One or Two King Lears?



by Stuart Elden

The One King Lear,
by Brian Vickers,
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 416 pp.

Anyone who has seen more than one production of a Shakespeare play in a theatre, or watched a film version, will know that the words said by the actors can change. Speeches are cut in whole or part, some lines reassigned, scenes switched around or dropped entirely. Sometimes lines from other plays, or the director or their colleague’s own, are introduced. These decisions are made for a range of artistic or logistical reasons – to reduce the running time, to speed the action, to give a contemporary spin, to streamline a subplot, to merge minor roles, and so on. It is of course highly likely that such practices accompanied these plays from their first performances in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

It is also reasonably well known that several Shakespeare plays exist in more than one printed version. The First Folio from 1623 contains 36 of his plays, many of which had not been published before, but it also includes some texts for which we have a different version. King Henry V, for example, exists in a Quarto edition from 1600, but this is likely to be a later version of the text than the one found in the Folio. Many of the scenes cut are important ones, but it is not hard to imagine this as a tighter, tauter version for performance. It also has some crucial differences – many of the passages in which the King appears as what we would now call a war criminal are missing. Hamlet, famously, exists in three versions. An early Quarto from 1603, generally seen as corrupt; a 1604-05 fuller version; and the 1623 Folio. There are passages, some of great length, which appear in either the 1604-05 text or the 1623 one, but not both. Modern editors of the text have tended to produce a single, ‘conflated’ text for reading and acting purposes from the two later versions. Sometimes the variant text is printed in a different font, or within brackets, or with some other editorial mark. But often the casual reader is entirely unaware they are reading a version of the text which never existed in print in Shakespeare’s time. Whether there was a composite manuscript version, what it looked like, and its relation to a modern conflation, is, of course, impossible to ascertain. More recently, the Arden Shakespeare series has taken the decision to separate the Hamlet texts out. In its third series it published the 1604-05 text as the main volume, with a companion volume of the two other versions.

King Lear presents similar problems for editors. There are two versions of the text: a 1608 Quarto published in Shakespeare’s lifetime entitled The History of King Lear, and the text entitled The Tragedy of King Lear in the 1623 Folio. There are passages unique to each text as well as a myriad of differences, minor and major. About 300 lines appear only in the Quarto, about 100 only in the Folio. Until the 1980s, editors fused the texts. Stage productions regularly mix the two – Lear’s famous opening speech is shorter in the Quarto, and the Folio has some key lines, but the mock trial of his daughters only appears in the Quarto. In one telling scene Lear asks himself who has become, and in the Quarto, answers himself as “Lear’s shadow”. In the Folio, that reply is given by the Fool. An important shift from a self-reflexive assessment to the stinging rebuke of his companion.

Additionally, the identity of the invading army, with Cordelia at its head, is somewhat different between the texts. In the Quarto it appears to be a French army; in the Folio an army she is leading. Notably, there are contradictory reports of the identity of that army by Kent. In the Quarto he clearly reports that a French force has landed; while in the Folio he talks of a civil war between the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, and that France’s spies have reported this back to the French King. Clearly, trying to reconcile the texts is therefore difficult, and risks confusion, unless the editor decides which reading is superior. As the editor of the Arden Third Series notes: “The texts in Q and F differ markedly here at the only point in the play where there are two different versions of a single substantial speech”.[i]

In the 1980s a challenge was made to the traditional way of editing, reading and performing the text. The revisionist view was that Shakespeare himself had reworked the text, and the Quarto and Folio recorded different stages of that work. On this reading Shakespeare intended the two texts to be distinct, and one was his later version of the manuscript. Michael Warren argued the case in an important 1978 essay, and this found quite widespread, though certainly not unanimous, support.[ii] A range of interpretations can be found in the book The Division of the Kingdoms, edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, published in 1983.[iii] Taylor was one of the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, and the title of the volume takes a line from the play itself; Warren produced a separate parallel text version.

