By Brett Steven Ableman, Production Dramaturg
How Many King Lears Are There?
There is not one King Lear. Few of Shakespeare’s plays exist in one definitive format, but Lear might be the one that has had the most versions and alterations over the years. When we talk about Macbeth, there is basically only one text, one set of dialogue and stage directions, that we are referring to. When we talk about Hamlet, we have at least two very distinct versions to talk about, which are often conflated into one unit (plus an earlier “bad” version). But with Lear, we not only have two major versions to talk about, but a long history of rewritings and nontraditional editions.
In the early 1600s, King Lear was first printed for the public in what is called a “Quarto.” Quartos consisted of large sheafs of paper with four pages printed on a side (hence the name), folded twice. Due to the folding, the resulting book had to be cut with a knife by the buyer before it could be read. The first version of most of Shakespeare’s plays were quartos, usually as a single play printed cheaply by itself.
Lear later appeared in the First Folio, the first published collection of the majority of the Bard’s works. However, the text printed in the Folio differed significantly from that in the Quarto, and these differences lead scholars to believe that they have different origins. Some scholars believe that the Folio is a later revision of the play by Shakespeare himself. Others believe that the Quarto was copied from Shakespeare’s “foul papers,” that is, his original handwritten draft of the play, while the Folio, by contrast, supposedly comes from a prompt book created by the performers. If the latter is true, calling one or the other definitive is thus impossible – is what the Bard first wrote on paper the ‘real thing’? Or is the words that he actually saw on stage, performed by his own company, a better reflection of his intent?
After Shakespeare’s death, editors began conflating the Quarto and Folio versions into one combined text, using various methods to decide which of the versions they liked ‘best’ when the texts didn’t agree. (See sidebar for some of the major differences.)
Editing the text, however, soon went beyond combining the existing versions. In the late 1600s, the prevailing notion of what made ‘good theatre’ was heavily focused on notions of poetic justice and unified action. Accordingly, The History of King Lear was created by Nahum Tate some 75 years after its original debut.
Tate’s version deviated dramatically from the Lear we know today. It had a happy ending, for one, with Cordelia surviving and Lear returned to the throne. The Fool was eliminated entirely, Edgar and Cordelia had a romance (they never interact in the original), and Edmund, Goneril, and Regan are all rendered as unambiguously evil. Perhaps most crucially for Tate’s era (when the English monarchy had just been restored), his rebelling army does not come from France as foreign invaders, but is instead comprised of British troops who want to restore their rightful king.
Tate’s version was popular, and dominated the stage over Shakespeare’s original for well over a century. The Lear we know today began to be restored in bits and pieces by 19th century performers who saw greater opportunity and dramatic power in the unaltered text. In 1834, William Charles Macready finally eliminated Tate’s words, although he still cut out some of Shakespeare’s. At last, after many slow alterations, in 1845 Samuel Phelps put the entirety of the Bard’s original back onstage.
Today, conflated texts are the standard. The text you are seeing performed at WSC Avant Bard was edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine for the Folger Shakespeare Library; it also contains contributions from Michael Poston and Rebecca Niles, and has changed the language where necessary to regender Gloucester from a father to a mother.
The process of determining which words to put onstage as “King Lear” is neverending, and it is unlikely that you will ever see two exactly similar versions performed, no matter how often you see the play. In this way, despite its age, it remains a living text, and is able to shift and adapt to the needs of each era and the strengths and personalities of its presenters. The scholarly debate will rage on as to which words here or there are the ideal, but Shakespeare’s vision will remain at the heart of the tragedy.
