A Response to Holger Syme

By Brian VickersNovember 6, 2016

A Response to Holger Syme
Mark now, how a plain tale shall put you down

— 1 Henry IV, 2.4.255


READERS OF the Los Angeles Review of Books may have been surprised by the ferocity with which Holger Syme attacked my book The One King Lear. He accuses me of having produced

a volume riddled with basic methodological errors, factual blunders, conceptual non-sequiturs, and vituperative ad hominem attacks. It is a book that should never have been printed in its present form. But one of its two prominent, if non-committal, blurbists is right: now that it exists, this is not a book one can ignore.

Disappointed that his retrospective censorship did not take place, Syme tears into everything else that allowed this lamentable event — “our system of academic peer reviewing” and, above all, “one of North America’s most august university presses,” Harvard University Press, which “seems to have set scholarly standards aside in putting Vickers’s tome into print.” The One King Lear, he claims, “now requires the rigorous critique the press either did not solicit or, more likely, chose to ignore.”

Here we see the recklessness characteristic of Syme’s polemic. He must know that this “august” publisher would engage professional scholarly referees, since he has already referred to “our system of academic peer reviewing” (I wonder what to make of that possessive pronoun), and a moment’s self-critical thinking would have rendered it highly unlikely that they “chose to ignore” the referees’ reports (they didn’t). But making such reckless statements is what happens to a man when, as Jonathan Swift put it, “his fancy gets astride on his reason.”

Syme’s review is vehemently negative but wholly unfounded. He consistently ignores large stretches of my argument, failing in a reviewer’s first duty to give readers a reliable account of the book at hand. He consistently misrepresents what I write, takes passages out of context, quotes part of a sentence but suppresses the conclusion where I make my main point. He accuses me of mistreating distinguished scholars, but the accusations are false, and in making them Syme reveals the deficiencies of his own scholarship. He is a careless reader, whose summaries often muddle my argument. He is determined to leave the worst possible impression in the reader’s mind, starting with the quotation in his title, “The text is foolish.” But a polemicist needs to be careful when choosing an epigraph, for a reader who knows the context might give it a different significance. In the Quarto, Goneril utters these words in response to her husband’s warning that, having treated her father so heartlessly, she has damaged her essential humanity:

Albany. She that her selfe will sliver and disbranch
From her materiall sap, perforce must wither,
And come to deadly use.
Goneril. No more, the text is foolish.
Albany. Wisedome and goodness, to the vild seem vild,
Filths savour but themselves.

I imagine that Professor Syme would not want to be identified with Goneril.

I knew that The One King Lear would be controversial, since it challenges a recent orthodoxy. I expected criticism, and welcome it, since scholarship can only advance by being subjected to scrutiny. But I object to dishonest reviews that suppress any positive aspect of my book. A small but symptomatic instance of Syme’s ill will is his slighting reference to “its two prominent, if non-committal, blurbists.” The rear cover contains two quotations, the first from Professor Peter Holland, McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies at Notre Dame, past president of the Shakespeare Society of America, and editor of Shakespeare Survey, who wrote: “This is a big, bold book, a major piece of scholarship for everyone to engage with. No one interested in the texts of Shakespeare’s work (and not only in the texts of King Lear) will be able to ignore it.” The other was Professor Henry Woudhuysen, Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford; author of a seminal study, Sir Philip Sidney and the Circulation of Manuscripts, 1558-1640 (1996); co-editor of The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010); and president of the Bibliographical Society, who wrote: “The One King Lear is concerned with one of the most interesting and controversial issues relating not just to the two texts of what some regard as Shakespeare’s greatest play, but to the dramatist and his art. There is much to enjoy in this book, and much to learn from it.” Readers can now judge the accuracy of Syme’s description (“non-committal”) and his assertion that The One King Lear “should never have been printed in its present form.”

I thus find myself in a Los Angeles courtroom, harried by a young and inexperienced prosecuting attorney who tries every trick in the book to win his case: indignation, ridicule, sarcasm, feigned praise, and frequent repetition of my name (“Vickers” occurs 131 times). Syme’s constant weapon is extreme disparagement: “Vickers’s judgment is often anachronistic, but his reading of how Shakespeare’s plays work goes beyond mere historical misperception. It is almost a case of mistaken identity”; “Vickers’s hypothesis is […] poorly supported and logically incoherent […] marred by a string of serious technical errors …”; etc.


