Introduction - King Lear

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

King Lear


In King Lear, Shakespeare pushes to its limit the hypothesis of a malign or at least indifferent universe in which human life is meaningless and brutal. Few plays other than Hamlet and Macbeth approach King Lear in evoking the wretchedness of human existence, and even they cannot match the devastating spectacle of the Earl of Gloucester blinded or Cordelia dead in Lear’s arms. The responses of the chief characters are correspondingly searing. “Is man no more than this?” rages Lear. “Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art” (3.4.101—7). Life he calls a “great stage of fools,” an endless torment: “the first time that we smell the air / We wawl and cry” (4.6.179—83). Gloucester’s despair takes the form of accusing the gods of gleeful malice toward humanity: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport” (4.1.36—7). Gloucester’s ministering son Edgar can offer him no greater consolation than stoic resolve: “Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all” (5.2.8—10). These statements need not be read as choric expressions of meaning for the play as a whole, but they do attest to the depth of suffering. In no other Shakespearean play does injustice appear to triumph so ferociously, for so long, and with such impunity. Will the heavens countenance this reign of injustice on earth? Retribution is late in coming and is not certainly the work of the heavens themselves. For, at the last, we must confront the wanton death of the innocent Cordelia—a death no longer willed even by the villain who arranged her execution. “Is this the promised end?” (5.3.268) asks the Earl of Kent, stressing the unparalleled horror of the catastrophe.

Throughout its earlier history, the ancient story of King Lear had always ended happily. In the popular folktale of Cinderella, to which the legend of Lear’s daughters bears a significant resemblance, the youngest and virtuous daughter triumphs over her two older wicked sisters and is married to her princely wooer. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), the earliest known version of the Lear story, records that, after Lear is overthrown by his sons-in-law (more than by his daughters), he is restored to his throne by the intervention of the French King and is allowed to enjoy his kingdom and Cordelia’s love until his natural death. (Cordelia, as his successor, is later dethroned and murdered by her wicked nephews, but that is another story.) Sixteenth-century Tudor versions of the Lear story with which Shakespeare was familiar—John Higgins’s account in The First Part of the Mirror for Magistrates (1574), Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, 2.10.27—32, and a play called The True Chronicle History of King Leir (by 1594, published 1605)—all retain the happy ending. The tragic pattern may have been suggested instead by Shakespeare’s probable source for the Gloucester-Edgar-Edmund plot, Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, 2.10, in which the Paphlagonian King is the victim of filial ingratitude and deceit.

Yet even Shakespeare’s authority was not sufficient to put down the craving for a happy resolution. Nahum Tate’s adaptation (1681), which banished the Fool as indecorous for a tragedy and united Edgar and Cordelia in marriage, placing Lear once again on his throne, held the English stage for about 150 years. David Garrick restored some of Shakespeare’s lines, and Edmund Kean restored the tragic ending, but it was not until 1838 that King Lear was again performed more or less as the dramatist wrote it. One of Shakespeare’s editors, Dr. Samuel Johnson, evidently spoke for most eighteenth-century audiences when he confessed that he could hardly bring himself to read Shakespeare’s text. Cordelia’s slaughter violated that age’s longing for “poetic justice.” Her death implied a wanton universe and so counseled philosophic despair. Today, Shakespeare’s relentless honesty and refusal to accept easy answers convince us that he was right to defy the conventions of his source, though no doubt we, too, distort the play to conform with our supposed toughness of vision.

Shakespeare evidently wrote King Lear some time before it was performed at court in December of 1606, probably in 1605 and certainly no earlier than 1603—1604; Edgar’s speeches as Tom o’ Bedlam contain references to Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, which was registered for publication in March of 1603. Thus, King Lear was probably written between Othello (c. 1603—1604) and Macbeth (c. 1606—1607), when Shakespeare was at the height of his literary power in the writing of tragedies.

