lear which conflates the Quarto and Folio texts, . . . produces an inconsistent treatment of themes such as war and familial conflict, a confused presentation of the play's structure and form, and, most important, a falsely conflated version of Cordelia and so many other characters, creating a counterfeit and non-Shakespearean foundation upon which only the most limited literary interpretation and meaning can be built. (Revising 181)

4However, not all scholars agree that deconflation is desirable or necessary. Ernst Honigmann points out astutely that even those editors who attempt to produce a "pure" modern text of Q1 or F end up, in effect, conflating, since they invariably use readings from the other text in their solutions to various cruxes: "Conflation appears to be unavoidable: the question is not whether to conflate or not, but rather how much to conflate" ("The New Bibliography" 87-8). When Norton used the Oxford texts for its Works, they published Quarto and Folio versions in parallel texts and added a third, conflated, version. R. A. Foakes's edition for the Arden 3 series prints a conflated version with readings and passages from Quarto and Folio clearly indicated by small superscript letters; Paul Werstine and Barbara Mowat's Folger Lear uses variously shaped brackets to distinguish the origin of different readings. In each case, the editors acknowledge the importance of providing readers with a version of the play that includes the widest possible range of information about what Shakespeare wrote, however different the extant versions may be.

5In his remarkable experiment in movable text in the medium of print, The Complete King Lear, Michael Warren concludes the first paragraph of his General Introduction with a fundamental question: "What is the work called King Lear?" (xi). Foakes picks up the same terminology in his Introduction, where he defines King Lear as a "work" divided into two separate versions: "there is every reason to think that we have two versions of the same play, not two different plays" (119). It does seem that editors tacitly or openly acknowledge that culturally Lear has become a single concept rather than two separate texts, even if this is the result of an editorial tradition that evolved many years after the play was written, rewritten, and published. Along these lines I have argued elsewhere that the variant texts of Shakespeare have acquired a "play-function" equivalent to Foucault's "author-function" (Best), with the result that an edition of King Lear that will actually be useful to those who consult it must in some fashion provide an accessible text that includes passages from both Q1 and F, whichever is seen as the copy text. At the very least, an electronic edition must follow the precedent set by The Cambridge King Lear CD-ROM: Text and Performance Archive, which provided a "finder" text, in this instance a conflated version edited by Jay Halio, as a basic navigational tool for users to consult the multiple versions the CD offered.