Jonathan Bate

Shakespeare’s crowning glory

There’s only one true version of King Lear, says Sir Brian Vickers — and any Shakespeare scholar who disagrees can go hang

In the 18th century, as Shakespeare began to take on classic status, editors began to notice differences between the texts of the plays preserved by his fellow actors in the posthumously published First Folio of his Comedies, Histories & Tragedies and those that had been published in the playwright’s lifetime in the cheap pocket editions, analogous to modern paperbacks, known in the trade as Quartos.

In the case of King Lear, the subject of Sir Brian Vickers’s new book, the Quarto of 1608 is strikingly different from the Folio of 1623. The Quarto has nearly 300 lines that are not in the Folio; the Folio has over 100 lines that are not in the Quarto; there are more than 800 verbal variants in the parts of the play that the two texts share. For a long time, the standard editorial response to this difficulty was to treat the Quarto as a ‘memorial reconstruction’ by actors — a phenomenon that accounts for the First Quarto of Hamlet, which includes the immortal and presumably half-remembered line ‘To be or not to be, ay, there’s the point.’ This was, however, a difficult position to maintain because Quarto Lear, although corrupt in many places, does not have the usual characteristics of memorial reconstruction.

In the 1970s the scholar Peter Blayney proved decisively by means of meticulous and highly technical bibliographic investigation that Quarto Lear was not a bad text based on actors’ memories but an authoritative one, almost certainly deriving from Shakespeare’s own holograph. The poor quality of the text was the result of the personnel in the printing shop being unused to drama. Thus the fact that much of Shakespeare’s verse was set as prose was due to the printer running out of the blocks that were needed to fill in the margins when setting verse.

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