May 4, 2016

Maybe King Lear’s printer just ran out of paper


"Off, off, you lendings–Come unbutton here" (Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4). Image via The Met.

“Off, off, you lendings–Come unbutton here” (Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 3, Scene 4). Image via The Met.

The printer “had underestimated how much paper he would need to print the play” is an amazing new theory to explain the inconsistencies between the 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio editions of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and undermines the “revisionist” movement of the 1970s that suggested the playwright had shortened the text himself.

In his new book, The One King Lear, Shakespeare scholar Brian Vickers argues that “the cuts to the Folio that the revisionists believe were made by Shakespeare are actually ‘quite damaging’ to the play,” Alison Flood reports for The Guardian.

The omissions (lines from the Lear’s rant on the heath and from Kent negotiating Cordelia’s grief and Lear’s madness) are “very important,” Vickers says. “Shakespeare deliberately wrote the scene to prepare for what follows, it’s a very tightly written scene with not a word wasted [and to cut it] is an act of mutilation.”

Controversy regarding what should be regarded as the “authoritative text” will of course remain, regardless of how Vickers’s suggestions are received, but it’s humbling to consider that a 17th century equivalent of low toner could be responsible for abbreviating one of the most significant documents in the English language.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.