King Lear The Integrity of King Lear
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Integrity of King Lear

Sidney Thomas, Syracuse University

In a brief article published a decade ago, I ventured to challenge the then relatively new theory of a two-text King Lear, hoping that by calling attention to some of the theory's weaknesses and exaggerations, I could help to prevent it, as I said then, from hardening into 'a new orthodoxy'.1 What I anticipated has now happened: not only, as Jay Halio has recently observed, has 'strong support for a revision hypothesis [ … ] grown among scholars',2 but the new orthodoxy I feared has proved to be even more rigid and uncompromising in its assertion of the absolute truth of its position than any one could have expected, and what I half-jokingly predicted, the metastasis of the two-text theory of King Lear to other plays in the canon, has taken place with a vengeance.

Thus, in the latest and most extensive treatment of the revisionist theory, Grace Ioppolo recommends that 'the Quarto and Folio texts of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and other plays should also [in addition to King Lear] be printed in separate versions if scholars are ever to come to terms with all that they offer'.3

The adherents of the revisionist hypothesis have now proclaimed victory. In the approving words of Ioppolo, 'the new revisionists have achieved a coup d'état which offers a new constitution for how scholars read, study, and teach Shakespeare's canon and also redefines the canon itself (p. 3). I am therefore impelled to take up once again the argument for a King Lear conceived and written by Shakespeare as an integral work, and left untouched by him except for minor changes made currente calamo, or in the course of rehearsal or initial staging.

To begin with, there is not a shred of external evidence to support the notion that Shakespeare revised any of his plays after its first performance except, perhaps, to correct an obvious gaffe. Significantly, the very Oxford editors who argue for the hypothesis of Shakespearean revision in one passage of their Textual Companion4 take a very different tack in another passage. Referring to the contention that Shakespeare's plays might have been posthumously revised, they declare:

Most obviously, Shakespeare could not veto or influence any changes imposed upon his plays in the theatre after his death. Fortunately the economics and mechanics of the pre-Restoration repertory system made it impractical to reshape a play every time it was revived; when later adaptation did occur, it usually involved the addition of discrete chunks of material. Therefore the number of changes affected by such intervention should be small. (p. 15)

But if the economics and mechanics of the repertory system made posthumous revision unlikely, did they not also make revision by Shakespeare himself equally unlikely? The very same article cited by the Oxford editors as a basis for their dismissal of the probability of posthumous revision provides strong evidence against the theory of authorial revision. Rosalind Knutson, after a careful and thorough analysis of Henslowe's theatrical records, concludes:

For the last decade of the Elizabethan period, for the one company with a playhouse document that shows patterns of revival and the commercial value of plays in the repertory, the assumption that revision accompanied revival cannot be supported. Furthermore, the assumption that revision was necessary to make old plays profitable cannot be supported. [ …] Only in a few isolated cases is there evidence that the plays being revived were also revised. [ … ] On the basis of evidence in Henslowe's Diary, therefore, revision for the occasion of revival was neither commonplace nor economically necessary.5

But, it may be objected, the evidence of Henslowe 's Diary need not apply to Shakespeare's company or to Shakespeare himself. There is, however, a striking piece of evidence to suggest that for the management of the King's Men, as well as for Henslowe, revival did not necessarily entail revision. In an...

(The entire section is 7,177 words.)