The Play

William Shakespeare penned what is now considered one of his greatest tragedies somewhere between 1605 and 1606. King Lear is a particularly timely drama, representative of Shakespeare’s own literary evolution as well as England’s current political transformations. It is one of the bard’s later plays, but it marks an important shift in his transformation as a playwright. Lear directly follows the publications and productions of two of Shakespeare’s other greats, Hamlet and Othello. This period of dramas presents the audience with a hero whose tragic flaw is his inability to anticipate the consequences of his actions. After Lear, we such works as Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, whose stories portray markedly self-aware protagonists. Lear is a transitory play; the drama’s hero recognizes his own mistakes and character flaws, but only with the help of his loyal companions.

The 1608 title page.

Shakespeare first published Lear in a quarto form in 1607 through novice printer Nicholas Okes as The True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters. Okes’ amateurism resulted in a number of errors in the text, which was reprinted as a quarto in 1619. The final definitive version of Lear was published in Shakespeare’s folio as The Tragedy of King Lear in 1619. Some scholars claim that Shakespeare had little if any part in the folio version of the text, and that it was a reprint of the actors’ version of the script. Regardless of who was responsible for the changes, the distinct differences between the two works have presented serious challenges for Shakespearian scholars; most productions rely on some conflated version of the text instead of just the quarto or folio. The folio text is 200 lines shorter than the quarter, having cut 300 and added 100 (Halio3). Some of the main differences between the quarto and folio:

  • Absence of the mock trial scene in the folio
  • Edgar’s role is stronger in the folio, while Albany’s is dimished, indicating an emphasis on the kingdom’s probable heir. For example, the final line of the play (“The weight of this sad time we must obey, /Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say./ The oldest have borne most; we that are young/ Shall never see so much, nor live so long”) is said by Albany in the quarto, but given to Edgar in the folio
  • Removal of many explicit references to the French army in the folio

Lear is considerably longer than most Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. Since its first printing, actors and directors have had to cut the epic drama for timely purposes. Some critics claim that changes may have been due to censorship by James I. Plays during this era were under the discretion of a Master of Revels, whose job was to censor any plays considered blasphemous or immoral. References to antagonism with France may have upset King James I, who was attempting to forge peace between the two countries at the time. The revised folio version includes less explicit references to the French army. Other critics consider the folio not evidence of censorship, but instead purposeful, authorial edits, indicating that Shakespeare was an active revisionist of his own work.

For the purposes of our production, we are relying on the Folger Shakespeare Library Edition, 2005, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Our director really wanted a version of the text that relied heavily on the folio version. Most productions use a conflated edition of the play, one that scholars have deliberately created using what they consider the best passages from the quarto and folio. The Folger edition keeps many of what we like best about the folio, and is by far the best acting edition. Our final acting text will probably change significantly between now and the production in April, but for now, we’re happy with our choice.


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