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Shakespeare's tragedy of King Lear online

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Edited by WM. J. ROLFE, A.M.

Illustrated. i6mo, Cloth, 60 cents per volume ; Paper, 40 cents per volume.

Shakespeare's Plays.


Julius Caesar.

Henry V.

Richard II.

The Merchant of Venice.

A Midsummer-Night's Dream.



Henry VIII.

Much Ado about Nothing.

Romeo and Juliet.
As You Like It.
The Tempest.
Twelfth Night.
The Winter's Tale.
King John.
Henry IV. Part I.
Henry IV. Part II-
Richard III.
King Lear.

Goldsmith's Select Poems.
Gray's Select Poems.

Published by HARPER & BROTHERS, New York.

Any of the above works will be sent by mail, postage prepaid., to any part
of the United States, on receipt of the price.

Copyright, 1880, by Harper & Brothers.

id. copy




I have little to say by way of preface to this edition of King Lear ex-
cept that, as in the case of Macbeth, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet, I have
been under constant obligations to Furness's " New Variorum" edition,
in which I have found a good part of my work done to my hand. I have
depended on it almost entirely for the collation of the early and modern
texts, and in the Notes I have been indebted to it for much valuable
matter which I could hardly have found for myself. For the benefit of
the teacher, who cannot afford to do without this encyclopaedic edition,
I have referred to it in many cases where my limits forbade my borrow-
ing from it further.

In my text I have followed the folio of 1623 almost as closely as
Furness has done ; but I have not hesitated to vary from it whenever
another reading seemed to me unquestionably better. Those who are
disposed to take greater liberties with the original text can choose
for themselves among the varicz lectiones recorded in the Notes, or try
their own hands at emendation if they will.

Cambridge, Sept. 6, 1880.




Introduction to King Lear , , . . 9

I. The History of the Play 9

II. The Sources of the Plot 13

III. Critical Comments on the Play 14


Act 1 43

" II 72

" III 94

« IV 1 14

" V 138

Notes 155


Sharp-tooth' d unkindness, like a vulture (ii. 4. 129).





King Lear was first published in quarto form in i6o8,with
the following title-page :

M.William Shak-speare: | HIS | True Chronicle Historie
of the life and | death of King lear and his three | Daugh-
ters. | With the vnfortunate life of Edgar, sonne | and heire
to the Earle of Gloster, and his | sullen and assumed humor
of | Tom of Bedlam : | As it was played before the Kings
Maiestie at Whitehall 7>pon \ S. Stephans night in Christmas
Hollidayes. \ By his Maiesties seruants playing vsually at
theGloabe | on the Bancke-side. | LONDON, \ Printed for


Nathaniel Butter, and are to be sold at his shop in Pauls \
Church-yard at the signe of the Pide Bull neere | S l . Austins
Gate. 1608.

A second quarto edition was issued by the same publisher
in the same year, the title-page of which is similar, except
that instead of the imprint "LONDON" etc., it has only
"Printed for Nathaniel Butter. | 1608."

Some editors have stated that a third quarto appeared in
1608; but this is an error which has arisen from the fact
that no two copies of the 1st quarto are exactly alike. The
Cambridge editors account for this by supposing that cor-
rections were made while the edition was printing, and that
the corrected and uncorrected sheets were bound up indis-

In the folio of 1623 Lear occupies pages 283-309 in the
division of " Tragedies," and is divided into acts and scenes.
The critics are fully agreed that the text is, on the whole,

* Furness (p. 356) is inclined to think that the binder was responsible
for the confusion. He adds : " The text of these quarto editions was ev-
idently set up piecemeal. For some reason or other 'Master N. Butter '
was in a hurry to publish his 'booke,' and he therefore sent out the
' copy,' divided into several parts, to several compositors, and these dif-
ferent parts, when printed, were dispatched to a binder to be stitched (it
is not probable that any of the Shakespearian quartos were more than
merely stitched, or had other than paper covers). We learn from Ar-
ber's invaluable Transcript of the Stationers' Registers, ii. 881-2, that the
binding was not done by the printers, and as there were nearly fifty free-
men binders at that time in London, there must have been among them
various degrees of excellence. As ill-luck would have it, the several
portions of this tragedy of Lear fell to the charge of a careless binder,
and the signatures, corrected and uncorrected, from the different printers,
were mixed up, to the confusing extent in which the few copies that sur-
vive have come down to us."