When we look at the play in formal terms, we are apt to be struck first by its complex double plot. Nowhere else in Shakespearean tragedy do we find anything approaching the rich orchestration of the double plotting in King Lear. The links and parallels between the two plots are established on a narrative level early in the play and continue to the end. King Lear misjudges his children and disinherits his loving daughter Cordelia in favor of her duplicitous sisters, whereas Gloucester falls prey to Edmund’s deceptions and disinherits his loyal son Edgar; Lear is turned out into the storm by his false daughters, while Gloucester is branded as a traitor by Edmund and deprived of his eyesight; Lear in his madness realizes his fault against Cordelia, while the blind Gloucester “sees” at last the truth about Edgar; and both fathers are cared for by their loving children and are belatedly reconciled to them, but then die brokenhearted. As recent criticism has noted, these narrative parallels are not especially significant in themselves; we are moved, not by the mere repetition of events, but by the enlargement of tragic vision that results from the counterpointing of two such actions. When we see juxtaposed to each other two scenes of trial, Lear’s mad arraignment of the absent Goneril and Regan and then the cruel imposition of the mere “form of justice” on the pinioned Gloucester (3.6 and 3.7), we begin to measure the extent to which justice and injustice are inverted by cruelty. When at last the two old men come together, during the storm scenes and especially at Dover, the sad comfort they derive from sharing the wreckage of their lives calls forth piercing eloquence against the stench of mortality. The sight is “most pitiful in the meanest wretch, / Past speaking of in a king” (4.6.204—5).

The play’s double structure suggests another duality central to King Lear: an opposition of parable and realism, in which “divided and distinguished worlds” are bound together for instructive contrast. (These terms are Maynard Mack’s, in his King Lear in Our Time, 1965.) To a remarkable degree, this play derives its story from folklore and legend, with many of the wondrous and implausible circumstances of popular romance. A prose rendition might almost begin, “Once upon a time there was a king who had three daughters.…” Yet Shakespeare arouses romantic expectation only to crush it by aborting the conventional happy ending, setting up a dramatic tension between an idealized world of make-believe and the actual world of disappointed hopes. We are aware of artifice and convention, and yet are deeply moved by the “truth” of suffering, love, and hatred. The characters pull us two ways at once; we regard them as types with universalized characteristics—a king and father, his cruel daughters, his loving daughter, and the like—and yet we scrutinize them for psychological motivation because they seem so real and individual.

This duality appears in both the central and the secondary characters. The King of France is in part a hero out of romance, who makes selfless choices and rescues the heroine Cordelia from her distress; yet his motive must also be appraised in the context of a bitter struggle for power. Why does he leave the English court “in choler,” and why does he return to England with an army? Is it only to aid his wife and her beleaguered father, or is he negotiating for military advantage? Certainly, a French invasion of England on behalf of Lear complicates the issues of loyalty for the well-meaning Duke of Albany (and perhaps as well for an English Renaissance audience, with its habitual mistrust of the French). The dual focus of the play invites conflicting interpretation. Similarly, Edgar is presented to us on the one hand as the traduced victim in a starkly pessimistic story, dominated by his rationalistic brother, Edmund, who scoffs at religion and undertakes to manipulate those around him for personal gain; on the other hand, Edgar’s story grows increasingly improbable as he undertakes a series of disguises and emerges finally as an anonymous champion of chivalry, challenging his brother in the lists like a knight-errant out of Arthurian romance. Edgar’s motives are hard to follow. Is he the hero of a fabulous story whose disguises and contriving of illusions for his father are simply part of that storytelling tradition, or is he, in more realistic terms, a man whose disguises are a defensive mask and whose elaborate contrivances defeat themselves? Edmund, his brother, is no less complex. On stage today he is usually interpreted as smooth and plausible, well-motivated by his father’s condescending attitude and by the arbitrariness of the law that has excluded him from legitimacy and inheritance. Yet parable elevates Edmund into something monstrous. He becomes an embodiment of gleeful villainy, like Iago in Othello, malignantly evil simply because the evil that is in the universe must find a human form through which to express itself. Edmund’s belated attempt to do some good adds to our difficulties in appraising his character, but the restless power of the dual conception supplies a vitality not to be found in pure fable or in realistic literature.

What we see then in Edmund and in others is the union of the universal and the particular, making King Lear at once parable and compellingly real. The parable or folktale element is prominent at the beginning of the play and focuses attention on the archetypal situations with which the story is concerned: rivalry between siblings, fear of parental rejection, and, at the same time, parental fear of children’s callousness. The “unrealistic” contrast between Cordelia and her wicked sisters, or between Edgar and Edmund, is something we accept as a convention of storytelling, because it expresses vividly the psychic truth of rivalry between brothers and sisters. We identify with Cordelia and Edgar as virtuous children whose worth is misjudged, and who are losing to wicked siblings the contest for parental approval. (In folklore, the rejecting parent is usually a stepparent, which signifies our conviction that he or she is not a true parent at all.) Similarly, we accept as a meaningful convention of storytelling the equally “unrealistic” device by which Lear tests the love of his daughters. Like any parent, he wishes to be loved and appreciated in response to the kindnesses he has performed. The tension between fathers and their marriageable daughters is a recurrent pattern in Shakespeare’s late plays, as in Othello (in which Brabantio accuses Desdemona of deceiving and deserting him), in Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale, and in The Tempest, in which the pattern is best resolved. In King Lear, Shakespeare explores the inherently explosive situation of an imperious father who, having provided for his children and having grown old, assumes he has a right to expect that those children will express their love and gratitude by looking after him.

