King Lear exists in two early texts: the Quarto (1608) and the Folio (1623). Each text is abridged: the Quarto lacks 100 lines which are found in the Folio, and the Folio lacks 300 lines which are found in the Quarto. Fortunately, the missing sections are different and complementary. While other Shakespeare plays have texts that differ between the Quarto and Folio, only Lear has two interdependent versions that interlock perfectly. For over two hundred years editors made the obvious decision to reunite them in one single text, the basis for all modern productions of King Lear.
Then, in the 1980s, a revisionist movement appeared, in which a group of influential scholars argued that the two texts represented different versions of King Lear, that Shakespeare personally shortened the Folio text because he was dissatisfied with his original play. The two-text theory has since hardened into a new orthodoxy.
But now, on the very eve of the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard, one of the world’s most eminent Shakespeare scholars is challenging the two-text consensus. In The One King Lear, Sir Brian Vickers seeks to settle, once and for all, the puzzle of the relationship between the two different editions of Shakespeare’s greatest play. At stake is the way King Lear is read and performed.
Vickers argues that the cuts in the Quarto text are too insignificant to have meaningfully shortened the play, but were instead meant materially, carried out by the printer because he had underestimated the amount of paper he would need. Paper was an expensive commodity in the early modern period—indeed, the second most expensive item on a printer’s account book—and printers counted the lines in a manuscript before ordering their supply.
Through presentation of the moment-by-moment mechanics of typesetting, along with detailed analysis of other Shakespeare Quartos, Vickers reveals the methods that printers used to save space, such as setting verse as prose, replacing “and” with an ampersand, and, as a last resort, omitting quantities of text. All these methods are found in the 1608 King Lear, and many times more frequently than in any comparable Quarto. For Vickers, it follows that the passages missing there were not subsequently added by Shakespeare, as the revisionists claim, but had been cut in the printing house.
As for the Folio, whereas the revisionists made claims that Shakespeare cut the text in order to alter the balance between characters, Vickers sees no evidence of his agency. In effect, some cuts removed passages of a reflective or descriptive nature that were probably made by the theatre company to speed up the action. Others ruin important plot lines and character development: whoever cut the Folio text cropped the end of speeches, the end of scenes, and omitted a whole scene necessary to the action. It could not have been Shakespeare. What he wrote is what Vickers restores: a fully integrated and incomparably powerful tragedy.