We have followed Furness in considering the " Pide Bull " quarto as
the earlier of the two, though, as he remarks, we have only circumstan-
tial evidence in favour of this view. The Cambridge editors, after citing
the other quarto as "Qi"in their collation of the two texts, state in their
preface that, after all, they believe it to be the later edition.


much better than that of the quartos, and that it was printed
from an independent manuscript. Each text, however, is
valuable as supplying the deficiencies of the other. The
quartos, according to Furness, contain about two hundred
and twenty lines that are not in the folios, and the folios fifty
lines that are not in the quartos.* One entire scene (iv. 3)
is omitted in the folios. This discrepancy in the texts has
been the subject of much investigation and discussion.
Johnson believed that "the folio was printed from Shake-
speare's last revision, carelessly and hastily performed, with
more thought of shortening the scenes than of continuing
the action." - Knight infers from the metrical imperfections
of the quartos that they could not have been printed from
the author's manuscript, though they may have been from a
genuine play-house copy ; the omissions in the folio, which
(including iv. 3) are chiefly descriptive, were made, he thinks,
by the poet, who "sternly resolved to let the effect of this
wonderful drama entirely depend upon its action." Staun-
ton, after a careful examination of the two texts, is convinced
that in the folio we have "a later and revised copy of the
play;" whether the curtailment is the work of the author it
is now impossible to determine, but the additions are un-
doubtedly his. Delius, who has subjected the texts to a
minute comparison, comes to the conclusion that "in the
quartos we have the play as it was originally performed be-
fore King James, and before the audience at the Globe, but
sadly marred by misprints, printer's sophistications, and
omissions, perhaps due to an imperfect and illegible manu-
script •" while "in the folio we have a later manuscript, be-
longing to the theatre, and more nearly identical with what

* See Furness, p. 359. He subsequently (p. 364) quotes Koppel as
finding "287 more lines in the quarto than in the folio, and no lines in
the folio which are wanting in the quarto." There seems to be "an er-
ror in the returns," but we have not attempted to determine by a "re-
count " where it lies.



Shakespeare wrote." The omissions of the quartos, he be-
lieves, are the blunders of the printers ; the omissions of the
folio are the abridgments of the actors. Koppel comes to
a conclusion directly opposed to that of Delius, and main-
tains that the omissions and additions in both texts were
mainly the work of the poet himself; that "the original form
was, essentially, that of the quarto ; then followed a longer
form, with the additions in the folio, as substantially our mod-
ern editions have again restored them ; then the shortest form
as it is preserved for us in the folio." Schmidt supposes that
the manuscript for the quarto was prepared from notes made
during a performance on the stage, and was marred by the
errors due to the imperfect memory of the actors and the ab-
breviations and blunders of the copyist; and that the various
readings of the quarto are consequently of no authority, and
ought to be adopted only in the few instances in which they
serve to correct indubitable errors in the folio. Fleay de-
cides that "in the quarto we have the version of the play as
it was performed on the 26th of December, 1606, before the
King;" and that the folio is "an abridgment for stage pur-
poses, most likely made after Shakespeare's retirement, and
probably circa 1616-22."*

The date of the play cannot be earlier than 1603 nor later
than 1606. The former limit is fixed by the publication of
Dr. Harsnet's Declaration of Popish I??ipostnres, from which
Shakespeare got the names of some of the devils mentioned
by Edgar in iii. 4; and the latter by the entry of the play in
the Stationers' Registers, dated November 26, 1607, which
states that it was performed "before the kinges maiestie at
Whitehall vppon Sainct Stephens night at Christmas Last,"
that is, upon the 26th of December, 1606.

Malone made the date 1605, seeing evidence in Edgar's
"I smell the blood of a British man" (iii. 4. 173) that the

* For a fuller presentation of these various views, see Furness, pp.



play must have been written after James was proclaimed
King oi Great Britain, October 24, 1604; but this cannot be
regarded as conclusive, for, as Chalmers has shown, the unit-
ed kingdoms were spoken of as "great Britain " by Daniel
in 1603.