The difficulty is that the parable of Lear and his children presents two contrasting viewpoints—that of the unappreciated child and that of the unwanted aging parent. Tragic misunderstanding is inevitable, and it outweighs the question of assessing blame. From Lear’s point of view, Cordelia’s silence is a truculent scanting of obedience. What he has devised is, after all, only a prearranged formality, with Cordelia to receive the richest third of England. Cannot such a ceremony be answered with the conventional hyperbole of courtly language, to which the King’s ear is attuned? Don’t parents have a right to be verbally reassured of their children’s love? How can children be so laconic about such a precious matter? For her part, however, Cordelia senses that Lear is demanding love as payment for his parental kindliness, quid pro quo. Genuine love ought rather to be selfless, as the King of France tells the Duke of Burgundy: “Love’s not love / When it is mingled with regards that stands / Aloof from th’entire point” (1.1.242—4). Is Cordelia being asked to prefer Lear before her own husband-to-be? Is this the price she must pay for her upbringing? Lear’s ego seems fully capable of demanding this sacrifice from his daughters, especially from his favorite, Cordelia; he has given them his whole kingdom, now let them care for him as befits his royal rank and patriarchal role. The “second childishness” of his old age brings with it a self-centered longing to monopolize the lives of his children and to be a child again. Besides, as king, Lear has long grown accustomed to flattery and absolute obedience. Goneril and Regan are content to flatter and promise obedience, knowing they will turn him out once he has relinquished his authority. Cordelia refuses to lie in this fashion, but she also will not yield to Lear’s implicit request for her undivided affection. Part of her must be loyal to her own husband and her children, in the natural cycle of the generations. “When I shall wed, / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty” (1.1.100—2). Marriage will not prevent her from obeying, loving, and honoring her father as is fit but will establish for her a new priority. To Lear, as to other fathers contemplating a daughter’s marriage in late Shakespearean plays, this savors of desertion.

Lear is sadly deficient in self-knowledge. As Regan dryly observes, “he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (1.1.296—7) and has grown ever more changeable and imperious with age. By dividing his kingdom in three, ostensibly so that “future strife / May be prevented now” (lines 44—5), he instead sets in motion a civil war and French invasion. His intention of putting aside his regal authority while still retaining “The name and all th’addition to a king” (line 136) perhaps betrays a lack of comprehension of the realities of power, although Lear may also have plausible political reasons for what he does, in view of the restive ambitions of the Dukes of Cornwall, Albany, and Burgundy. In any case, he welcomes poisoned flattery but interprets well-intended criticism, whether from Cordelia or Kent, as treason. These failures in no sense justify what Lear’s ungrateful children do to him; as he later says, just before going mad, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (3.2.59—60). His failures are, however, tokens of his worldly insolence, for which he must fall. The process is a painful one, but, since it brings self-discovery, it is not without its compensations. Indeed, a central paradox of the play is that by no other way could Lear have learned what human suffering and need are all about.

Lear’s Fool is instrumental in elucidating this paradox. The Fool offers Lear advice in palatable form as mere foolery or entertainment and thus obtains a hearing when Kent and Cordelia have been angrily dismissed. Beneath his seemingly innocent jibes, however, are plain warnings of the looming disaster Lear blindly refuses to acknowledge. The Fool knows, as indeed any fool could tell, that Goneril and Regan are remorseless and unnatural. The real fool, therefore, is Lear himself, for having placed himself in their power. In a paradox familiar to Renaissance audiences—as in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and Shakespeare’s own earlier As You Like It and Twelfth Night—folly and wisdom exchange places. By a similar inversion of logic, the Fool offers his coxcomb to the Earl of Kent for siding with Lear in his exile, “for taking one’s part that’s out of favor” (1.4.97). Worldly wisdom suggests that we serve those whose fortunes are on the rise, as the obsequious and servile Oswald does. Indeed, the sinister progress of the first half of the play seems to confirm the Fool’s contention that kindness and love are a sure way to exile and poverty. “Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill lest it break thy neck with following; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after” (2.4.70—3). Yet the Fool resolves to ignore his own sardonic advice: “I would have none but knaves follow it, since a fool gives it” (lines 74—5). Beneath his mocking, the Fool expresses the deeper truth that it is better to be a “fool” and suffer than to win on the cynical world’s terms. The greatest fools truly are those who prosper through cruelty and become hardened in sin. As the Fool puts it, deriving a seemingly contrary lesson from Lear’s rejection of Cordelia: “Why, this fellow has banished two on ’s daughters and did the third a blessing against his will” (1.4.98—100).

