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14 january 2016
King Lear is the most textually complicated of Shakespeare's plays. Hamlet is the other contender, but I'd say that Hamlet is such a mess that it's more straightforward. The "bad" First Quarto of Hamlet is so bad that it really counts as a different play, both overall and in structure, and the good Quartos show major differences from the Folio Hamlet. But the various versions of King Lear are maddeningly close, to the point where an entire industry of Lear-editing over the past generation has made the situation harder to untangle than ever.
Basically, there's a "good" First Quarto of King Lear, and it exists in a couple of different states, because its printers set about emending it even as they were producing the initial press run. This Quarto appeared in 1608. Fifteen years later, King Lear appeared in the First Folio, somewhat abridged, and heavily rewritten – but also in a "good," coherent version. The versions are essentially the same in plot, structure, and action, but the wording, even of some of the most famous and familiar bits, can be quite different. The Quartos assign lines differently than the Folio does, making some of the exchanges that sound inevitable on stage suddenly quite arbitrary in print. (Certainly the Fool calls the King "Lear's shadow" in Act 1, Scene 4? But only in the Folio; in the Quarto, Lear calls himself that.)
Reading René Weis's parallel-text King Lear can thus be exasperating, but it's the only way to seriously study the textual evidence that constitutes King Lear. Weis's edition offers modern-spelling, moderately emended texts of Quarto and Folio, printed on facing pages. That's way more convenient than getting the whole play twice, as I remember happening with a complete Oxford Shakespeare I owned years ago. (I think I got rid of my Oxford when it literally fell apart somewhere in between versions of King Lear.)
Whatever creative processes were involved in writing and revising King Lear, and whoever was at work on them (probably not exclusively William Shakespeare), it's fascinating to see the bare evidence of them in the various Quarto versions and the Folio. Often early compositors had a hand in editing Shakespeare, but they remain anonymous to us, while the editors and emenders of the 18th century and later are named peaks in the ranges of textual scholarship. Sometimes the government played a part (censorship is often adduced as the cause of variants between versions printed before and after relevant laws were enacted). Sometimes a variant has definite aesthetic effect (as in whether to ascribe the final lines of the play to Albany [Q] or Edgar [F]), but it's very hard to discern the aesthetic intent behind those effects, particularly when trying to collate them with dozens of other simultaneous changes.
I see I'm avoiding talking about the play. King Lear is famously a play some people can't bear to watch, even to read. I'm not quite in that category. I do fine reading Lear, though it can be awfully moving even then. I am not as good with performances. I have never seen the play on stage – it's not done very often, because of a bottleneck of Learworthy leading men. The old saw goes that when you are young enough to play Lear you don't understand how to, and when you're old enough to understand you can no longer manage it.
Laurence Olivier's Lear, done for TV in 1983, falls into the latter category, much assisted by the fact that he didn't have to do eight shows a week at the age of 75. Olivier had a fine supporting cast, including Robert Lindsay as Edmund the Bastard, John Hurt as the Fool, and Diana Rigg as Regan. But he is of course the center of attention. If you get the video, stick with it. It starts slow, and isn't helped by the impression that the designers spent about £39.95 on the set. Olivier is visibly worn out just getting through the taping. And then, as he gets madder and madder, the deepening tragedy of the play seems to revitalize him as they exhaust the viewer. The effect is perhaps vampiric but it's also devastating.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear. 1608, 1623. A Parallel Text Edition. Edited by René Weis. 1993. Second Edition. Harlow: Longman [Pearson], 2010.