Some Differences (Large and Small) Between the Quarto and Folio
Act 1, Scene 1 – King Lear: “while we / Unburdened crawl toward death. Our son of Cornwall / And you, our no less loving son of Albany, / We have this hour a constant will to publish / Our daughters’ several dowers, that future strife / May be prevented now.”
lines in the Folio, but not in the Quarto
Act 1, Scene 4 – Fool: “That lord that counseled thee/ To give away thy land, / Come place him here by me; / Do thou for him stand. / The sweet and bitter fool / Will presently appear: / The one in motley here, / The other found out there.”
lines in the Quarto, but not in the Folio
Act 3, Scene 2 – Lear: Quarto version: “Blow wind & cracke your cheekes, rage, blow / You caterickes, & Hircanios spout til you haue drencht, / The steeples drown’d the cockes, you sulpherous and / Thought executing fires, vaunt-currers to / Oke-cleauing thunderboults, singe my white head,”
Act 3, Scene 2 – Lear: Folio version: “Blow windes, & crack your cheeks; Rage, blow / You Cataracts, and Hyrricano’s spout, / Till you haue drench’d our Steeples, drown the Cockes. / You Sulph’rous and Thought-executing Fires, / Vaunt-curriors of Oake-cleauing Thunder-bolts, / Sindge my white head.”
Act 3, Scene 4 – Lear: “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless…” Quarto reads “pitiless night,” Folio reads “pitiless storm”
Act 4, Scene 3 – Kent and the Gentleman
entire scene is in the Quarto, but does not exist in the Folio
Act 5, Scene 3 – final lines of the play, spoken by Albany in the Quarto, and Edgar in the Folio: “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much nor live so long.”
The Fairy Tale Origin of King Lear
At its heart, King Lear is a story simple as fairy tale, and for good reason – it is based on an ancient fable, called “Love Like Salt” or “Loving the Salt.” This tale is common enough to have an entry within the Aarne-Thompson classification system, a standard in the study of folklore, which collects and describes the base forms of common fairy tales from all over the world. “Loving the Salt” is entry number 923, placing it under the general heading of “Realistic Tales” and the subheading of “Clever Acts and Words.”
Shakespeare’s source was a ‘history’ of legendary kings of Britain, in which ‘Leir’ rules the island in pre-Christian times. In this history, the Bard’s play, and every other iteration of the fairy tale, the story remains essentially the same. There is a King, and he has three daughters; he demands they pledge their love to him, and banishes the youngest when she fails to provide a satisfying answer. After many troubles or years of separation, the father and daughter are eventually reunited.
In Shakespeare’s version, the ending is tragic; but in many of the versions, the resolution is rather happier, with an important lesson learned. Here is one rendering of the story, this time called “Water and Salt,” from Thomas Frederick Crane’s Italian Popular Tales.
ONCE upon a time there was a king and three daughters. These three daughters being at table one day, their father said, “Come now, let us see which of you three loves me.”
The oldest said, “Papa, I love you as much as my eyes.”
The second answered, “I love you as much as my heart.”
The youngest said, “I love you as much as water and salt.”
The king heard her with amazement, “Do you value me like water and salt? Quick! call the executioners, for I will have her killed immediately.”
The other sisters privately gave the executioners a little dog, and told them to kill it and rend one of the youngest sister’s garments, but to leave her in a cave.
This they did, and brought back to the king the dog’s tongue and the rent garment: “Royal majesty, here is her tongue and garment.”
And his majesty gave them a reward.
The unfortunate princess was found in the forest by a magician, who took her to his house opposite the royal palace. Here the king’s son saw her and fell desperately in love with her, and the match was soon agreed upon.
Then the magician came and said, “You must kill me the day before the wedding. You must invite three kings, your father the first. You must order the servants to pass water and salt to all the guests except your father.”
Now let us return to the father of this young girl, who the longer he lived the more his love for her increased, and he was sick of grief. When her received the invitation he said, “And how can I go with this love for my daughter?” And he would not go. Then he thought, “But this king will be offended if I do not go, and will declare war against me some time.”
He accepted and went. The day before the wedding they killed the magician and quartered him, and put a quarter in each of four rooms, and sprinkled his blood in all the rooms and on the stairway, and the blood and flesh became gold and precious stones.
