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