In 1998, Barbara Everett remarked on the “astonishing” ambition of Shakespeare’s King Lear with its “thousand ideas”; Reducing them to a playtext, she wrote, must have required “acts of formative balance that stun imagination”. Her comments are transferrable to the two volumes of Learn edited by Richard Knowles, with Kevin Donovan as associate editor and Paula Glatzer as theater historian.
The New Variorum Learn follows the principles of Horace Howard Furness’s Variorum edition of 1880: “The attempt is here made to present, on the same page with the text, all the various readings of the different editions of King Lear, from the earliest quarto to the latest critical edition of the play”. But 120 years later, commentary notes can no longer be confined to a single page. Although Knowles reminds us that the edited playtext in the first volume of the New Variorum Learn is not primarily for reading, his caveat does not apply to the second, which contains the textual discussion, the sources, the critical survey (by Kevin Donovan) and the stage history (by Paula Glatzer). This volume is not only beautifully readable but an irresistible page-turner.
King Lear exists in two variant texts – Quarto (1608) and Folio (1623) – which have more than 850 minor lexical variants, some excisions (plus a few added lines), as well as differences in characters, scenic structure and politics. Q contains the mock-trial scene, for example, in which the mad Lear arraigns a joint stool. Lear’s last line in Q (“Break, heart, I prethee, break”) is spoken by Kent in F, where Edgar rather than Albany speaks the play’s last lines. The verbal variants throughout (stern/dearne; villein/traitor) have led critics to suspect shorthand transmission or memorial error in Q, and to dismiss Q as a derivative text. Current thinking, albeit with some dissenters, sees Q as Shakespeare’s original version, and F as a version revised by Shakespeare and cut (by him or his company) for performance.
The words “list” and “survey” appear repeatedly in both volumes but there is nothing list-like in either. This is because Knowles and his co-editors think thematically rather than chronologically. Textual arguments about revision from Q into F existed long before their revival in the landmark study The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s two versions of ‘King Lear’, edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (1983). Knowles expertly groups the arguments for and against revision in F, rather than presenting them chronologically as a textual ping-pong.
Large textual territory is crisply, but never neutrally, summarized. Parenthetical adverbs provide editorial distance or scepticism. Critics argue or speculate “improbably”, “questionably”, “fantastically”. Summary is coupled with laconic wit as when Knowles describes W.W. Greg’s “withering hostility” to Madeleine Doran’s view that F is a revised text: he “rests her arguments in the caricature and then derides the caricature.” Literary evidence can be interpreted in opposing directions. The True Chronicle History of King Leirfor example, is a tragicomic version of the Lear story performed in the 1590s and published in 1605. As Knowles remarks, “it has been taken to show either that Shakespeare’s play had already been written or that it was yet to be”.
Glatzer’s stage history documents the ascendance of King Lear From “unactable” to the “central Shakespearean drama of our times”. Like Donovan’s survey of criticism, this section excellently chronicles period-specific cultural interests (the link between Peter Brook’s film of 1971 and the Vietnam War, with Paul Scofield’s “cold, dehumanized Lear”). It also offers some Annals-like juxtapositions: one sentence links Nugent Monck’s Learn in Norwich, the burning of the Stratford Memorial Theater and the founding of the Shakespeare Institute, all in 1926. The director who emerges as the star of this section is Harley Granville-Barker. Who could not be enchanted by his warning to Gielgud (“Lear is an oak, you are an ash”), his instruction to “locate the storm in Lear’s voice”, or his direction for Lear’s madness – “Translate the Hamlet-Ghost business into terms of learn”?
Theater concerns – doubling, staging, actors’ parts, line-learning, props, indoor theater versus open-air – are not confined to the theater history section. They feature throughout the critical and textual narrative summaries and in the commentary notes. “Any number of theatrical exigencies, rather than authorial second thoughts” may explain F variants. The actor Robert Armin (1563–1615) appears in the stage history and in the character discussion of the Fool; dramaturgy occurs in the stage history and in a section on the play’s structure. We see equally helpful overlaps between the textual and critical surveys. A section on quantification and calculation (in a play obsessed with “Nothing” and subtraction, as Lear’s knights are reduced from 100 to 0) notes that Q/F variants “cluster round quantity”.
One of the complaints about 1980s revision theories was that they operated via a character criticism that “goes back to Bradley”. The range and complexity of Donovan’s section on character criticism shows the developments in this area. The tension between realist and emblematic characters, for instance, leads to an impossible theatrical challenge in Act Four: “Edgar has to be made into a fighting man, Cordelia into the leader of an army”. I have never instructed any of my undergraduates to consult the 1880 King Lear. This New Variorum edition will feature on my reading lists as a one-stop destination for any student wanting to know about meteorology, language (the play’s “habit of asking questions”), generic context (the revival of “legendary history” in an era of city comedy), stage pictures (“people supporting each other”), acoustics (“the play reverberates with preaching”) and the “thousand ideas” Everett identifies and which Donovan’s summary of criticisms.