Wright (C. P. eel. p. xv.) sees in Gloster's reference to
"these late eclipses in the sun and moon " (i. 2. 94) an allu-
sion to the great eclipse of the sun in October, 1605, which
had been preceded by an eclipse of the moon within the
space of a month; and the words in the same speech,
" machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disor-
ders follow us disquietly to our graves," he thinks, may pos-
sibly refer to the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605.
Moberly also believes that the play was written in 1605-6,
"in the midst of the stirring events connected with the Gun-
powder Plot."

Dyce and Fleay adopt Malone's view that the date is early
in 1605; Delius thinks it must be placed in 1604 or 1605;
Dowden and Furnivall make it 1605-6.


The story of King Lear and his three daughters is one of
the oldest in English literature. It is told by Geoffrey of
Monmouth in his Historia Britonum, by Layamon in his
Brut, by Robert of Gloucester, by Fabyan in his Chronicle,
by Spenser in the Faerie Quee?ie, by Holinshed in his Chron-
icle, by Camden in his Remaines, in the Mir r our for Magis-
trates, in Warner's Albions England, and elsewhere in prose
and verse. It had also been dramatized in the Chronicle
History of King Lei r, which, according to Malone and Halli-
well, was written in 1593 or 1594. This play is probably the
same that was entered in the Stationers' Registers in 1594,
and that was reprinted in 1605 — possibly, as Malone and
Fleay have urged, on account of the success of Shakespeare's
Lear, then just brought out. The author of this old play


probably took the story from Holinshed, and Shakespeare
doubtless drew his materials either from the same source or
from the old play. But whether he was indebted to the one
or to the other, the real debt, as we have so often had occa-
sion to remark in the case of other of his dramas, is so in-
significant that it is scarce worth the tracing or recording.
As Furness well says, " the distance is always immeasur-
able between the hint and the fulfilment; what to our pur-
blind eyes is a bare, naked rock, becomes, when gilded by
Shakespeare's heavenly alchemy, encrusted thick all over
with jewels. When, after reading one of his tragedies, we
turn to what we are pleased to call the 'original of his plot,'
I am reminded of those glittering gems, of, which Heine
speaks, that we see at night in lovely gardens, and think
must have been left there by kings' children at play; but
when we look for these jewels by day we see only wretched
little worms which crawl painfully away, and which the foot
forbears to crush only out of strange pity."

[From Coleridge's " Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare.'''' *]

Of all Shakespeare's plays Macbeth is the most rapid, Ham-
let the slowest in movement; Lear combines length with ra-
pidity, like the hurricane and the whirlpool, absorbing while
it advances. It begins as a stormy day in summer, with
brightness ; but that brightness is lurid, and anticipates the

It was not without forethought, nor is it without its due sig-
nificance, that the division of Lear's kingdom is in the first
six lines of the play stated as a thing already determined in
all its particulars, previously to the trial of professions, as
the relative rewards of which the daughters were to be made
to consider their several portions. The strange, yet by no
means unnatural, mixture of selfishness, sensibility, and habit
* Coleridge's Works (Harper's ed.), vol. iv. p. 133 fol.


of feeling derived from, and fostered by, the particular rank
and usages of the individual ; the intense desire of being in-
tensely beloved, selfish, and yet characteristic of the selfish-
ness of a loving and kindly nature alone ; the self-support-
less leaning for all pleasure on another's breast; the crav-
ing after sympathy with a prodigal disinterestedness, frus-
trated by its own ostentation, and the mode and nature of
its claims ; the anxiety, the distrust, the jealousy, which more
or less accompany all selfish affections, and are amongst the
surest contradistinctions of mere fondness from true love,
and which originate Lear's eager wish to enjoy his daugh-
ter's violent professions, whilst the inveterate habits of sov-
ereignty convert the wish into claim and positive right, and
an incompliance with it into crime and treason; — these facts,
these passions, these moral verities, on which the whole trag-
edy is founded, are all prepared for, and will to the retrospect
be found implied, in these first four or five lines of the play.
They let us know that the trial is but a trick; and that the
grossness of the old king's rage is in part the natural result
of a silly trick suddenly and most unexpectedly baffled and
disappointed. . . .