When the three kings came and saw the golden stairs, they did not like to step on them. “Never mind,” said the prince, “go up. This is nothing.”
That evening they were married. The next day they had a banquet. The prince gave orders. “No salt and water to that king.”
They sat down at table, and the young queen was near her father, but he did not eat.
His daughter said, “Royal majesty, why do you not eat. Does not the food please you?”
“What an idea! It is very fine.”
“Why don’t you eat then?”
“I don’t feel very well.”
The bride and groom helped him to some bits of meat, but the king did not want it, and chewed his food over and over again like a goat (as if he could eat it without salt!).
When they finished eating they began to tell stories, and the king told them all about his daughter. She asked him if he could still recognize her, and stepping out of the room put on the same dress she wore when he sent her away to be killed.
“You caused me to be killed because I told you I loved you as much as salt and water. Now you have seen what it is to eat without salt and water.”
Her father could not say a word, but embraced her and begged her pardon. They remained happy and contented, and here we are with nothing.
Not Just Gibberish: Edgar’s Ravings and the Popish Impostures
In King Lear, Edgar runs away to escape persecution after being accused of plotting against his mother by his brother Edmund. He puts on a disguise to avoid being captured, since his mother has distributed his picture as a sort of “wanted” poster. The disguise he chooses is that of a madman and beggar, “Poor Tom O’Bedlam.” To maintain this disguise, he raves and babbles and generally acts insane.
Modern audiences may find his ravings to be a bunch of utter nonsense, and some of it may well be. Several passages, however, are not merely random words coined from Shakespeare’s brain, but rather come from a rather unusual source. In 1603, around or before the time that the Bard wrote Lear, Samuel Harsnett wrote a book with the improbable title of A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, to Withdraw the Hearts of her Majesty’s Subjects from their Allegiance, and from the Truth of Christian Religion Professed in England, Under the Pretense of Casting Out Devils.
In the Protestant England of the time, Catholics were looked on with great suspicion. Harsnett’s tome reported on and satirized Catholic exorcisms and other rituals, making fun of the notion that varied devils should exist and possess ordinary people, and accusing the Catholics of using possession as a pretense to convert good Anglicans away from honest faith.
Harsnett writes satirically of a woman who was exorcised: “The Exorcist asks Maho, Sara’s devil, what company he had with him; and the devil… tells him in flat terms, all the devils in hell. …Such a day was never seen since was hell was hell: not a door-keeper left, but all must got a maying to poor Sara’s house. It was not kindly done of the devils, to leave the poor fools behind, especially going to make merry amongst their friends.”
In Act 3, Scene 4, Edgar says, “The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman. Modo he’s called, and Mahu.” Mahu is presumably taken from Sara’s Maho by Shakespeare; while Harsnett mentioned Modo earlier as the devil belonging to someone named Maynie. The devil Edgar later claims is possessing him, Flibbertigibbet, also gets his name from Harsnett.
Beyond these obvious liftings, scholars have suggested that Shakespeare was inspired by the Declaration in other ways; Harsnett uses storm imagery to describe one exorcism, and in general ascribes such horrors to the subjects of these rituals as “burning,” “vomiting,” “crying, scratching, and howling.”
Whatever the truth of Shakespeare’s inspirations – whether he even read Harsnett’s work or not – what is important to remember is that the Bard did not write in a vacuum. His words and metaphors are not highfalutin’ poetry born from his imagination, but are rather hard, real images torn from the headlines of his time. In bringing the viscera of human experience to the stage in front of you, Shakespeare began with the world in front of him.
Brett Steven Abelman is a DC-native creator of stories. He is a proud producing playwright with The Welders. Recent projects include co-creating Play Cupid and Balloon Plays at Capital Fringe Festivals. Brett also reviews at DC Theatre Scene and sometimes blogs at babelwright.wordpress.com.