First Folio for the First Time since 1623: The Shakespeare First Folio Is One of the Iconic Books in the Cultural Tradition of the West. Jonathan Bate Explains Why He Is the First Scholar for Centuries to Produce a Proper Edition of Its Text
Bate, Jonathan, History Today
SHAKESPEARE'S INSIGHTS into the dynamics of power are such that his plays will always strike a resonance with the times. With each new turn of history, a new dimension of his work opens up before us. When George III went mad, King Lear was kept off the stage, by consent of the theatre managers--the story was just too close to the truth of the moment. During the Cold War, Lear again became Shakespeare's hottest play, as its combination of starkness and absurdity answered to the mood of the age of 'mutually assured destruction', inspiring the Polish critic Jan Kott to compare it to Samuel Beckett's Endgame in his book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1961). This was also the era when both the Russian Grigori Kozintsev (1969) and the English Peter Brook (1971) made darkly brilliant film versions that simultaneously evoked the primitive world of the play and the aura of nuclear apocalypse that suffused the contemporary air.
The first prerequisite for the endurance of Shakespeare through history and for the process of using him as a vehicle for the understanding of later times is a good text of the plays. Without editions there would be no Shakespeare. That is why every twenty years or so throughout the last three centuries there has been a major new edition of his complete works. One aspect of editing is the process of keeping the texts up to date--modernizing the spelling, punctuation and typography (though not, of course, the actual words), providing explanatory notes in the light of changing educational practices (a generation ago, most of Shakespeare's classical and Biblical allusions could be assumed to be generally understood, but now they can't).
But because Shakespeare did not personally oversee the publication of his plays, editors also have to make decisions about the relative authority of the early printed editions. In the case of King Lear, there are hundreds of differences between the pocket-format 'quarto' edition published in the author's lifetime and the elaborately produced First Folio text of 1623, the original 'Complete Works' prepared for the press after his death by Shakespeare's fellow actors, who knew the plays better than anyone else. Some of the differences are far from trivial, among them Lear's dying words and the question of who rules Britain at the end of the play.
Generations of editors have adopted a 'pick and mix' approach, moving between quarto and folio readings, making choices on either aesthetic or bibliographic grounds, and creating a composite text that Shakespeare never actually wrote. Not until the 1980s did editors follow the logic of what ought to have been obvious to anyone who works in the theatre: that the quarto and folio texts represent two discrete moments in the life of King Lear, that plays change in the course of rehearsal, production and revival, and that the major variants between the early printed versions almost certainly reflect this process.
The scholarly editing of Shakespeare began in the eighteenth century, when the model for such activity was the treatment of the classic texts of ancient Greece and Rome. The recovery of those texts had been at the core of the humanist Renaissance. The procedure was to establish which surviving manuscript was the oldest, the aim being to get as close as possible to the lost original, weeding out the errors of transcription which had been introduced by successive scribes in the centuries before the advent of print. As Shakespeare began to be treated like a classic, the same procedure was applied. The eighteenth century also saw his rise to the status of national genius, icon of pure inspiration. …