These inversions find a parallel in Christian teaching, although the play is nominally pagan in setting. (The lack of explicit Christian reference may be in part the result of a parliamentary order in 1606 banning references to “God” on stage as blasphemous.) Christianity does not hold a monopoly on the idea that one must lose the world in order to win a better world, but its expressions of that idea were plentifully available to Shakespeare: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (the Sermon on the Mount); “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21); “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” (Luke 1:52). Cordelia’s vision of genuine love is of this exalted spiritual order. She is, as the King of France extols her, “most rich being poor, / Most choice, forsaken, and most loved, despised” (1.1.254—5). This is the sense in which Lear has bestowed on her an unintended blessing, by exiling her from a worldly prosperity that is inherently pernicious. Now, with poetic fitness, Lear must learn the same lesson himself. He does so, paradoxically, at the very moment he goes mad, parting ways with the conventional truths of the corrupted world. “My wits begin to turn,” he says (3.2.67), and then speaks his first kind words to the Fool, who is his companion in the storm. Lear senses companionship with a fellow mortal who is cold and outcast as he is. In his madness, he perceives both the worth of this insight and the need for suffering to attain it: “The art of our necessities is strange, / And can make vile things precious” (lines 70—1). Misery teaches Lear things he never could know as king about other “Poor naked wretches” who “bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” How are such poor persons to be fed and clothed? “Oh, I have ta’en / Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; / Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, / That thou mayst shake the superflux to them / And show the heavens more just” (3.4.28—36). This vision of perfect justice is visionary and utopian, utterly mad, in fact, but it is also spiritual wisdom dearly bought.

Gloucester learns a similar truth and expresses it in much the same way. Like Lear, he has driven into exile a virtuous child and has placed himself in the power of the wicked. Enlightenment comes only through suffering. Just as Lear achieves spiritual wisdom when he goes mad, Gloucester achieves spiritual vision when he is physically blinded. His eyes having been ground out by the heel of Cornwall’s boot, Gloucester asks for Edmund only to learn that Edmund has betrayed him in return for siding with Lear in the approaching civil war. Gloucester’s response, however, is not to accuse Edmund of treachery but to beg forgiveness of the wronged Edgar. No longer does Gloucester need eyes to see this truth: “I stumbled when I saw.” Although the discovery is shattering, Gloucester perceives, as does Lear, that adversity is paradoxically of some benefit, since prosperity had previously caused him to be so spiritually blind. “Full oft ’tis seen / Our means secure us, and our mere defects / Prove our commodities” (4.1.19—21). And this realization leads him, as it does Lear, to express a longing for utopian social justice in which arrogant men will be humbled and the poor raised up by redistributed wealth. “Heavens, deal so still! / Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man, / That slaves your ordinance, that will not see / Because he does not feel, feel your pow’r quickly! / So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough” (lines 65—70).

To say that Lear and Gloucester learn something precious is not, however, to deny that they are also devastated and broken by their savage humiliation. Indeed, Gloucester is driven to a despairing attempt at suicide, and Lear remains obsessed with the rotten stench of his own mortality, “bound / Upon a wheel of fire” (4.7.47—8). Every decent value that we like to associate with civilization is grotesquely inverted during the storm scenes. Justice, for example, is portrayed in two sharply contrasting scenes: the mere “form of justice” by which Cornwall condemns Gloucester for treason (3.7.26) and the earnestly playacted trial by which the mad Lear arraigns Goneril and Regan of filial ingratitude (3.6). The appearance and the reality of justice have exchanged places, as have folly and wisdom or blindness and seeing. The trial of Gloucester is outwardly correct, for Cornwall possesses the legal authority to try his subjects and at least goes through the motions of interrogating his prisoner. The outcome is, however, cruelly predetermined. In the playacting trial concurrently taking place in a wretched hovel, the outward appearance of justice is pathetically absurd. Here, justice on earth is personified by a madman (Lear), Edgar disguised as another madman (Tom o’ Bedlam), and a Fool, of whom the latter two are addressed by Lear as “Thou robèd man of justice” and “thou, his yokefellow of equity” (lines 36—7). They are caught up in a pastime of illusion, using a footstool to represent Lear’s ungrateful daughters. Yet true justice is here and not inside the manor house.

