This item is the first published version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, known as the first quarto or Q1. We can see from the title page that the play, with all of its questions about the duties of a monarch, was performed at court in front of King James. The corresponding entry in the Stationer’s Register (a document recording the licensing of printed books) dates the performance to 1606.
Q1 of King Lear is thought to be based on Shakespeare’s ‘foul papers’ (i.e. working drafts). If this is correct, it suggests that the publication was authorised by Shakespeare and the King’s Men, and that therefore the play was thought popular enough to market as a book without jeopardising ticket sales for future performances.
There are significant variations between Q1 and the text of King Lear in the First Folio (F1), the two primary textual sources for the play as we know it. For example, the mock trial only appears in the quarto editions and no servants come to Gloucester’s aid when he is blinded in F1. Modern editions of the play will say which text they are following or if they are presenting a combination of texts.
Some scholars suggest that some of the variations of Q1 are explained by the inexperience of the printer Nicholas Oakes. To make a quarto book, four pages of text are printed on each side of a large sheet of paper (1, 4, 5 and 8 on one side, 2, 3, 6 and 7 on the other, and with 1, 2, 7 and 8 one way up, and 3, 4, 5 and 6 the other way up). The text is composed letter by letter of individual pieces of metal type, set into galleys or frames, which are then inked and pressed onto the page. The sheet is then folded in half and half again so that the eight pages of text are in their correct sequence and all the same way up. This folded sheet is called a gathering or quire and multiple quires are sewn together through the central fold to make up a book, any folded outer edges being cut to read it. To print like this you need to divide up the manuscript copy text into eight print pages at a time and have enough type to set four pages of text so that the whole side of the large unfolded sheet can be printed in one go. Oakes’s inexperience would have made the estimation of how much manuscript text would make up a page of print difficult. He also set eight pages at a time instead of four and so found himself running out of type. On top of that he realised that he hadn’t ordered enough paper for the project. It is suggested that because of these issues, he and his compositors edited the copy text making cuts and abbreviations, setting poetry as prose, re-lining verse and making typographical changes to save space and type. You can see examples of some of these adaptations in the digitised extract.