King Lear’s Endings: What Makes A Tragedy? (18th July)

By Richard Davies

Cordelia death

Textual Provenance and Problematic Versions

‘King Lear presents the most fascinating, important and contentious textual issues of the entire Shakespeare canon. The play exists in two early authoritative texts, the Quarto (Q1) of 1608 and the Folio (F) of 1623. For many years, it was presumed that each text was an imperfect and incomplete version of a lost, longer original. Consequently, King Lear was usually printed in a “conflated” text: that is, in an attempt to give readers and audiences as many as possible of Shakespeare’s words, editors combined the two texts into a version of the play that was longer than either of the early texts’.[1]

These opening lines from the textual introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare provides an appropriate overview of the scale of task we are presented with when we consider the textual provenance of King Lear. Why is it that scholars seem resigned to the study of a play that is an amalgamation of versions? What is most striking about this is that the question of studying the hybrid version of the text was not considered in any real depth until Michael Warren and Gary Taylor edited The Division of the Kingdoms in the late 1970s; such an approach was commonplace and considered as usual, not out of the ordinary. In the grand scheme, this is a remarkably recent shift in the academic paradigm.

General Consensus

The Division of the Kingdoms is a seminal text in the study of ‘new bibliography’ or ‘new textuality’ and the collection of essays contained therein proffers a collective argument that the texts in question, namely the Q1 of 1608 and the Folio of 1623 “represent independent and coherent versions of the play which should not be combined.”[2]The very first essay in said collection is a contribution by Steven Urkowitz entitled ‘The Base shall to th’ Legitimate: The Growth of an Editorial Tradition.’ That word ‘tradition’ is one that continually occurs in the writings surrounding this subject matter raising the prospect that the plays exist in collated formats because of the tradition of doing so. By the end of the twentieth century, Ioppolo notes, such a tradition had begun to be challenged:

There was a general consensus that the two texts were sequential – that is, that the Quarto represents a first complete stage of the play and the Folio represents a later stage, which may be Shakespeare’s revision of his own play.[3]

I do not wish to address the matter of revisionism here, rather consider the fact that these plays are now thought to be different versions of the same play. Such a consensus must lead scholars to question the validity and, indeed, the value in pursuing a composite which is highly unlikely to represent anything seen on the early-modern stage.

Variations and Different Lears

There is significant variance between the two versions of Lear not just in terms of layout and spelling but also significant differences in content: over 1,000 words differ between the texts and Q1 contains 285 lines not in F1 and F1 a further 100 lines not considered in Q1. Composite versions, I contest, cannot really be considered to be Shakespeare’s King Lear but, moreover, a synthesis of parts of Lears that generations of editors have stitched together. As Stanley Wells puts it:

‘To split asunder the two texts of King Lear is a work of restoration, not of destruction. We shall lose it no more than a wraith born of an unholy union; we shall gain a pair of legitimate – though not identical – twins’.[4]

To further the metaphor, rather than representing a ‘best fit’, a collated Lear is more akin to a garment that has been woven together from two separate items of clothing so the finished article is neither one thing nor the other – a hat that nobody really wants.

Tragedy and Endings

Michael Neill has commented on Early-Modern theatre that “Elizabethan tragedy showed itself unusually knowing about the relation between mortal and narrative endings.”[5] If we are to go along with the consensus first argued for in Divisions of the Kingdom, the question is how this affects the content of the plays. ‘Tragedy’ encompasses a range of definitions and is primarily, in this context, used as a label for a distinct set of Shakespeare’s plays including King Lear. A question that occurs is how far the concept of tragedy is affected by the changes described above; how the notion of tragedy alters and shifts between these respective editions. Endings are significant moments in Shakespeare’s plays but contain significant moments in themselves. I want to get to the bottom of how they vary across versions and editions and to what extent that affects our perspective on tragedy. The Prince’s lament, “Never was there a tale of more woe / than this of Juliet and her Romeo”, Mark Antony’s rallying war-cry, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” and Othello’s blood curdling statement to Desdemona, “Sweet soul, take heed of perjury. / Thou art on thy deathbed” are each significant moments in Shakespearean tragedy – none of these is identical across editions, however and I want to ask the question of how they do change an audience’s perception of the action as it happens on stage.

‘Howling’ Lear

To use a specific example, no moment of tragedy is more significant than the figure of Lear entering on stage “with Cordelia in his arms” (Q1;F.V.iii.SD253;SD230) shouting “Howl, howl, howl.”[6]Or, if we are to follow the example of Q1, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” The inclusion, or exclusion, of a single word makes it quite different. The triad of howls with which audiences are familiar is concise and it adequately conveys Lear’s torment and anguish. The trio of howls presents a clear insight into his mind which, after all the ravishes of mistreatment to which he has been subject in the thrust of action in the play, he is now able to see clearly and admonishes those responsible, “Oh, you are men of stones!” (Q1;FV.ii.253;231) Consider, though, that in Q1, his unbroken quartet of howls might be considered more in-keeping with the levels of grief that he experiences – his sobbing is uncontrolled and one might argue that this is precisely how he feels given that he enters the stage carrying the lifeless corpse of his youngest and truest daughter. If ever an event were designed to make a man mad, surely that is it. It is curious that even this most famous of Shakespeare’s moments of tragedy differs between versions.

Texts 1 & 2 – Norton ‘Concurrent’ Lear and ‘Arden’ Lear

The Norton Shakespeare publishes the Q1 and Folio editions concurrently so the variants between the texts are evident whereas Text 2 is a standard example of what a modern, conflated text looks like. Changes in Lear more generally are briefly touched on above. My dissertation concentrates on the very final passage of the scene from Lear’s entry through to the final speech by Edgar/Albany. You need not read all of each of the scenes; I have included them for context.

Text 3 – ‘Shakespeare’s Tragedies as Working Scripts’

A brief text raising a lot of key questions about the Lear texts with which modern scholars work. The piece provides some insight and broad brushstroke overview of ‘new bibliography’ without overloading the reader with jargon.


Questions for consideration

  1. How do we define tragedy? Does such a definition differ depending on whether we focus on Shakespeare relative to others? Does it differ within Shakespeare itself?
  2. How many ‘significant moments’ can be said to be present in the relative final scenes? Is this important?
  3. Michael Neill has claimed that ‘tragedy never wants to end’; writers continually wish to defer the end of the writing process as it leads, necessarily, to oblivion. Is this a sentiment which is obvious in the extracts or in one extract more than the others?
  4. Does one character more than the others evoke more dramatic sympathies in the relative extracts?
  5. What are your thoughts on the very final speech being allocated to Albany and Edgar respectively in the various scenes?



[1]Grace Ioppolo, ‘Textual Introduction to King Lear’ in The Norton Shakespeare, pp. 2327-2329 (p. 2327).

[2]The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[3]Ioppolo, p. 2327.

[4]Stanley Wells, ‘Introduction: The Once and Future King Lear’ in The Division of the Kingdoms, ed. by Michael Warren and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 1-22 (p. 20).

[5]Michael Neill, Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 206.

[6]I have used quotations from The Norton Shakespeare. The play is published contemporaneously in this edition. F.V.iii.231


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