Similar contrasts invert the values of loyalty, obedience, and family bonds. Edmund becomes, in the language of the villains, the “loyal” son whose loyalty is demonstrated by turning on his own “traitorous” father. Cornwall becomes a new father to Edmund (“thou shalt find a dearer father in my love,” 3.5.25—6). Conversely, a servant who tries to restrain Cornwall from blinding Gloucester is, in Regan’s eyes, monstrously insubordinate. “A peasant stand up thus?” (3.7.83). Personal and sexual relationships betray signs of the universal malaise. The explicitly sexual ties in the play, notably those of Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, are grossly carnal and lead to jealousy and murder, while in Cordelia’s wifely role the sensual is underplayed. The relationships we are invited to cherish—those of Cordelia, Kent, the Fool, and Gloucester to King Lear, and Edgar to Gloucester—are filial or are characterized by loyal service, both of which are pointedly nonsexual. Nowhere do we find an embodiment of love that is both sensual and spiritual, as in Desdemona in Othello or Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. The Fool’s and Tom o’ Bedlam’s (i.e., Edgar’s) gibes about codpieces and plackets (3.2.27—40, 3.4.96) anticipate Lear’s towering indictment of carnality, in which his fear of woman’s insatiable appetite and his revulsion at her body “Down from the waist” (“there is the sulfurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie! Pah, pah!”) combine with a destructive self-hatred (4.6.124—30).

All these inversions and polarizations are subsumed in the inversion of the word “natural.” Edmund is the “natural” son of Gloucester, meaning literally that he is illegitimate. Figuratively, he therefore represents a violation of traditional moral order. In appearance he is smooth and plausible, but in reality he is an archdeceiver like the Vice in a morality play, a superb actor who boasts to the audience in soliloquy of his protean villany. “Nature” is Edmund’s goddess, and by this he means something like a naturalistic universe in which the race goes to the swiftest and in which conscience, morality, and religion are empty myths. Whereas Lear invokes Nature as a goddess who will punish ungrateful daughters and defend rejected fathers (1.4.274—88), and whereas Gloucester believes in a cosmic correspondence between eclipses of the moon or sun and mutinous discords among people (1.2.106—17), Edmund scoffs at all such metaphysical speculations. He spurns, in other words, the Boethian conception of a divine harmony uniting the cosmos and mankind, with humankind at the center of the universe. As a rationalist, Edmund echoes Jacobean disruptions of the older world order in politics and religion as well as in science. He is Machiavellian, an atheist, and Epicurean—everything inimical to traditional Elizabethan ideals of order. To him, “natural” means precisely what Lear and Gloucester call “unnatural.”

His creed provides the play with its supreme test. Which definition of “natural” is true? Does heaven exist, and will it let Edmund and the other villainous persons get away with their evil? The question is frequently asked, but the answers are ambiguous. “If you do love old men,” Lear implores the gods, “if your sweet sway / Allow obedience, if you yourselves are old, / Make it your cause” (2.4.191—3). His exhortations mount into a frenzied rant, until finally the heavens do send down a terrible storm—on Lear himself. Witnesses agree that the absence of divine order in the universe would have the gravest consequences. “If that the heavens do not their visible spirits / Send quickly down to tame these vile offenses,” says Albany of Lear’s ordeal, “It will come, / Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (4.2.47—51). And Cornwall’s servants (in a passage missing from the Folio text) have perceived earlier the dire implications of their masters’ evil deeds. “I’ll never care what wickedness I do, / If this man come to good,” says one, and his fellow agrees: “If she [Regan] live long, / And in the end meet the old course of death, / Women will all turn monsters” (3.7.102—5). Yet these servants do, in fact, obey their own best instincts, turning on Cornwall and ministering to Gloucester despite danger to themselves. Similarly, Albany abandons his mild attempts to conciliate his domineering wife and instead uses his power for good. Cordelia’s ability to forgive and cherish her father, and Edgar’s comparable ministering to Gloucester, give the lie to Edmund’s “natural” or amoral view of humanity; a few people, at least, are capable of charity, even when it does not serve their own material self-interest. Conversely, the play suggests that villainy will at last destroy itself, not simply because the gods are just; Albany’s hopeful insistence that “This shows you are above, / You justicers” (4.2.79—80) may be a little more than wishful thinking, to be undercut by some fresh disaster, but at least the insatiable ambitions of Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, and Oswald do lead to their violent deaths. Edmund’s belated attempt to save the life of Cordelia, though unsuccessful, suggests that this intelligent villain has at last begun to understand the great flaw in his naturalistic creed and to see that, like Goneril and Regan, he has been consumed by his own lust.

