King Lear in Print

Part of the problematic scholarship of King Lear is that you’re forced to ask and then answer a simple question: which King Lear? No, I’m not talking about the source play, that anonymous King Leir, but two separate versions of King Lear by Shakespeare. Some would even argue three texts, and thus one, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

We’ve got the Quarto version of the play, from 1608, with the title, The True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Lear and his Three Daughters. But we also have the publication in 1623 of the Folio version, The Tragedy of King Lear (and it’s the Pelican edition of this second version that I’ve been using in the discussions of the play).

The Folio has over 100 lines that aren’t in the Quarto, and the Quarto has nearly 300 lines that aren’t in the Folio (including an entire scene of the disguised Kent learning of the arrival of Cordelia from France, the return to France of her husband, her reception of Kent’s note, and his stated implication that Lear’s guilt over his treatment of Cordelia keeps the king on the run from her; all this immediately preceding our reintroduction to Cordelia on British soil). There is some argument that the Quarto is a version of the play closer to the original text that Shakespeare wrote, and that the Folio is a version of the play that was produced, trimmed and edited for performance (and it’s for this performance rationale–that and the fact that I didn’t want to purchase a non-Pelican text–that I decided to read the Folio version).

Early editors like Alexander Pope in the 1720s and Lewis Theobald in the 1730s conflated the two texts, and this kind of combination has become standard issue. In this line of thinking, this third conflated text actually represents the one text (see, told you I’d get to that), and that each of the two earlier texts were bad versions of the true full play (which didn’t survive for contemporary publication, but was recreated by Theobald).

Directors, in particular, love the concept of the conflated text as it gives them more of a block of marble from which they can carve their production (plus, it gives the actor of Lear the mock trial sequence in the hovel from Act Three, Scene Six).

But which Lear is the real one?

We’ll probably never know.