Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

King Lear: Notes Towards a Textual Introduction


The question of revision

18Even so determined a proponent of conflation as Richard Knowles comments: "The question is not whether there was revision—of course there was—but who did it, and when, and why" ("Two Lears?" 58). My own construction of a narrative to explain the variations between the two texts relies to a significant degree on a belief that the Folio, at least in some respects and in some passages, represents a conscious revision of the play by Shakespeare, though his is very possibly not the only agency in the changes. The influence of a copy of Q2 on the Folio text sharpens the case for revision, since it would have been easier simply to reproduce a version of Q2 than to work from manuscript or a heavily annotated print text; the motive for printing the modified text may have been that it was simply more current, but it is more likely that Heminge and Condell chose it because in some respects at least it represented more recent work by Shakespeare.

19My reason for accepting that F records in some measure a Shakespearean revision differs somewhat from the arguments put forward by the writers of The Division of the Kingdoms, who for the most part rely on arguments that F was revised by Shakespeare specifically to improve stage-worthiness, and to make deliberate changes in characterization. The critical debate about the relative theatrical value of the Quarto and Folio texts illustrates the way that arguments of this kind can be made to work in both directions (compare Urkowitz and Clare, "Who is it"). I am also fundamentally in agreement with A. R. Braunmuller's judgment that academic editors are "at best only intermittently . . . equipped to understand matters of performance" (148), however perceptive the arguments of critics like Michael Warren and Urkowitz are in their detailed discussions. It is also the case that productions of the play vary enormously in the kinds of cuts and modifications that directors have historically made; one actor's/director's/critic's high point is another's candidate for the axe. The empirical test of production over many years argues rather against the clear superiority of the Folio text in the theater, since only those directors who have deliberately decided to produce a Folio version have followed its cuts. Michael Dobson, in a review of the Bate/Rasmussen RSC Works, commented unkindly that "Even now Ian McKellen is performing King Lear in Stratford using a text including the mock-trial scene, here relegated to an appendix. . . . Perhaps Bate and Rasmussen would have preferred McKellen to perform the mock-trial scene in King Lear only as an encore." In all fairness, someone should have directed Dobson to Rasmussen's more strictly bibliographical argument that cuts in F Lear are different in nature from those in F Hamlet ("Revision of Scripts").

20In a similar vein, I am skeptical about arguments for consistent revision based on character rather than role. Character, as conceived in current criticism, is largely a construct of late nineteenth-century critics and twentieth-century acting traditions (see, for example the discussion by Slights). A number of arguments in favor of revision detail changes in characterization between the two versions. Many of these critics are subtle in their analyses, but I feel that their critical approach tends to over-value small changes in wording over the kinds of variation a good actor can instill into any passage by shifting emphasis. Lukas Erne astutely points out the profound influence that punctuation—of necessity very largely the responsibility of the compositor and/or editor—can have on meaning, and hence of the construction of character (Collaborators 18-19). In a modern production of Lear, a director can cut significant parts of a character's role without inducing changes in the interpretation of the character, since both the director and actor will have read the entire play (probably in a conflated version) and can thus adduce motive to actions that are only obliquely referred to in the redacted stage version. Changes in roles, however, can be more consistently defended as the result of revision. The roles of Kent, Albany, the Fool, and Lear are significantly changed in the Folio (Michael Warren, Urkowitz, Kerrigan, Clayton); Ioppolo also argues that Cordelia becomes a stronger character in F (Revising 167-83). The motives for the changes, by Shakespeare or some other hand, may be the result of something as arbitrary as a change in theater personnel, but the argument for revision is not necessarily dependent on the motives that lie behind the changes. We may remember the difference between Keats and Wordsworth as they revised, the one enriching, the other tending to dilute the poetic intensity of their work. It is also possible, even probable, that revision was undertaken at different times by Shakespeare, not necessarily at one time, and that other hands may well have contributed modifications.

