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