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Not Peer Reviewed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.

The texts

6There is no doubt that Q1 King Lear is difficult and puzzling. It remains so even after three decades of intensive research, including the remarkably meticulous scholarship of Peter W. M. Blayney who has discovered much of value about the practices of Nicholas Okes's printing house, and about the process of printing the Quarto. Despite Blayney's research, the reasons for many of Q1's obscurities remain unexplained. Whatever copy Okes was working from seems to have puzzled him as well: a collation of extant copies shows that there were an unusual number of "stop press" corrections in the text. Most of these improve the sense, and seem to be more accurate, but some look more like sophistications—attempts by the proof reader to make sense of a passage, rather than the substitution of a correct reading from the manuscript. Just what kind of manuscript it was is uncertain. Was it an especially messy authorial copy, a memorial construction of a performance, or a reading of a shorthand version of the play? The prevailing view is that of the authorial copy; the hypothesis of a memorial construction is now generally rejected, despite some errors that may be the result of mishearing. Though for many years the possibility of the involvement of a shorthand transcription was soundly rejected following the work of G. I. Duthie, the possibility of this method of transmission has recently been cogently re-argued (Davidson). Whatever the origin of the printer's copy, the modern editor must intrude to a significant degree to make the text accessible to today's reader, and to find acceptable readings for many difficult passages. Although I find some of Davidson's readings ingenious and thoughtful, my working hypothesis as I edit Q1 will be that it is derived from an especially difficult authorial draft, very likely a copy that was already superseded by the time it reached the printer. The term "foul papers" has been called into question, but Okes's copy for Q1 may reasonably have justified the term; Grace Ioppolo (Manuscripts 94ff.) has detailed the known characteristics of authorial drafts, and it is fair to say that nothing in Q1 goes beyond an explanation of a particularly untidy set of foul papers, possibly further obscured by occasional stains from spilt sack and sugar. Q1 became the basis for a second quarto issued as one of the "Pavier" quartos of 1619. The fact that the title page falsely gives the date of publication as 1608 led Greg to argue that the group of plays published by Pavier were fraudulently published against the wishes of the players (9); more recent consideration of the evidence has challenged this assumption (Johnson; Massai, Rise; Clegg). Sonia Massai argues that the false dating was intended to allow publication of the plays both individually and as a "nonce" collection, and very possibly to provide advance publicity for the future Folio (Rise 112-21). Whatever the legitimacy of this quarto, it is striking that it was printed by Jaggard, and it is reasonable to suppose that a copy of it would be available in Jaggard's shop as his compositors began work on King Lear in its Folio version. While there is no indication that Q2 introduced any authoritative changes, it is valuable as a witness to the kinds of corrections a contemporary apparently found necessary and reasonable (See Massai, Rise, 121ff).

7It is therefore not surprising that there is evidence that the Folio version of King Lear was in some form influenced by Q2, though the process by which the two texts interacted is contested. Tom Berger, in a review of the Oxford Works published in 1986, commented that "Just as we create fictions to get through the day, bibliographers and editors create fictions to get through texts" (161); fictions they may be, and editors would do well not to believe too much in them (see Werstine "Narratives"), but some kind of narrative is inevitable as a guide to consistent editorial choices. There are two narratives that have gained some degree of currency: that the compositors worked from a version of Q2 that had been annotated by consultation with a manuscript used in the theater, or that they worked directly from such a manuscript, consulting Q2 where they ran into difficulties in reading it. Trevor Howard-Hill has argued that the copy for the Folio was a manuscript rather than an annotated print copy of either Q1 or Q2; his preferred narrative is that a "collator" used a print copy of Q2 to clarify difficulties in the promptbook he was asked to transcribe for the printer ("Problem" 23; see also Halio Tragedy 73). If indeed the type was set from an annotated copy of Q2, I am fascinated by the process that must have been involved in marking it up so completely, since the annotations must have included complex indications of changes in lineation as well as deletions and additions. Was Q2 marked up in the printing-house, with an "annotator" (Massai Rise), "editor or redactor or 'dresser of plays'" (Knowles, "Evolution" 149)? Or was the document prepared in the theater before the copy was handed to the printer? It would be an interesting exercise to take a facsimile of Q2 and attempt to annotate it to see how it could be done—a project I plan to undertake. An alternative, perhaps simpler narrative is offered by Richard Knowles ("Evolution"; see also Halio Tragedy 75). He suggests that Q1 was derived from foul papers that were copied by a scribe for the theater, and that this fair copy was then subjected to the usual process of evolution within the theater, with cuts and revisions undertaken by Shakespeare or others; the final copy of this manuscript was then used to set F, with the compositors, especially the inexperienced compositor E, referring with some frequency to Q2 to clarify difficulties in the manuscript.

8Whatever form the copy for F took, the Folio version leaves an editor with multiple questions so far as individual readings are concerned, not least because significant quantities of the text were set by the apprentice Compositor E. Since Q1 was used in some fashion in the production of the Folio text (perhaps via a fair copy, and in any case through Q2), the later text may well include corrections that could legitimately be used in emending the earlier; similarly, as the origin for the later text, Q1 readings may on occasion be appropriately reinstated if a Folio reading looks like a corruption. We return to what is effectively the tradition: an eclectic text, with selections governed by the particular narrative the editor sees behind individual readings, coupled with a necessarily subjective critical sensitivity.

