Cordelia, “our last and least”

I’ve attached a passage from Act I of King Lear, from two different editions of the play. I first selected Harvard Classic’s edition of King Lear. Charles W. Eliot started the Harvard Classics anthologies in order to create a sort of reading course easily available to anyone interested in receiving a general liberal education. He selected what he considered some of the most important literary texts, including many of Shakespeare plays. In the edition of Elizabethan Drama, which includes Marlowe and Shakespeare, Eliot wrote brief general introductions to each play and some footnotes. However, the edition is troublesome because it eliminates line numbers and most footnotes are merely definitions of terms. In general, this edition is not very helpful for scholars or literature students. Nonetheless, while going through the first scene of King Lear, I was drawn to one peculiar footnote about line 82 (based on H.H. Furness’ edition of the play), when King Lear addresses Cordelia and asks her to speak about her love. Eliot remarks that the Quarto reading of this line is “Although the last, not least in our dear love” instead of the Folio’s version he used, “although our last and least, to whose young love”. Being fairly familiar with Laurence Olivier’s (1983) and Ian McKellen’s (2008) interpretation of King Lear, used to hearing them both say “our last, but not least”, I am intrigued about the reason behind the different editions of this particular line and what it means.

Looking at Horace Howard Furness’ edition of the play, which includes long footnotes and seems to be more useful for scholars and students, I noticed that there is a lot of debate about this line. Furness quotes several critics such as Malone, Dyce, Staunton, White, Hudson, Schmidt, and others. According to Malone, the correct formula should have been “last not least” as it is applied to people highly valued to the speaker, and Cordelia is clearly Lear’s preferred child. However, White explain that in King Lear, “least” is used to allude to the personal traits and family positions of Cordelia, the fact that she is Lear’s youngest child. In this sense, Furness explains, the Folio formula is more accurate for it demonstrate that Cordelia was “her father’s little pet, while her sisters were big, bold, brazen beauties” (p. 14). Furness also discusses how according to Schmidt certain performances of the play might have influenced the reprinting and alterations of this line. At the end, Furness gives his own opinion, leaning towards the Folio’s formula being more in accordance with the nature of the play and the relationship between Lear and Cordelia.

I’d be interested to write about other possible readings of this line and its different variations, since I always took for granted that the correct formula is “last, but not least”, thinking that the Folio’s formula must have been a printing mistake (another possible explanation, according to Dyce and Staunton).  Furness’ notes seems to be a good starting point to research this topic, but it’d be interesting to look into newer research about it, if there is any.



Eliot, Charles W. Elizabethan Drama: Marlowe, Shakespeare. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Enterprises Corp., 1988. Print. Attachment (C.W. Eliot)

Shakespeare, William. A new variorum edition of Shakespeare: King Lear. Ed. Horace Howard Furness. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1880. Web. Attachment (H.H. Furness)



Bevington’s Location Notes and Scene Changes

Like Arnaud, I am reading King Lear out of David Bevington’s The Necessary Shakespeare. Bevington’s edition is a student edition, and accordingly most of the footnotes are simple glosses to the text or paraphrases of difficult passages. However, Bevington also consistently provides footnotes indicating the current location of the action of the scene, which I found interesting since they at once seem to offer extensive editorial interpretation of where the scene takes place, and divide even the notes to the text into scenes, even as the fact that these occur in the footnotes shows a desire to make these interpretations of location seem clearly editorial rather than authorial.  I’ve chosen the page below, the beginning of act 4 scene 5, both because its footnotes are interesting and because it provides a good cross-section of the kinds of footnotes in the volume:

In the above picture, the note to 4.5 states that the scene continues, and Juliet’s bed remains visible. Although some of these location notes are hardly debatable–the note about Juliet’s bed makes sense given the text of the play here, the running interpretation of location clearly isn’t a feature of the original folio and quarto texts, and provides a tacit editorial intervention and interpretation of the scene change.

The location notes are also interesting on a visual level. Bevington formats his notes so that glossed words appear in bold while their definitions appear in regular font. Any comments lending historical context tend to appear in parentheses, and Bevington provides very loose paraphrases of particularly complex passages after “i.e.,” thereby distinguishing his paraphrases from exact translations of the Early Modern English text. Aside from the words excerpted from the text, which are bolded at the beginning of each footnote, all the notes are in regular typeface at roughly 8pt font. The location commentary at scene changes, however, is bolded in its entirety, subdividing even the notes into scenes. This admittedly isn’t as much an interpretive decision as a design choice, however, it’s one that emphasizes the scene changes more than other editions do even if only in the notes.

The emphasis of the edition on scene beginnings is interesting in conjunction with the way Bevington formats scene beginnings in the main body of the text. Although Bevington’s edition has text in each of the three lines of print dividing scene four from scene 5, the scene number is in a large font, making these three lines take up space equivalent to sic regular lines of the play. Accordingly, these three lines of print leave substantial negative space between scenes, accentuating the division between them. The small clover-shaped flourish at the end of scene four and the bold typeface for the scene number heighten this division. However, both the scene numbers and stage directions are offset with square brackets, which at once make it explicit that these additions are editorial interventions and perhaps also add a visual sense of uncertainty–although these are the traditional scene divisions, they’re tentatively put forward as the result of editorial tradition rather than words from Shakespeare’s pen. Like the location notes, the formatting of the scene change is at once designed to provide a clear division between the scenes, and to show that these subdivisions of the text and editorial interventions may not have been available to a contemporary reader of the play.

Editorial Interpretation

I am reading an 1879 version of King Lear edited by Rev. Henry N. Hudson. Because it was meant for classroom use, the editorial notes are generally glosses, explanations of etymology, explanations of allusions, and comparisons to Shakespeare’s other plays where he uses words similarly. There are also several interpretations of key lines, and not all of them are Hudson’s—he frequently provides other editors’ interpretations, most often Coleridge’s. The purpose of providing interpretations of certain passages is probably to help students not only appreciate Shakespeare’s language, but also go one step further and learn interpretation. These interpretations, particularly Coleridge’s, illustrate the universal applications of the play’s themes. But Hudson also shows that students should not be limited to one interpretation. In Act III scene vii, note 11, he provides an explanation for part of Gloucester’s speech, emphasizing the word “cruels.” He first gives his own original interpretation, then another editor’s that he prefers, modeling how opinions about texts can and should change. The difficult passage is made clearer for students—and this clarity at the same time highlights the passage’s complexity and resistance to a single explanation. This comment as well as many others throughout the play includes judgment about one of the characters, in this case Regan. While these judgments are helpful for students, they might limit interpretation when it comes to thinking about the complexity of characters’ motives.

PDF here

The Closing Speech of King Lear: Textual Incongruities between Q1 and F

King Lear Closing Speech  (Scan)

The textual departures between the Q1 and F versions of King Lear give occasion for intriguing readings. Nearly three hundred lines are missing from F which appear in Q1. On the other hand, F has approximately one hundred lines which are not found in Q1 (McEachern 134). The very closing of the play is riddled by the differences between Q1 and F. In Q1 the closing speech of the play (5.3.319-22) has been attributed to Albany; while in F the same has been attributed to Edgar (5.3.323-26). After Lear dies Albany warmly invites both Kent and Edgar to rule Lear’s kingdom (Q1 5.3.315-16). Kent politely refuses the offer by saying he will soon follow his master and embark upon his journey of afterlife. Kent’s speech is followed by the concluding speech of the play which is ambiguously attributed to Albany/Edgar. If the Q1 version is followed and the speech is attributed to Albany, then it signifies that Edgar remains silent to Albany’s invitation to rule the kingdom. Edgar’s silence could be interpreted as his unwillingness to accept the throne which would mean that Albany would be ruling all of Lear’s kingdom. If the F version is followed, then the closing speech of the play could be considered as Edgar’s response to Albany’s offer. In the speech, Edgar expresses his reverence for the trials and tribulations of the old and reminds the young of their duties. This could be read as an oblique articulation of his willingness to accept the throne. If the Q1 version is followed, it appears somewhat incongruous that Edgar would remain entirely silent and present no response to Albany’s offer. Even if he does not wish to accept Albany’s offer, that could have been represented in a brief speech like that of Kent, instead of the ambiguous silence which could come across as discourteous to Albany. As opposed to this, the F version appears less anomalous. It is only natural that Kent and Edgar would announce respectively their reactions to Albany’s offer. In its attribution of the speech to Edgar F implies that the righteous Edgar would assume the throne in near future. In this F provides a relatively less problematic ending to the play in comparison with the equivocal conclusion of Q1. This is possibly why Heminges and Condell amended the ending of Q1 and attributed the speech to Edgar in F.


Texts Cited    

Halio, Jay L., ed. The First Quarto of King Lear. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. (Follows the First Folio as copy text)

McEachern, Claire, ed. King Lear. By William Shakespeare. New York: Pearson-Longman, 2005.


A Note on the Scanned Images

Pages 1 and 2 of the scan represents the Q1 text and page 3 of the scan represents the F text.


Shinjini Chattopadhyay


On the Coherence of David Bevington’s Glosses

I am looking at King Lear in an edition of the complete works (published in 1951 and revised in 1973) edited by David Bevington, emeritus at Chicago. Bevington’s footnotes are meant for a rather well-read and self-sufficient reader, someone who wants a brief but thorough historical introduction to each work but only wants the occasional gloss or parsing of complex sentences and abstruse expressions. But Bevington also lets slip some interpretive suggestions about the role or place of religion in the play that I’d like to consider in a little detail.

 (The scans I took at the library are too big to upload, so here is a Google link to view them)
In act I, scene 1, line 162, as Lear lets forth an oath “Now, by Apollo – ” which Kent brusquely interrupts “Now, by Apollo, king / Thou swear’st thy gods in vain,” Bevington’s footnote (162) tells us: “The play of King Lear is rather carefully pagan in all its externals.” He’s right, of course, as the play’s many references to gods and goddesses of nature and justice (in addition to the Greek mythical tradition) seem rather untethered to any Christian worldview. My question is whether Bevington’s observation here – i.e. Shakespeare is carefully avoiding Christian themes in the play’s “externals”– should inform his glosses for the rest of the play.
I’m thinking, for instance, of Act I Scene IV line 18, when Kent (now disguised) re-introduces himself to Lear: “I do profess to be no less than I seem; to serve him truly that will put me in trust….to fight when I cannot choose; and to eat no fish” (emphasis mine). Bevington’s gloss for the “eat no fish” teaches us that “Warburton’s explanation is usually followed: Roman Catholics, who observed the custom of eating fish on Fridays, were thought of as enemies of the government.” If we buy that gloss, then Kent is defining himself in contradistinction to Catholics: the grid of interpretation we’re being offered is one that forces us back into a Christian universe, despite the earlier comment that the externals of the play are carefully non-Christian. I think Bevington is wary and subtle here — he gives us Warburton’s gloss but doesn’t it make it authoritative, leaving other interpretations possible for why Kent describes himself as an anti-pescatarian. But I’m still left puzzling: is it expected practice for an editor’s observation about the play as a whole to have a kind of binding power or be any kind of axiological principle for the rest of the glosses? Do we expect consistency and coherence from gloss to gloss across the totality of the editor’s work or is it ok for an editor to leave these kinds of apparent contradictions unresolved if it’s all in an effort to open up the text’s irresolutions and explain its oddities as best one can?

Lear 5.3.158: “Ask me not what I know.”

A few of the lines in Lear’s final scene are attributed differently depending on which version of the play one is reading. One of the most intriguing of these lines is “Ask me not what I know” at 5.3.158. (In the scan, see the note for 158 on page 377, and also the note for 152-158 on page 376.) In the quarto, Albany asks Goneril, “Knowst thou this paper?” and Goneril replies, “Ask me not what I know,” and then exits. In the folio, Goneril exits earlier, on the line “Who can arraign me for it?,” and Albany’s question, rather than being addressed to his wife, is directed to Edmund, who gives the reply that was attributed to Goneril in the quarto. R.A. Foakes, Arden 3 editor of King Lear, thinks that giving the line to Edmund “makes much better sense.” But I am not as sure as Foakes about the attribution. Though ascribing the the line to Edmund does make logical sense on paper, it might make less sense in performance. Albany’s subsequent line, “Go after her; she’s desperate, govern her,” plays much better when it is delivered immediately after Goneril’s exit, rather than being delayed by a conversation with Edmund. If Albany is, indeed, addressing Goneril, we might read his question “Knowst thou this paper?” as an impassioned, if redundant, attempt to elicit a confession from his wife. Attributing the line “Ask me not what I know” to Goneril does make good dramatic sense, as evidenced by the fact that many productions give her the line—including one of my favorites, the version directed by Trevor Nunn starring Ian McKellen as King Lear. I would like to know more about the stage history of this particular line, and how it compares to the page history.

Scan here: Lear 5.3.158