Even with such reassurances that villainy will eventually undo itself, the devastation at the end of King Lear is so appalling that our questions about justice remain finally unanswered. To ask the question “Who must pay for Lear’s self-knowledge?” is to remind ourselves that women must often die in Shakespeare’s tragedies so that men may learn, and to perceive even further that, in the absurdist world of Lear, the Cartesian logic of cause and effect and poetic justice simply will not account for all that we long to understand. As Roland Barthes well expresses the matter in an essay on Racine, “tragedy is only a means of reclaiming human unhappiness, of subsuming it, thus justifying it under the form of necessity, or wisdom, and purification.” Tragedy cannot explain away the death of Cordelia and the heartbreak of her father. The last tableau is a vision of doomsday, with Cordelia strangled, Lear broken and dying, and the “gored state” in such disarray that we cannot be sure what restoration can occur. The very question of political order is dwarfed by the enormity of the personal disaster of Lear and Cordelia. No one wishes longer life for the King: “He hates him / That would upon the rack of this tough world / Stretch him out longer.” He is dead; “The wonder is he hath endured so long” (5.3.319—22). Lear’s view of life’s terrible corruption, pronounced in his madness, seems confirmed in his end. Perhaps the only way in which this tragedy can reclaim so much unhappiness is to suggest that, given the incurable badness of the world, we can at least choose whether to attempt to be like Cordelia and Edgar (knowing what the price may be for such courage) or to settle for being our worst selves, like Edmund, Goneril, and Regan. Overwhelmed as we are by the testimonial before us of humankind’s vicious capacity for self-destruction, we are stirred nonetheless by the ability of some men and women to confront their fearful destiny with probity and stoic renunciation, adhering to what they believe to be good and expecting Fortune to give them absolutely nothing. The power of love, though learned too late to avert catastrophe, is at last discovered in its very defeat.

King Lear exists in two early texts, the quarto of 1608 and the considerably changed Folio version of 1623. Similar disparities appear in Hamlet, Othello, Troilus and Cressida, Henry IV Part II, and a number of other plays, but the problem is especially acute in King Lear. Shakespeare must have had a hand in the revisions that led to the Folio text. It contains new material. At the same time, the quarto text contains passages not found in the Folio. The revisions may have resulted from a number of circumstances: cutting for performance (the play as it stands in either version is too long to have been produced in its entirety on the Jacobean stage), censorship, errors in transcription, and still more. The Folio version does alter some matters especially having to do with the French invasion; characters like Albany appear in a different light. The very ending is changed as to which characters speak the concluding lines.

Given these factors, many editions today present two or even three texts for the reader, or mark the text with brackets and other indicators of textual variation. This edition does not do so, though the textual notes do indicate the differences that occur. The reasons for choosing to present here the more traditional composite or eclectic text are these: King Lear’s textual variations between quarto and Folio are more extensive than in some other plays, but are not always different in kind, so that it is a distortion to treat this play alone as a multiple-text play. To choose either quarto or Folio is to lose important material that is unquestionably Shakespeare’s. To print two or even three versions is to add pages to an already weighty collection. And the presentation of multiple texts, or of a single text that is flagged with bracketed markers, also imposes on the reader a task of sorting out a complex and uncertain textual history that, however important ultimately in studying Shakespeare as a writer and as a reviser, is perhaps best left to subsequent investigation in a full-scale critical edition after one has absorbed the greatness of this play as a piece of writing for the theater. The present composite King Lear, based on the Folio text but including the 300 or so lines found only in the first quarto along with some quarto readings where the Folio version seems less textually reliable, is in a sense a compromise, but it is one that seems well suited to the purposes of this present edition.