February 20th

The Tragedy of King Lear first appeared in a quarto printed in 1608 by Nicholas Okes as Shakespeare’s True Chronicle History of the life and death of King Lear and his Three Daughters. The shift in title is a slight one—what we think of as a tragedy today was first publicized as a history—but it is indicative of the many variations, discrepancies, and contradictions littering the history of King Lear’s printed versions. Two more editions would succeed Okes’ initial quarto, a second quarto printed in 1619, and the first folio version four years later.

Okes’ 1608 quarto abounds with qualities that might prompt us to think of the edition somewhat less favorably than the Folio one—misspellings, uneven lineation, an awkwardness of punctuation suggestive, perhaps, of a shortage of typeface on the printer’s part. The first edition of the play, as well, lacks lines that are extant in the folio. But the reverse is also true. Edgar’s brief, rhymed speech at 3.6—“When we our betters see bearing our woes, / We scarcely think our miseries our foes”—is one span of poetry not present in the folio. So too is his later narration of Kent’s reunion with Lear:

His grief grew puissant, and the strings of life
Began to crack. Twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him traunst.

Here are the pages as they originally appeared in the 1608 quarto:

Edgar’s lines offer a powerful, if powerfully melodramatic, rendition of his meeting at 4.5 with Lear and Gloucester–so why should they have been cut? One answer may be that the Edgar who utters such lines risks a poetic self-indulgence that threatens his moralizing tendencies, or makes his moralizing tendencies seem themselves to be a kind of self-indulgence. To cut such a speech, then, may have been to restrict Edgar’s character, to make him more stalwart, controlled, authoritative.

If you were an editor putting together a modern version of King Lear, what would you do with these lines about Kent—would you keep them, bracket them, or remove them altogether? And what story of King Lear would you be producing along the way?

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