Then, in 1986 the editors of the Oxford Shakespeare decided to respect the differences between the texts. They published both The History of King Lear and The Tragedy of King Lear in the edition, giving readers a choice of which text to read, or to compare them. Subsequently, the Norton Shakespeare gave the readers a choice of three – the separate texts on parallel pages, and a third conflated version. As James Shapiro writes in his recent intellectual history Shakespeare and the Year of King Lear, “Scholars have identified over a thousand differences between these two texts, mostly inconsequential, though a few dozen are substantial…”[iv] He notes one significant difference:

the endings of the two versions of the play diverge sharply in their handling of how Lear dies and in who speaks the final words. If any part of King Lear was overhauled by Shakespeare himself it is likely to have been its ending, for the bold changes made to the play’s conclusion can’t be easily attributed to the incompetence of compositors or to those in the playhouse trying to freshen up an old play.[v]

Other techniques were used to assess the textual record. There has been a longstanding practice of quantitative analysis on anonymous or disputed texts to ascertain their authorship, or to work out who might have written which parts of collaborative texts. This work, made much more extensive by the use of computers, has been brought to bear on King Lear. As Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney suggest in Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship:

The tests all point in one direction. F is a careful, coherent, consistent revision of Q, and Shakespeare is much the most likely candidate for the changes in F Lear among those we tested… Our computational stylistics as a means of gathering evidence, based on identifiable authorial habits, thus confirms what other scholars have thought based on more impressionistic responses and should put to rest any question of whether or not Shakespeare revised his work as well as collaborated with others.[vi]

The Oxford and Norton editions allowed even general readers the chance to assess the different versions which appeared in, or shortly after, Shakespeare’s life. Yet not all modern editors have followed this practice. While with Hamlet the Arden third series gave us three texts, with King Lear there was just one, critical edition. As its editor suggested: “In fact none of the differences between Q and F radically affects the plot of the play, or its general structure, and there is every reason to think that we have two versions of the same play, not two different plays”.[vii] He goes on to argue that while revisionists “may well have been right to argue that Shakespeare could have been involved in reworking the play”, they are “less justified in their over-confident assertion that the Quarto and Folio texts of the play ‘are distinct’”; that the Folio is superior and that each text should be edited independently.[viii] A good example of overstating the case is Gary Taylor’s claim that the identity of Cordelia’s army is consistently different between the two texts. [ix] There are important differences on this point certainly, but the phrase “the army of France is landed” appears in both Quarto and Folio (Act III, scene vii).

Given this, and much other evidence, is not at all clear that the revisionists created a new orthodoxy, but Brian Vickers seems to think it did.[x] And his book The One King Lear is devoted to challenging this view in painstaking detail. For Vickers there was only one version of the text written. The differences between the two printed versions can be put down to more mundane matters. For the Quarto, the printer underestimated the number of pages needed to print the text, and on discovering the true length of the material, employed a number of space-saving techniques. Verse was printed as prose, thus reducing the lines; long lines of verse were continued onto the next if that line was shorter; ampersands were used instead of ‘and’; spaces were compressed or removed next to punctuation. When all else failed, whole lines, speeches or scenes were cut out. The printer, Nicholas Okes, is given credit or blame for these changes. For the Folio, on Vickers’s reading, the version preserved is a theatrical version, cut for many of the same reasons a modern production might deem necessary (pp. 75-76), though he also notes some may also be due to printing (p. 231). He suggests that both Okes and the King’s Men players, to whom he attributes the theatrical version found in the Folio, had access to a full version, but mutilated it for different purposes.

To justify this argument, Vickers goes into an enormous amount of detail about printing techniques, much of which is fascinating in its own right. He is frequently very interesting on the editing practices of other plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. He is explicit in acknowledging his debt to earlier historians of the text, including Edward Hubler, Madeleine Doran, Peter Blayney and Richard Knowles. He adds an ‘Afterword’ to one chapter suggesting that this work, some of which he came to quite late, helped him to see that his “originality” was “anticipated”, and that he was not “just being eccentric” (p. 162). There has been a fascinating back and forth between Vickers and Holger Syme in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which much of this printing and textual detail is extensively discussed.[xi] I am not qualified to adjudicate on this, though I found much of this analysis intriguing. Vickers’s highlighting of the fact that the Oxford edition does not provide an accurate Quarto and Folio, side by side, but instead uses each to edit the other, was revealing and discouraging. Without the use of facsimile editions a reader cannot access an unedited text, although even there they experience the mediation of the original Quarto and Folio compositors and printers. Vickers is very good on the practices of printing, and there are many other small points of insight and perception through his study.

Yet ultimately I was left unconvinced. The idea that there are two distinct texts of King Lear, both reflecting a stage in the revision by Shakespeare himself, but which is unmediated by any other agents – actors, managers, copyists, printers, and so on – is clearly unsustainable. Even if Shakespeare did revise the manuscript, many other hands may have played a part in the versions we have. Vickers is very good on the possible changes that might have resulted from these other types of intervention. Yet any conflated version is an interpretation, an intervention which further gets in the way of the reader accessing the text. It is entirely plausible to suggest that there was one King Lear, and that the two early texts we have represent different corrupted versions of that original. But to assume that this lost manuscript, from Shakespeare’s pen, can be reconstructed by a modern editor is a fool’s errand. How do you decide who says “Lear’s shadow”, when both make perfect – though quite different – sense? The report from Kent is plausible in both forms separately, but pace Vickers (pp. 236-7), not together. And so on. One further question that I had was, if we were to accept Vickers’s argument for a single original text, on what basis could we be sure that lines cut from the Quarto for space reasons were not also cut from the Folio for performance? In other words, if we accept Vickers’s argument, there must be a possibility that there are lines irredeemably lost. Yet Vickers’s argument is premised on the basis that between the two texts we have all of Shakespeare’s original vision: “The cuts were made on different occasions, for different purposes, but, remarkably enough, the deficiencies in each text can be supplied by the other, as if they had formed a unity at the beginning” (p. 270).

Vickers’s argument seems to rest, in part, on his claim that the revisionists form a network of self-supporting references, endorsements and vested interests. He claims that they are immune to challenges, and “have ignored all substantive criticisms of their claims” (p. 271). He sees them as “members of this group”, in contrast to “independent scholars” (p. 301). Yet outsiders also encounter the peculiar textual difficulties of this play. I was first alerted to the variants in my historical-textual research for The Birth of Territory.[xii] While I believe that many of Shakespeare’s plays concern issues around territory, he uses the word ‘territory’ only twice – once in As You Like It, and once in King Lear, but only in the Folio text. (The plural ‘territories’ appears a few more times, but is still quite unusual.) Why might the opening scene of Lear’s division of the kingdom appear in two self-consistent, but variant forms? Why would the Quarto not include the lines which, for me, hold so much: “Since now we will divest us both of Rule,/Interest of Territory, Cares of State”? Vickers is dismissive of the cut of these lines, suggesting they are made “without damaging the sense of the action taking place. (If you have decided to give away your kingdom it is obvious that you are parting with ‘Rule… Territory… State’; that goes without saying” (p. 150). For me this was anything but obvious, and I was intrigued as to why the Quarto might think it went without saying, a puzzle which led me to the different editions, and the debates about textual provenance. The discussion of the invading army alerted me to more substantial changes along the path. In many ways my reading of King Lear for its intricate political geographies – division and conflict over territory, the wider politics of land, and the curious invocations of earth – would be more straight-forward if there was a single text which we could hope to reconstruct from the available textual evidence. But this simply is not the case.

Arden editor R.A. Foakes still makes a lot of sense in his assessment. He edited King Lear for the series in 1997, and suggested that a quarter of a century after the earliest revisionist accounts “a more nuanced view is emerging, one that is more sceptical about the argument for systematic authorial revision yet accepts that both the quarto and the folio are flawed texts which have different histories and tell different stories”.[xiii] Vickers’s book is fascinating and intriguing, even if its basic premise seems unsound. Books about books are at their best, I feel, if they make you want to go back to read what they have been writing about. This one certainly did. Twice.


[i] R.A. Fowkes, “Appendix 1: Two Textual Problems”, King Lear, edited by R.A. Foakes, London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997, p. 393. For a detailed reading, see pp. 393-402.

[ii] Michael J. Warren, “Quarto and Folio King Lear: The Interpretation of Albany and Edgar”, in David Bevington and Jay L. Halio (eds.), Shakespeare Pattern of Excelling Nature, Newark, 1978, pp. 95-105.

[iii] Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (eds.), The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of ‘King Lear’, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

[iv] James Shapiro, 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, London: Faber & Faber, 2015, p. 351.

[v] Shapiro, 1606, pp. 352-3.

[vi] Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney, Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 201.

[vii] Fowkes, “Introduction”, King Lear, pp. 118-9.

[viii] Fowkes, “Introduction”, King Lear, pp. 128-9

[ix] Gary Taylor, “The War in ‘King Lear’”, Shakespeare Survey, Vol 33, 1980, pp. 27-34, p. 31.

[x] See Fowkes, “Introduction”, King Lear, pp. 116-7.

[xi] See Holger S. Syme, “The Text is Foolish: Brian Vicker’s ‘The One King Lear’”, Los Angeles Review of Books,! and responses by Vickers and Syme.

[xii] Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

[xiii] Shapiro, 1606, p. 351.

About the Author:

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Theory and Geography at the University of Warwick, UK and Monash Warwick Professor in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Australia. He is the author of seven books, including The Birth of Territory (University of Chicago Press, 2013), Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity Press, 2016) and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press, 2017). He is currently writing a book entitled Shakespearean Territories. He runs a blog at