21My own argument for revision relies more on critical than historical or bibliographical arguments. It begins with the central, fundamental, and quite shocking change that Shakespeare made in the plot he inherited from both his historical and literary sources: the substitution of a tragic for a comic ending. If any members of his original audience came to the play with a preconceived notion from the earlier anonymous History of King Leir, they would have expected Cordelia to win the final battle, and to place her father back on the throne. Leir is a play that depends for its happy ending on a deeply providential view of the world. In his Introduction to his edition of King Leir for the online Queen's Men Editions, Andrew Griffin writes:

22Characters such as Cordella, Leir, and Perillus . . . often point out that God ordains their fates, and audiences regularly witness God's implausible interventions, as when he appears in the form of thunder, for instance, in order to protect the virtuous. (Paragraph 8)

23The change that Shakespeare made is so striking that he must have had some kind of deeply negative response to Leir's convenient view of the world where virtue is rewarded, sins punished—a world Albany vainly echoes in the final scene of Shakespeare's play, where he pronounces optimistically (in both versions), "All friends shall / Taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes / The cup of their deservings" (TLN 3274-6). Typically for King Lear, this optimism is ironically undercut immediately: the next speech (in the Folio) is Lear's last, as he dies grasping a desperate hope that the dead Cordelia yet lives; in the Quarto he lives just long enough to plead—successfully—that his heart break.

24One way of reading the series of dark reverses of this kind in the play is to see in them a determination by Shakespeare to present a world in which appeals to a providential god are shown to be as pointless as they were seen to be effective in the earlier play. I see the Folio as representing a further step in the darkening of the narrative. At least two passages the Folio omits are moments where in the Quarto the tragedy is illuminated by a shaft of gentler light: the two servants speaking compassionately of Gloucester after his blinding, and the scene in which a Gentleman speaks to Kent of the absent Cordelia in lines few readers (if not directors) would want to cut: "You have seen / Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears / Were like a better way" (TLN 2347.17-47.21). I would not claim that all the changes in the Folio follow this pattern, but I do find that the overall emotional vector from Leir to Q1 Lear to F Lear is steadily towards a darkening of the tone. It is this consistency of direction that makes me believe that the Folio is, at least in part, a further Shakespearean revision.

25Other kinds of revision, well documented in The Division of the Kingdoms, certainly occurred; I am especially persuaded by the statistical tests applied by MacDonald P. Jackson and the similar conclusion reached by Paul Werstine in the same collection, using quite different methods of analysis. While I accept the general position of Gary Taylor's argument that very little revision is likely to have been caused by outright censorship, I find it striking that one significant change is the modification of many of the references to the invasion from France, some resulting in awkwardness in the revised version. For whatever reason this revision was undertaken, it is not difficult to imagine Shakespeare, asked to make the change, looking afresh at the play and restructuring it to sharpen its distinction from the optimistically providential Leir, at the same time unable to resist the impulse to "tinker" (Kerrigan 195) with words, phrases, and perhaps roles as he re-read and re-worked the play. Halio similarly suggests that the process of adapting the play to the Blackfriars stage and staging expectations with act breaks might have had the same result (Tragedy, 82). I remain agnostic concerning the date of revision, and am unpersuaded by the arguments of Taylor ("Date and Authorship") or Clegg that a firm date is possible to ascertain. On balance, it seems likely that F may reflect changes by hands other than Shakespeare as well as any he made himself; Knowles, for example, argues that the number of "rare words" in the additions casts doubt on Shakespeare's authorship, even as he dismisses arguments for the authorship of Massinger or John Day ("Two Lears?" 60-1). On the other hand, Arthur Kinney's computer analysis suggests that Shakespeare was more likely to have written the additions than any of the usual suspects (Chapman, Fletcher, Jonson, Massinger, Webster). The sheer number of small changes, in my mind, makes the suggestion that they would have been made by a scribe rather than by Shakespeare or another dramatist called on to revise the play extremely unlikely (see Knowles, "Two Lears?" 76).

26Establishing the provenance of cuts is of course beyond the capacity of computer stylistic analysis; there are many possible motives for cutting in addition to an author's second thoughts—censorship, self-censorship, changes in actors, a simple desire to reduce the length of performance, and so on.

27I should stress that, though I do accept that revision is the most likely explanation for many changes between Q1 and F, I do not necessarily believe that all revisions were by Shakespeare or that the Folio presents a markedly improved play. It is different in a number of demonstrable and important ways, but each version—like many that have been distilled from some form of extended text for production—has its own integrity and interest.