Having thus, in the fewest words, and in a natural reply to
as natural a question, which yet answers the secondary pur-
pose of attracting our attention to the difference or diversity
between the characters of Cornwall and Albany, provided
the premises and data, as it were, for our after-insight into
the mind and mood of the person whose character, passions,
and sufferings are the main subject-matter of the play; from
Lear, the persona pattens of his drama, Shakespeare passes
without delay to the second in importance, the chief agent
and prime mover, and introduces Edmund to our acquaint-
ance, preparing us, with the same felicity of judgment, and in
the same easy and natural way, for his character in the seem-
ingly casual communication of its origin and occasion. From
the first drawing-up of the curtain Edmund has stood before


us in the united strength and beauty of earliest manhoo
Our eyes have been questioning him. Gifted as he is wi
high advantages of person, and further endowed by nature
with a powerful intellect and a strong energetic will, even
without any concurrence of circumstances and accident, pride
will necessarily be the sin that most easily besets him. But
Edmund is also the known and acknowledged son of the
princely Gloster ■ he, therefore, has both the germ of pride
and the conditions best fitted to evolve and ripen it into a
predominant feeling. Yet hitherto no reason appears why it
should be other than the not unusual pride of person, talent,
and birth — a pride auxiliary, if not akin, to many virtues,
and the natural ally of honourable impulses. But, alas ! in
his own presence his own father takes shame to himself for
the frank avowal that he is his father — he has " blushed so
often to acknowledge him that he is now brazed to it." . . .
This, and the consciousness of its notoriety ; the gnawing con-
viction that every show of respect is an effort of courtesy which
recalls, while it represses, a contrary feeling — this is the ever
trickling flow of wormwood and gall into the wounds of pride ;
the corrosive virus which inoculates pride with a venom not
its own, with envy, hatred, and a lust for that power which,
in its blaze of radiance, would hide the dark spots on his
disk ; with pangs of shame personally undeserved, and there-
fore felt as wrongs ; and with a blind ferment of vindictive
working towards the occasions and causes, especially towards
a brother, whose stainless birth and lawful honours were the
constant remembrancers of his own debasement, and were
ever in the way to prevent all chance of its being unknown
or overlooked and forgotten. Add to this that, with excel-
lent judgment, and provident for the claims of the moral
sense ; for that which, relatively to the drama, is called po-
etic justice, and as the fittest means for reconciling the feel-
ings of the spectators to the horrors of Gloster's after-suffer-
ings — at least, of rendering them somewhat less unendurable




(for I will not disguise my conviction that in this one point
the tragic in this play has been urged beyond the outermost
mark and ne plus ultra of the dramatic), Shakespeare has
precluded all excuse and palliation of the guilt incurred by
both the parents of the base-born Edmund, by Gloster's con-
fession that he was at the time a married man, and already
blest with a lawful heir of his fortunes. . . .

By the circumstances here enumerated as so many predis-
posing causes, Edmund's character might well be deemed
already sufficiently explained, and our minds prepared for it.
But in this tragedy the story or fable constrained Shakespeare
to introduce wickedness in an outrageous form in the per-
sons of Regan and Goneril. He had read nature too heed-
fully not to know that courage, intellect, and strength of char-
acter are the most impressive forms of power j and that to
power in itself, without reference to any moral end, an inev-
itable admiration and complacency appertains, whether it be
displayed in the conquests of a Bonaparte or Tamerlane, or
in the form and the thunder of a cataract. But in the exhi-
bition of such a character it was of the highest importance
to prevent the guilt from passing into utter monstrosity, which,
again, depends on the presence or absence of causes and
temptations sufficient to account for the wickedness, without
the necessity of recurring to a thorough fiendishness of nat-
ure for its origination. For such are the appointed relations
of intellectual power to truth, and of truth to goodness, that
it becomes both morally and poetically unsafe to present
what is admirable — what our nature compels us to admire —
in the mind and what is most detestable in the heart as co-
existing in the same individual, without any apparent connec-
tion or any modification of the one by the other. That Shake-
speare has in one instance — that of Iago — approached to
this, and that he has done it successfully, is, perhaps, the
most astonishing proof of his genius and the opulence of its
resources. But in the present tragedy, in which he was