But what of the text? In 1880, Furness presented the 1623 F text because “with all its defects it is much better than that of the Quarto, which is evidently one of those ‘stolne and surreptitious’ copies deounced by Heminge and Condell”. Much has changed in the world of bibliography since then, and Knowles’s edition is based on the (no longer maligned) 1608 quarto. But he avoids the binary thinking that is characterized by much earlier textual work. He explains:
An edition of Q will apparently offer essentially the text that Sh. originally wanted to present to his company, but probably more of it than he expected to be acted; an edition of F will include less than he originally wrote, but probably also more, and in any case will represent an artefact produced not simply by Sh. but in all probability by members of his company, scribes, possibly a censor, possibly a hired reviser or redacter, and printers.
And with the temperate phrasing that characterizes his textual survey, Knowles tells us that “the first quarto of Lr brings us as close to a Shn. writing as we are likely to get(emphasis added).
Knowles does not understate the case when he says that the edition is not for reading. Following up the lexical cross-references for one scene in the commentary notes takes almost as long as viewing the entire play. Some notes are mini dissertations; others provide potted stage histories; all of them provide illumination.
With a bibliography of ninety-six pages (approximately 3,000 titles), it seems churlish to comment on omissions. But I am struck by the lack of reference to two volumes published by the Modern Language Association, who publish the New Variorum series. (Both appeared before the New Variorum’s millennial cut-off point.) The MLA Approaches to Teaching volumes punch above their weight and frequently contain research or thinking that is not published elsewhere. James Hirsch’s essay on the first scene of Learn in the Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ volume (1986) shows how the scene wrongfoots audience response, breaking the first rule of dramatic exposition (which is to orient us – who’s good, who’s bad, who to root for). Gloucester seems a senex figure, Edmund a remarkably tolerant son. Both judgments will be overturned; the audience, in other words, misjudges as Lear misjudges.
More significant here is Thomas Berger’s textual analysis of Q/F versions of the blinding of Gloucester (Teaching Shakespeare through Performance, MLA, 1999). Using Act Three, scene two as a test-case, Berger shows that to be a good textual critic one needs also to be a good performance critic and a good literary critic. How many servants are on stage? Why does Cornwall always have to repeat commands? Is it because, as eighteenth-century editors’ interpolated stage directions indicate, there are sufficient actors/servants to be dispatched in all directions? Or is it because the servants hesitate to obey, knowing Cornwall’s capacity for evil? Where does Regan get the sword with which she wounds the servant? Collier believes she seized Cornwall’s weapon but Knowles prefers Delius’s opinion: “addressed to a bystander”. If this is the case, a commentary note needs to address her possessive pronoun “thy” – would Regan address a bystander in this way? Whom else in the scene does she address using this form? The Q stage direction at line 2155 – “Shee takes a sword and runs at him behind– is, as Peter Blayney first pointed out, a perfect iambic pentameter. This could be useful support in any argument for Q’s origin in Shakespeare’s manuscript (F offers the practical”Kills him”) but Knowles only notes that this could “easyly be an author’s descriptive stage direction”, with no reference to meter.
The end of this scene is where the volume’s otherwise impeccable theater credentials falter. Q contains nine lines of compassionate dialogue between two servants who plan to help Gloucester medically (bandaging his bleeding eyes) and practically (seeking out mad Tom as guide). The dialogue is absent from F and the commentary notes are eloquent about the positive effect of this choric humanity. It works like the chorus in the Greek tragedy, giving audiences a breathing space after the atrocity we have just witnessed.
Berger is observant about the time needed to clean up Gloucester. Time is provided by the servants’ dialogue in Q, performed at the Globe; Act intervals at the indoor Blackfriars Theater served the same purpose so the dialogue was cut (giving us the F text). Only two brief comments address the practical theatrical difficulties (Kenneth Muir, Taylor and Jowett), with the bulk of Knowles’ note concerned with affect. But Berger’s point takes us back to Knowles’s general discussion of variants, where he is judicious about the difference between the cause of a textual change and its effect, with interpretation of variants often saying more about critics’ sensitivity than textual origin. Is F’s less compassionate world here a side-effect of the cut, or its aim?
Knowles’s textual summary begins: “In the beginning, there was a draft, or possibly many drafts, or many revised pages.” This edition is a titanic achievement, made all the more readable by the ways in which Richard Knowles, Kevin Donovan and Paula Glatzer know how to tell a story.
Laurie Maguire is Professor Emeritus, Oxford University and Fellow Emeritus, Magdalen College. Her most recent book is The Rhetoric of the Page2020
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