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Quarto and Folio

The Rival Texts of King Lear

The text of King Lear you find in most modern editions is a "conflation" (combination) of two markedly different texts:

(the Norton edition actually has three texts, one edited from each of the Quarto and Folio, and one that combines both). Sorting out these two texts is no easy task, for each has a clear claim to Shakespearean authorship, yet they differ by several hundred lines, as well as in many smaller details where individual words differ. The Quarto is rather longer than the Folio, and includes about 300 lines the Folio omits; but the Folio adds some 100 lines not found in the earlier edition. It is fair to say that there have been a number of theories to account for the differences but none has so far been sufficiently convincing to attract a consensus of scholars.

The normal practice when texts vary is to try to decide which of the two represents the most recent of the author's wishes, then to follow it unless it seems to be corrupt (printers' errors, or an obvious misreading), in which case it can be corrected by reference to the other. But to do this requires making a choice between the texts, preferably by some more objective criterion than literary taste.

One argument that has recently been advanced (and argued against) with some vigor is that Shakespeare himself revised the play between the two versions, making a number of changes that on the whole darkened the tone of the play. To assist in sorting the two versions out, here is a list of some major differences. If you have a text other than the Norton, which includes Quarto, Folio, and conflated texts you may wish to highlight the passages in different colors so you can quickly tell which bit is from which version. In the table that follows, the beginning or end of a passage is indicated only when a line is incomplete; the final column indicates the number of lines involved (numbers from the complete Signet edition).

SceneQuarto onlyFolio onlyCharacter# of lines
1.1 40 ("while we") - 45 ("prevented now.)Lear6
1.317-21 Goneril5
1.4 324-335 ("unfitness--")Goneril/Albany12
2.4 45-54Fool10
3.616-55 Various40
3.7101-109 Servants9
4.31-57 Kent/Gentleman57
5.3206 ("This would have") - 223 Edgar/Albany18
  312-313 ("Look there.")Lear2

From many possible examples, consider one change between Quarto and Folio. At the end of the traumatic scene where Gloucester's eyes are put out, the Quarto includes this passage between the remaining servants (the First Servant has been killed by Regan as he attempted to defend Gloucester from Cornwall's attack):

Second Servant: I'll never care what wickedness I do,
If this man [Cornwall] come to good.
Third Servant: If she [Regan] live long,
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters.
Second Servant: Let's follow
the old earl, and get the Bedlam
To lead him where he would: his roguish madness
Allows itself to any thing.
Third Servant: Go thou: I'll
fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face. Now, heaven help him!

The whole passage is omitted from the Folio.

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This page last updated on 28 December 2006. © Michael Best, 2006.