The two King Lears

Lear, enraged by Goneril, rants at her thus in the Quarto text of King Lear:

Lear:
Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings
Are lethargied. Sleeping or waking, ha?
Sure, ‘tis not so.
Who is it who can tell me who I am?
Lear’s shadow? I would fain learn that, for by the marks
Of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason
I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Gonoril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From Scene iv of the Quarto text (1608), edited by Stanley Wells, Oxford World Classics

In the 1623 folio text, this same passage appears thus:

Lear:
Does anyone here know me? This is not Lear:
Does Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied. Ha! Waking? ‘Tis not so!
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear (to Gonerill): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From I,iv of the Folio text (1623), edited by Jay L. Halio, New Cambridge Shakespeare

Different, certainly, but the situation and characters depicted are, I think, much the same. What we tend to get in most texts and productions is a conflated version. Here is the same passage from the conflated version in the Arden Shakespeare series:

Lear:
Does anyone here know me? Why, this is not Lear.
Does Lear walk thus, speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, or his discernings are lethargied. Ha! Sleeping or waking? Sure, ‘tis not so. Who is it who can tell me who I am?

Fool:      Lear’s shadow.

Lear:      I would fain learn that, for by the marks of sovereignty, knowledge, and reason, I should be false persuaded I had daughters.

Fool:      Which they will make an obedient father.

Lear (to Goneril): Your name, fair gentlewoman?

– From I,iv of conflated text, edited by R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare

I realise one can get too precious about these matters, but it does seem to me that either the Quarto text or the Folio text is preferable to the conflated version. In the Quarto text, Lear’s rant builds up a fine head of steam, but is deflated at the end by the Fool’s one’s liner. Lear then turns to Gonoril (so-spelt) with heavy-handed irony. In the Folio text, the rant is curtailed, and the words “Lear’s shadow” that had previously been spoken by Lear as a rhetorical question, are now spoken by the Fool as an ironic rejoinder to Lear. But the conflation seems to me the worst of all worlds: giving the words “Lear’s shadow” to the Fool while the rant is still in full flow not only robs the rest of the rant of all momentum, it also diminishes the impact of the Fool’s deflating one-liner once Lear is finished.

Time after time I found passages like that. Most of the changes between the Quarto and Folio text are minor, but where there are two distinct versions of the same passage – i.e. when it is not merely a matter of changing some of the odd bit of wording, but, rather, substituting one entire passage for another – it seems to me to make little sense conflating them.

043Consider also Scene 8 in the Quarto text (III,i in the Folio). Lear has already wandered off into the storm, and his daughters have shut the door on him. Before we have the big scenes of Lear in the storm, there is a short scene between Kent (still in disguise) and an unnamed “gentleman”. This scene merely serves an expository purpose, and shouldn’t take too long. But almost invariably, the two versions of Kent’s speech to the gentleman are conflated, and, as a consequence, this speech becomes overlong: a long expository speech is surely the last thing we want at this stage of the drama! And also, as a consequence of the conflation, the exposition itself becomes muddled. In the Quarto text, the King of France does not know about what’s been happening in England, and Kent sends the gentleman to his camp to tell him; in the Folio text, the King of France knows, and so Kent doesn’t send him.  In the conflated text, the King of France knows, but Kent sends the gentleman anyway.

Despite all the many re-wordings and the occasional re-writing, the nature of the drama does not seem to me very different between the two texts. When I read the two good texts of Hamlet recently (the “Good” Quarto and the First Folio), it seemed to me that Shakespeare had revised his thoughts on certain important aspects of the play, and of Hamlet’s character, and that the two texts effectively give us two different plays. Here, the changes don’t make for so radical a re-casting of the drama: mainly, it seems that Shakespeare had tidied up the play at certain points, and, at other points, had added a few afterthoughts. The tidying up is generally, I think, to be welcomed: in the Quarto version, for example, between the scene in which the blind Gloucester is led away by Edgar, and the scene in which Goneril returns with Edmund to her castle, there are three successive scenes that do no more than explain details of the plot; cutting out one of these three scenes, as Shakespeare does in the Folio, does no harm at all: quite the contrary. However, there is at least one excision from the Quarto text that is mystifying. It is the scene during the storm in which Lear, his mind collapsed, puts his two absent daughters on “trial”. The excision of this is scene in the Folio is surely no accident: the cut is expertly done. But why? Why cut out one of the most extraordinary scenes that even Shakespeare has ever conceived? Many conjectures have been advanced, but none to my mind is convincing. Whatever Shakespeare’s reason may have been, I’d certainly feel cheated were I to see this scene cut in any performance.

And of the afterthoughts, there is at least one that is magnificent, and another that takes us into another world entirely, and defies analysis. The first is at the end of III,ii, where the Fool appears to step not merely out of character, but out of the time-frame of the drama itself, to deliver a “prophesy” to the audience; and, having done so, prophesies that the prophesy he had just made will later be made by Merlin, “for I live before his time”. Suddenly, time itself seems to yawn before us: this piece of absurdity – the prophecy itself seems to make little sense – seems to take us into a dramatic world in which nothing, not even time itself, can hold together.

And then, there is the ending. In the Quarto, we get this:

Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more,
Never, never, never.   Pray you, undo
This button. Thank you, sir. O, O, O, O!

Edgar:   He faints. (To Lear) My lord, my lord!

Lear:      Break heart, I prithee, break.

Now, I wonder what sort of artist could look upon even something so wonderful as this, and think it could be improved upon; or what sort of mind thinks of expanding the three nevers to five to form a trochaic pentameter:

Lear:
And my poor fool is hanged. No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips!
Look there, look there.

Edgar:                                          He faints. My lord, my lord!

Kent:     Break heart, I prithee, break.

Faced with something such as this, all criticism, even the finest, seems superfluous.

Advertisements

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Brian Joseph on May 5, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I never thought to compare these different versions. The “trial” scene being cut is truly a puzzle. I am sure that if Shakespeare were alive to be questioned his answer would surely surprise us. Perhaps he did not value what we think of as magnificent. Perhaps it was for reasons that we would think trivial.

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, I think I have long given up trying to guess what went on in that extraordinary mind of his! But yes, I too have a feeling that his reasons would have surprised us all…

      Reply

  2. Last night we saw a production of “Lear” which used a hybrid script. The “does any here know me?” speech is the Arden conflation, which was sadly played for laughs and did not work. The “trial” scene was included, though, and that’s the first time I’ve seen it in a production so it was a treat. The good ending (“Look, her lips”, etc) was used, I’m glad to say. The storm scene was marvelous; the actor playing Lear is terrific. Too bad the director’s conception of the play is so uneven around this terrific Lear.

    I write mostly to tell you that I now agree with you about Edgar’s behavior with his father. It is almost completely baffling, and his various false personalities with Gloucester seem cruel and pointless.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott, I think most productions use some hybrid script. I’d certainly want the mock-trial scene (from the Quarto), and the Folio version of the ending, so I am not necessarily against a hybrid script as such. But I do feel that for passages such as the “Does anyone here know me?” speech, they should go for one or the other, and not mix the two.

      Kin Lear is a towering work, but judged purely as a play, there are all sorts of things wrong with it. Shakespeare gives very little to the actors in supporting roles, I think, and they have to work very hard to make what they can. I recently saw the National Theatre version in a live cinema broadcast (I have been trying to write up a review on this over a week or so now: I am just not getting the uninterrupted few hours I need for this) and there, too, the central performance was magnificent, but the rest seemed to me rather undistinguished. It still breaks your heart, though!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: