The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.132 Monday, 18 April 2016
Date: April 18, 2016 at 12:00:35 AM EDT
Subject: Vickers One King Lear
UCLA and I have sworn off book-buying but curiosity and thirty bucks got me a copy of Sir Brian Vickers’s The One King Lear. Because few Shakespearians are “up to Blackfeet,” as a surviving mountain man was wont to say, I suppose upcoming reviews will be of little value. But there’s no more important topic nowadays than King Lear, textually speaking, like it or not. I’ll respond to this latest effort in advance of Knowles’s variorum edition in the hope that a new generation will take more interest than the last.
Citing an interested favorite of mine, “a modern editor of any Folio play can ill afford to ignore the earliest of Shakespeare’s editors” (Werstine), Vickers adds “that the same holds for every serious student of Shakespeare. The transmission of his plays is a matter too important to be left to textual scholars” (203). That lets most students off the hook, to be sure; but when they turn into academics (if only by witchcraft, the way I turned into a motel) with students of their own, it seems to me that “the truth” and how to approach it becomes a responsibility.
When matters are complicated scholars and general readers should be fully apprised. Sir Brian confidently discusses so much while advising how and how not to go about it that one may feel more informed than is the case. I agree with him on several important issues, some of which he advances creditably. Yet his book is disappointing for reasons that may be understood only by further discussion.
To begin, Vickers’s treatment of individual textual examples is too limited; a reader will have no chance to understand the complexities (some scholar-caused) and alternative solutions without access to more information. The best and most complete analysis of Lear’s text is The Textual History of King Lear (1980), by PWK Stone, who consistently handles passages in contradiction to and more thoughtfully than Vickers’s assertions. One is well advised to read Stone first and to compare textual discussions in every case. It is true, however, that Stone assumes less than most Shakespeareans, which they assume is a bad thing to do.
Vickers is very critical—beyond condemnation—of “Two Version Theory,” which argues F Lear (1623) as Shakespeare’s own revision of Q1 (1608), most notably in the Taylor-made Division of the Kingdoms (1983). Vickers’s angry criticism is well-earned, and it’s about time.
However, two features of Sir Brian’s “Two Version” sections struck me as applicable to his own arguments. First, his denunciation of Two-Text Theorists’ rhetorical manipulation and other means of persuasion is somewhat diminished by his own methods of argumentation. Gary Taylor’s well-known “everybody does it” defense of unfair methods gets some support from unexpected quarters.
Second, I have long noticed a “continuing presence” in Shakespeare studies of a tendency that Vickers himself innocently alludes to in another context: “The significance of this revolution in scholarly assumptions for King Lear, and other play texts is that it can encourage us to look for signs of an author’s continuing presence in plays printed from a theatrical manuscript” (183). Modern Shakespeare scholarship encourages, above all else, a search for his continuing presence in the received texts—and evidence be damned.
Two-texters “discovered” that Q1 was printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers (which Vickers accepts but renames, “messy authorial manuscript”) and that Shakespeare revised Q1 (or the same foul papers) to produce, ultimately, F Lear. This “continuing presence sandwich” was just what the Phd’s ordered. The beauty of Division is that no one actually has to read it—it’s enough to know that Shakespeare revised King Lear. Naysayers are reversing that opinion, forcibly so in Vickers’s book. He claims that Shakespeare’s foul paper copy is badly and incompletely printed in Q1 and that F does not revise Q1 per se, but that the official King’s Men promptbook (derived from the same foul papers) restores the Q1 omissions to F, and vice versa (Q1 obviously provides us with the text omitted from F). Thus One Lear restores the author’s continuing presence, not by revision but recovery of an original that should have been printed more or less identically in Q1 and F.
I think evidence shows Q1 to be a report (bad quarto) that F reprints rather than any authorized promptbook, which couldn’t possibly be fitted to reported text. Continuing authorial presence is mistaken, though the report retains an integrity for which we should be thankful (insofar as it is The Only King Lear). I’ll review Vickers’s book with neglected alternatives in mind.
As part of his evidence that F restores text that was in Q1’s printer’s copy (messy, messy foul papers) but omitted from Q1 by printing-house constraints, Vickers cites line 5.3.145, where Edmund “complacently agrees to accept [disguised brother] Edgar’s challenge” (113). During printing, a compositor saved space by a “desperate measure: omitting parts of Shakespeare’s text.” The compositor might balk at “desperate” (what would he care?) but the issue is, whence the added F line—‘What safe, and nicely I might well delay’? Was it available to Q1 but left out, to be restored by F’s promptbook copy, as Vickers asserts; or is it a revision of Q1, and if so, by whom? All the reader gets is Sir Brian’s “desperate” interpretation. I reported Stone’s analysis to this group some time ago, but it may be worth the reader’s attention now, as typical of the contrasting methods of argument:
Bast. In wisdom I should aske thy name,
But since thy outside lookes so faire and warlike,
And that thy being some say of breeding breathes,
By right of knighthood, I disdaine and spurn . . . (Q1)
Stone: “It is obvious that By is a mistake for My. Edmund is saying that he waives his right, by the rules of trial by combat, to know the identity of his appellant (Edgar). . . . But in F the misprint By is overlooked and preserved. Two consequences follow: (a) the phrase ‘by right’, being unidiomatic, must be modified, and (b) the verbs ‘disdain’ and ‘spurn’ must be supplied with an object. An extra line comes in aid, and, in the event, the unnecessary effort results in confusion:
What safe, and nicely I might well delay,
By rule of Knighthood, I disdaine and spurne:
What must refer to the coming combat, yet that is not the object of Edmund’s disdain, as the structure of the sentence seems to imply. The sense requires ‘delay’ as an object, or the predicate ‘to do so’ after ‘spurn’.
More significant, however, than the muddle itself is the clear evidence that a misunderstanding has initiated it. There can be no question but that F’s extra line was inspired by a failure to identify the corruption in Q.
This evidence is not, of course, wholly conclusive. We cannot argue that, if some of the passages unique to F display the marks of interpolation, all must therefore be interpolations. Nevertheless, a strong presumption is created in favour of that possibility, and, in the circumstances, the kind of evidence we have hitherto rejected as ambiguous may now reasonably be cited as corroborative. The fact, for example, that none of the fresh material in F is strictly necessary may, in the absence of other evidence, argue either addition in F or omission in Q; but when we know that some of it has been deliberately added we may find it more significant that the Q text does not actually require the expansions it has received” (Stone, 69).
That’s the difference between analysis and agenda; unfortunately, the reader is unknowingly left hanging by far too much of Vickers’s textual and scholarly citation. Stone’s alternative is how inquiry should be done. Vickers presents F’s addition as a restoration of Q1 omission with no analysis or mention of alternative possibilities.
Gerald E. Downs