Date And Text - 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

Date And Text
King Lear


On November 26, 1607, Nathaniel Butter and John Busby entered on the Stationers’ Register, the official record book of the London Company of Stationers (booksellers and printers), “A booke called. Master William Shakespeare his historye of Kinge Lear, as yt was played before the Kinges maiestie at Whitehall vppon Sainct Stephens night at Christmas Last, by his maiesties servantes playinge vsually at the Globe on the Banksyde.” Next year appeared the following quarto:

M. William Shak-speare: HIS True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters. With the vnfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of TOM of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall vpon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes. By his Maiesties seruants playing vsually at the Gloabe on the Bancke-side. LONDON, Printed for Nathaniel Butter, and are to be sold at his shop in Pauls Church-yard at the signe of the Pide Bull neere St. Austins Gate. 1608.

This quarto is often called the “Pied Bull” Quarto in reference to its place of sale. Twelve copies exist today, in ten different “states,” because proofreading was being carried on while the sheets were being run off in the press; the copies variously combine corrected and uncorrected sheets. A second quarto, printed in 1619 by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier with the fraudulent date of 1608, was based on a copy of the first quarto combining corrected and uncorrected sheets.

The First Folio text of 1623 may have been typeset from a playbook cut for performance or from a transcript of such a manuscript, and the playbook in its turn appears to have been based on Shakespeare’s fair copy (with revisions) of his first draft. The Folio compositors also almost certainly consulted a copy of the second quarto from time to time, or may have typeset directly from this quarto as annotated with reference to Shakespeare’s fair copy. In writing the fair copy Shakespeare may have marked some 300 lines for deletion, but it is possible that he did so chiefly to shorten the time of performance. He also seems to have added some 100 lines, an apparent contradiction in view of the need for cutting but possibly dictated by Shakespeare’s developing sense of his play. It is also possible that the cuts were carried out by someone else in the preparation of the playbook.

The first quarto, on the other hand, appears to have been printed from Shakespeare’s unrevised and evidently very untidy working papers. It is often corrupt, owing in part to type shortages, compositorial uncertainties with the manuscript, and other difficulties in Nicholas Okes’s shop. Still, in some matters—especially variants indifferent in meaning (such as an/if or thine/thy)—the first quarto may be closer to Shakespeare’s preferences than the Folio, behind which are several stages of transmission.

This edition agrees with most recent students of the Lear text that the Folio represents a theatrical revision, in which the cuts were devised for performance by Shakespeare’s company and quite possibly made by Shakespeare himself as a member of that company. The case for artistic preference in the making of those cuts, on the other hand, is less certain and may have been overstated. Many of the cuts have the effect of shortening scenes, especially in the latter half of the play. Some scenes, like 3.6, show open gaps as a result of the cutting: Lear’s “Then let them anatomize Regan” (line 75) implies the trial of Goneril as it is dramatized in the first quarto but cut from the Folio. Other omissions as well read like expedients, although they can also be explained by a hypothesis of literary and theatrical rewriting; if Shakespeare himself undertook the cutting, he would presumably do so as expertly as possible. The fact that the Folio text gives almost no rewritten speeches may suggest that the large cuts were motivated by the need for shortening. This edition holds to the principle that it is unwise to omit the material cut from the Folio text, since we cannot be sure that Shakespeare would have shortened the text had there been no external constraints. At the same time, the added material in the Folio is clearly his and belongs in his conception of the play. The resulting text is a conflation, but one that avoids cutting material that Shakespeare may well have regretted having to excise.

The Stationers’ Register entry for November 26, 1607, describes a performance at court on the previous St. Stephen’s night, December 26, 1606. The title page of the first quarto confirms this performance on St. Stephen’s night. Such a performance at court was not likely to have been the first, however. Shakespeare’s repeated use of Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, registered on March 16, 1603, sets an early limit for composition of the play. Other circumstances point to the existence of the play earlier than 1606. An old play called The moste famous Chronicle historye of Leire kinge of England and his Three Daughters was entered on the Stationers’ Register and then was reassigned on May 8, 1595 as the Tragecall historie of king Leire and his Three Daughters. The latter phrase may suggest influence of Shakespeare’s play, since the old King Leir does not end tragically. Moreover, the title page of the old King Leir, issued in 1605, proclaims the text to be “as it hath bene diuers and sundry times lately acted.” In view of the unlikelihood that such an old play (written before 1594) would be revived in 1605, scholars have suggested that the title page was the publisher’s way of trying to capitalize on the recent popularity of Shakespeare’s play. In this case, the likeliest date for the composition of Shakespeare’s King Lear would be in the winter of 1604—1605. Shakespeare certainly used the old King Leir as a chief source, but he need not have waited for its publication in 1605 if, as seems perfectly plausible, his company owned the playbook. This hypothesis of the publication of the old King Leir after performances of Shakespeare’s play must do battle, however, with indications that Shakespeare did not write King Lear until late 1605 or 1606. Gloucester’s mentioning of “These late eclipses in the sun and moon” (1.2.106) seems to refer to an eclipse of the moon in September and of the sun in October of 1605.