compelled to present a Goneril and a Regan, it was most
carefully to be avoided ; and, therefore, the only one con-
ceivable addition to the inauspicious influences on the pre-
formation of Edmund's character is given in the information
that all the kindly counteractions to the mischievous feelings
of shame which might have been derived from co-domestica-
tion with Edgar and their common father had been cut off
by his absence from home and foreign education from boy-
hood to the present time, and a prospect of its continuance,
as if to preclude all risk of his interference with the father's
views for the elder and legitimate son :

" He hath been out nine years, and away he shall again."

[From Hazlitt'' s " Characters of Shakespear^s Plays.' 1 ''*]
We wish that we could pass this play over and say noth-
ing about it. All that we can say must fall far short of the
subject, or even of what we ourselves conceive of it. To at-
tempt to give a description of the play itself, or of its effect
upon the mind, is mere impertinence ; yet we must say some-
thing. It is, then, the best of all Shakespear's plays, for it is
the one in which he was the most in earnest. He was here
fairly caught in the web of his own imagination. The pas-
sion which he has taken as his subject is that which strikes
its root deepest into the human heart, of which the bond is
the hardest to be unloosed, and the cancelling and tearing
to pieces of which gives the greatest revulsion to the frame.
This depth of nature, this force of passion, this tug and war
of the elements of our being, this firm faith in filial piety, and
the giddy anarchy and whirling tumult of the thoughts at
finding the prop failing it ; the contrast between the fixed, im-
movable basis of natural affection and the rapid, irregular
starts of imagination, suddenly wrenched from all its accus-
tomed holds and resting-places in the soul — this is what

* Characters of Shakespear's Plays, by William Hazlitt ; edited by W.
Carew Hazlitt (London, 1869), p.ToS fol.


Shakespear has given, and what nobody else but he could
give. So we believe. The mind of Lear, staggering between
the weight of attachment and the hurried movements of pas-
sion, is like a tall ship driven about by the winds, buffeted by
the furious waves, but that still rides above the storm, having
its anchor fixed in the bottom of the sea ; or it is like the
sharp rock circled by the eddying whirlpool that foams and
beats against it, or like the solid promontory pushed from its
basis by the force of an earthquake.

The character of Lear itself is very finely conceived for
the purpose. It is the only ground on which such a story
could be built with the greatest truth and effect. It is his
rash haste, his violent impetuosity, his blindness to every thing
but the dictates of his passions or affections, that produces
all his misfortunes, that aggravates his impatience of them,
that enforces our pity for him. The part which Cordelia bears
in the scene is extremely beautiful ; the story is almost told
in the first words she utters. We see at once the precipice
on which the poor old king stands from his own extravagant
and credulous importunity, the indiscreet simplicity of her
love (which, to be sure, has a little of her father's obstinacy
in it), and the hollowness of her sisters' pretensions. Almost
the first burst of that noble tide of passion which runs through
the play is in the remonstrance of Kent to his royal master
on the injustice of his sentence against his youngest daugh-
ter : " Be Kent unmannerly, when Lear is mad !" This man-
ly plainness, which draws down on him the displeasure of the
unadvised king, is worthy of the fidelity with which he adheres
to his fallen fortunes. The true character of the two eldest
daughters, Regan and Goneril (they are so thoroughly hate-
ful that we do not even like to repeat their names), breaks
out in their answer to Cordelia, who desires them to treat
their father well : " Prescribe not us our duties " — their ha-
tred of advice being in proportion to their determination to
do wrong, and to their hypocritical pretensions to do right.


Their deliberate hypocrisy adds the last finishing to the odi-
ousness of their characters. It is the absence of this detest-
able quality that is the only relief in the character of Ed-

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Online LibraryWilliam ShakespeareShakespeare's tragedy of King Lear → online text (page 1 of 23)