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The Quarto of King Lear - representing the early stage history of the play?

Dr Christie Carson, Royal Holloway University of London

Over time the text of King Lear has changed drastically owing to the work of editors and theatre artists. From the outset King Lear existed in two very different versions, the Quarto of 1608 and the Folio of 1623. While there are many hypotheses about the origins of the Quarto editions all that is certain is that they appeared in Shakespeare’s lifetime - but the playwright seems not to have been involved in their creation. The Folio, on the other hand, created after Shakespeare’s death, was published with the involvement of two members of his company with the expressed purpose of keeping his memory and work alive.

As a result, the Folio is often considered more authoritative. However, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the relationship between the printed texts and what took place on stage during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Some would argue that the differences between the Quarto and the Folio reflect changes made to the play as it was performed in Shakespeare’s theatre - changes in which the playwright may or may not have had a hand.

From Quarto to Folio

My research into the textual and performance history of the play supports this argument. I would argue that the majority of the changes made from the Quarto to the Folio represent alternations to the dramatic action and characters that improve the play theatrically. There is an entire scene (4.3) in the Quarto that does not appear in the Folio. This scene, which involves Kent and a Gentleman discussing the states of mind of both Cordelia and Lear, was seen as superfluous.

But cutting the play’s length is not the only change between the Quarto and the Folio. The changes include hundreds of small variants, involving words or phrases as well as full lines. Some speeches have been given to different characters, stage directions have been altered, as has punctuation. There are roughly 285 lines in the Quarto that are not in the Folio and 115 lines in the Folio that are not in the Quarto. This is clearly not just an issue of the play’s running time.

The changes affect characterisation, structure, emphasis and the pacing of scenes, rather than presenting radical alterations to the plot. In particular, as Michael Warren has convincingly argued, Albany and Kent are weaker characters in the Folio and Edgar’s character becomes more forceful, justifying the shift to Edgar as the heir apparent for the next generation.

Changes to the play’s final scene

The best illustration of the changes from the Quarto to the Folio is perhaps the last scene of the play in which both Lear’s final lines are changed and the final speech is attributed to a different character. The following passages show both a shift in King Lear’s final vision of the world and a softening of the character of Kent.

Quarto text

Lear And my poor fool is hanged. No, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, [280]
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
Never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.

O, O, O, O.

Edgar He faints. My lord, my lord!
Lear Break, heart, I prithee break.
Edgar Look up, my lord.
Kent Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. [Lear dies]

Folio Text

Lear And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, [280]
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips.
Look there, look there. [He dies]
Edgar He faints. My lord, my lord!
Kent Break, heart, I prithee break.
Edgar Look up, my lord.
Kent Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. [Lear dies]

In the above example, Lear acquires two new lines in the Folio before he dies, shifting his character away from the despair of the line ‘Break, heart, I prithee break’. This line is instead given to Kent, establishing that he too has come to the end of his journey, thereby justifying the fact that he declines the opportunity to lead after Lear’s death. The reintroduction of hope in Lear’s last line can be performed either as redemption and absolution or delusion. As is true of so much of Shakespeare’s work, these lines are ambiguous.

The play’s concluding lines

The final lines of the play in the Quarto are given to Albany, which is appropriate in terms of his seniority within the social structure to the play. However, in the Folio these lines are given to Edgar, the only person on stage who has not engaged in the battle between the generations until the very last scene. Edgar is presented in the Folio as the leader of the new generation and the representative of a gentler form or leadership.

Albany (Q) Edgar (F) The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long. [300]
[Exeunt with a dead march]

Edgar ending the play introduces hope of a new beginning with a different set of values in place. As Richard Eyre, who directed the play at the National Theatre in 1997, says ‘there is something wonderful about this terribly simple advice being given to you by a man who has had to grow up in the most violent way. Edgar, a sort of mild, bookish man, becomes a warrior, then sees this holocaust, and the advice he gives you is, open your heart, speak what you feel’.

I suggest, then, that there is strong evidence the changes between the Quarto and the Folio were made as a result of the audience response to the play during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The ending, in particular, is altered to change it from a scene of absolute despair to a scene of possible redemption and rebirth. Hope is reintroduced into the Folio ending of the play, something that makes this tragedy more poignant but also more bearable in its Folio form.

 
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