9The electronic space provides a perfect medium for a multi-text, multi-faceted play like King Lear. It will start with facsimiles and accurate old-spelling texts of Q1, Q2, and F. Because Q1 exists in so many variant versions, the old-spelling text will (uniquely for our series to date) provide collations for the various readings, with the attendant opportunity for viewers of the text to see all variants simultaneously, color-coded. I will follow Blayney, Greg, and Michael Warren in their documentation of variants. The online edition will provide full modern-spelling editions for Q1 and F, complete with annotation and collation; each of these requires a full discussion of the nature and possible or probable provenance of the text. In each case I will retain readings for both Q1 and F where they are defensible, though I am aware that I run the risk of making the doubtful assumption that the merely defensible is correct.

10Rather than a "traditional" conflated text, it would be possible—following the precedent of David Bevington's ISE Hamlet—to create an "Editor's Choice" version that included preferred readings (for whatever rationale) and at least most of the passages unique to both Q1 and F. I am well aware that I am at the beginning of a long journey, and have yet to make full acquaintance with the minutiae of each version, but at this point my intention is not to create an editor's version, but to provide three ways of viewing the "complete" Lear, building them from the fully edited versions of Q1 and F:

  1. 11An inclusive text, generated from the collations along the lines of our current display of variants, but limited to Q1 and F. This will include everything from both versions, color-coded. The one major challenge here is that I can at present conceive no simple way of showing the multiple changes in lineation between the texts; there is ample opportunity here for experimentation.
  2. 12An extended text, based on Q1, but including all additional F passages, which will be distinguished (to provide uncomplicated reading) by typography rather than color: san-serif to contrast with the default serif font.
  3. 13A similarly extended text based on F.

14While there need be no necessary preference between the latter two "finder" texts, my current thinking is that the extended text based on F will come closer to an Editor's Choice text, as my discussion of the question of the revision of Lear will reveal.

15One interesting challenge in the two extended texts will be how to handle the several passages that are not only different, but incompatible. Urkowitz shows, for example, how the two versions of the angry interchange between Lear and Cornwall (TLN 1472-80), each eminently dramatic, lose pungency when combined (Revision 36-8):

Lear. This is a slaue, whose easie borrowed pride
Dwels in the fickle grace of her a followes,
Out varlet, from my sight.
Duke. What meanes your Grace? Enter Gon.
Gon. Who struck my seruant, Regan I haue good hope
Thou didst not know ant.
Lear. Who comes here? O heauens!
If you doe loue old men, if you sweet sway allow
Obedience, if your selues are old, make it your cause,
Lear. This is a Slaue, whose easie borrowed pride
Dwels in the sickly grace of her he followes.
Out Varlet, from my sight.
Corn. What meanes your Grace?
Enter Gonerill.
Lear. Who stockt my Seruant? Regan, I haue good hope
Thou did'st not know on't.
Who comes here? O Heauens!
If you do loue old men; if your sweet sway
Allow Obedience; if you your selues are old,
Make it your cause:

16In instances like this, each extended text will record only its own version, but since this is an electronic edition a marginal icon will allow a reader to switch to the alternate reading.

17In editing the "work" that is King Lear, I plan to provide the reader with a range of texts to explore. The basic navigation will be through an extended text from which readers will be able to glean most of what Shakespeare wrote in the two versions. The more curious, or scholarly, reader will be able to peel back layers to see what the play looked like in old spelling and in facsimile; or, indeed, to sift through an inclusive text that records all major variants on a single interface. The electronic medium will also allow me to include a number of additional ways of visualizing variants. For example, the question of the speaker at TLN 162 and 204 with the prefix "Cor," variously ascribed to Cornwall or Cordelia, is a perfect opportunity for an animated text moving between the two. In other instances where a reading from the current text is defensible but the alternative text provides a reading that can be seen as interestingly different (the "hit" / "sit" variant at TLN 328, for example), it will be possible for the reader to hover the mouse over the word to see the alternative, without having to click on it to open a commentary or collation window. In a pedagogical extension of this method of displaying the text, I plan to include a kind of "do it yourself" facility for selected scenes of particular interest: visitors to these pages will be able to select variants from pull-down menus and compile their own eclectic version of the text.

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.

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.

Works Cited

  1. 33Best, Michael. "Variation and Mutabilities: Representing Variants in Shakespeare's Texts." In New Ways of Looking at Old Texts, V. Ed. M. Denbo (forthcoming).
  2. Blayney, Peter W. M. The Texts of King Lear and Their Origins. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979.
  3. Bradley, Lynne. Adapting King Lear for the Stage. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010.
  4. Braunmuller, A. R. "On Not Looking Back: Sight and Sound and Text." In From Performance to Print in Shakespeare's England. Eds. P. Holland and S. Orgel. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
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