Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

King Lear: Notes Towards a Textual Introduction


Critical approaches

28The focus of this proposal has of necessity been on the texts of Lear; the critical literature on the play is no less challenging. The review of criticism will be selective, and I will work with Andrew Griffin and Alex Huang in this area. It is evident from what I have already written that in recent decades the study of the text and critical approaches have overlapped. One particularly interesting study will be to take particular note of those recent critics who are attentive to nuances that vary between Q1 and F; Erne notes some quite surprising lapses, though he tactfully mentions only in a footnote those who cheerfully reach critical conclusions about King Lear by citing variant passages without differentiating the texts (95; see notes 192 and 193 on page 123).

29The structure of my introductory essays will carefully distinguish conclusions that can be reached through readings common to both texts, unique to Q1, and to F. The existence of two "snapshots" of the play invites the metaphor of vision: one eye (Q1, say) offers a specific view, while the other eye (F) provides a subtly different perspective. Looking at a given moment or character in the play first through one, then the other, can provide a rich experience in critical analysis, as several of the essays in The Division of the Kingdoms attest. More challenging, perhaps, is the possibility of looking with both eyes at once, where the differing views can, as in stereoscopic vision, provide greater depth of understanding—or a blurring of meaning if the separate views conflict. In the online version of the Introduction I plan to use hypertextual branching logic to provide parallel readings of selected passages and issues that depend on them (rather like the old children's "choice" stories); thus there will be interlinked discussions of CordeliaF, CordeliaQ and CordeliaQF.

30As I work on the edition, my own critical journey through the troubled landscape of King Lear will certainly change the way I think about it. My critical approach will certainly be driven by the most dramatic moments, from the initial love-auction and its echo in the reverse auction as Lear is stripped of his followers, to the shocking blinding of Gloucester, the reconciliation with Cordelia, and that radically changed ending. The striking mutation in the titles from Q1's "history" to F's "tragedy" is an overt invitation to consider the play from the point of view of genre. This change is a relatively muted one, and had been prefigured in the mirror change in Richard II from quarto "tragedy" to folio "history." More central, from my point of view, is once again the change Shakespeare made from his sources, where he wrests tragedy from the structure of romance through a plot-stratagem that is almost as arbitrary as the ending of The Winter's Tale—a play, in contrast, where he wrests romance from tragedy. If Lear was revised, as Taylor argues, at the time Shakespeare was moving towards writing his last group of plays—in which providential agents often spectacularly intervene—the ending becomes especially tantalizing in what can be seen as an increase in the ambiguity of Lear's final moments. LearQ groans (or whatever the actor makes of "O, o, o, o"), and makes a final successful plea for his heart to break; LearF seems to believe that Cordelia lives, in a deeply ambiguous ending that is both joyful and bitterly ironic. It is no surprise that Tate effectively restored the ending of Shakespeare's sources, and that his version held the stage for so long. Discussion of the play's genre leads also to a consideration of the fascinating roles of the FoolQ-F-QF in the play, thrust in by head and shoulders to play a part in majestical matters, then abandoned half way through. His role invites analysis in part because he contributes nothing to the action of the play, and because his role shifts from Q1 to F in a way that will test the sharpening/blurring of focus as I explore the variations in his role.

31I should stress that though I find questions of genre a valuable way of entering the world of King Lear, it by no means the only approach of value. King Lear is an immensely rich exploration of issues from domestic love and loyalty to the intensely political and violent; as a play its structure is complex, and its characters are nuanced and varied, both within and between the versions. As so often in Shakespeare's plays, questions of love and power are interwoven. The exploration begins with the opening love-auction where Lear's hubris leads him to violate both the principles of the wise use of power—the division of the kingdom—and moderation in matters of love, as he demands more from his daughters than can reasonably be asked. A particularly fruitful exploration will be to revisit the characterization of the female characters in the two versions, since Goneril and Cordelia (see Goldring and Ioppolo, Revising) each undergo a shift in perspective. Here again comparison with the romances is illuminating, as the father-daughter relationship, with its not-quite-suppressed incest motif, is explored in the excesses of Goneril and Regan and the obstinate-but-sympathetic refusal of Cordelia to play the game (see Quilligan). Shakespeare explores variations on the interconnection of love/sex and power in Edmund and his liaisons with the two elder sisters. My work with King John has been instructive in the assessment of female roles in the histories; I will similarly deal with evolving critical attitudes to the "ugly sisters" (see Rutter) and the shifting perspective we see in CordeliaQ-F.

32This last metaphor—that of perspective—highlights one of the major image clusters in the play: vision and the eyes, from Kent's "see better, Lear" (TLN 170) to the blinding of Gloucester, to LearF's last words, "Look there, look there" (TLN 3283). The combined effect is to direct the reader/viewer's eye towards King Lear as a play of blindness, sight, and ultimately of insight, whether or not understanding comes too late for the "promised end" (TLN 3224). My discussion of the texts has made clear my view that the play is consciously anti-providential in the contrast between the continual invocation of the gods by the characters and the ironical reverses that follow many of these pleas; in the absence of divine intervention, the better instincts of human justice are all that keep characters from accounting life "as cheap as beasts" (TLN 1567). Although I find F generally darker than Q1 I do not find it "bleak" (a word commentators frequently use of the play, especially the Folio version); the capacity for the aged Lear to learn truths that had escaped him throughout his life, and the profound generosity of spirit shown by several other characters, illuminate a world where human endeavor struggles to find its own salvation and its own sense of justice, whatever the odds.