Beginning my self-defense, I would like to tell your readers what my book is about, and why I wrote it. King Lear was first published as a single play (Quarto format) in 1608 by Nathaniel Butter, who hired Nicholas Okes to print it. As Peter Blayney showed in his authoritative study, The Texts of King Lear and Their Origins (1982), Okes had just set up shop as a printer, and this was the first play that he printed, between mid-December 1607 and mid-January 1608. (The average time for printing a play Quarto in this period was two weeks.) Not fully aware of established practices in printing this form of literature, Okes made a real mess of the job, producing one of the worst-printed plays in this period. Blayney criticized him for his “penny-pinching use of cheap labour” and the “cheap-minded expediency” with which he avoided spending a few shillings on having Shakespeare’s messy manuscript freshly copied, as other printers would have done. King Lear was again unlucky with its printer when it appeared in the 1623 Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, which took 18 months to print. Toward the end of that period, the printer and publisher Isaac Jaggard hired a new apprentice, the fifth to be identified by Charlton Hinman in his wonderful study The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio (1963), and hence known as “Compositor E,” who joined just as the Tragedies were being printed. His work was inaccurate and wildly inconsistent, and a majority of the known proof-corrections in the Folio were attempts — too little and too late — to correct his errors. It is regrettable that Shakespeare’s greatest play should twice suffer from such misfortunes, leaving posterity with two texts containing over a thousand differences, large and small.

The main difference, which gave rise to my book, is the fact that each text includes words, phrases, and lines that are missing in the other. The Quarto lacks 102 lines found in the Folio, while the Folio lacks 288 lines found in the Quarto. Fortunately, the missing sections are different, and complementary. If you were to complete either version by adding the passages missing from the other, you would have, in terms of characters and events, two virtually identical plays. The texts still diverge in many textual variants, due to the execrable printing of the Quarto and officious editorial interventions in the Folio, but they contain the same play. The remarkable truth is that while other Shakespeare plays have texts that differ between the Quarto and Folio (HamletOthello), only Lear has two interdependent versions that interlock perfectly.

When Shakespeare’s plays began to be properly edited in the 18th century, editors simply restored the two texts of Lear to their original unity, satisfying readers and actors for nearly 400 years. But in the late 1970s a revisionist movement argued that it had been wrong to “conflate” what were alleged to be two substantially different texts. This claim already begs the question by assuming what it intended to prove, and it ignores the fact that, since it had proved so easy to unite the two partly defective texts into a unified whole, they can’t have been that different. The manifesto of this movement was a collection of essays edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (with a preface by Stanley Wells), The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of “King Lear, published by Oxford in 1983. Since Taylor and Wells were also editors of the Oxford Shakespeare (1986), they were able to give this theory material existence by printing two separate texts of the play, The History of King Lear — “based on the Quarto,” as they put it — and The Tragedy of King Lear, “based on the Folio.” Regrettably, their claim to be printing two independent versions was nullified since they emended each text in the light of the other, producing just such a “conflated” text as they had scorned. In 1997, W. W. Norton, not wanting to commission a new Shakespeare edition from scratch, brought in the Oxford Shakespeare text as the basis of their new college text, the Norton Shakespeare. This reprinted the Wells and Taylor “Two Versions” of King Lear, but hedged its bets by also including a third version, the traditional unified text. Thanks to its adoption by these publishers, the revisionist theory has since become the new orthodoxy. Norton has now broken with Oxford and has recently published its own text, which still retains the three versions of King Lear, thus continuing to confuse many students and — be it acknowledged — their teachers.

Holger Syme has been totally convinced by the Two Versions theory. He hails its “landmark collection of essays” as a turning point in the play’s history:

From then on, the two texts were increasingly regarded as conceptually separate: closely related but appreciably distinct treatments of the same material. Although it remained unclear how the 1623 text came into being — whether as a result of the play’s evolution in the theater or as the author’s (or another playwright’s) deliberate revision of the Quarto version — the two Lears were now considered worthy of separate discussion and interpretations. A corollary theory saw the Folio as the product of authorial revision, and both texts as equally authoritative: as a consequence, conflation could now be pitched as running counter to Shakespeare’s own changing ideas about the play. (emphasis in original)

I like Syme’s verb “pitched,” redolent of a public relations campaign or a Hollywood script conference. But I am profoundly disturbed by his account of the Folio text as “the author’s (or another playwright’s) deliberate revision of the Quarto.” A few sentences later, he criticizes the original revisionist position for its “contentious […] [c]laims for Shakespeare’s complete control over the Folio.” Here Syme attributes to the original Two Versions’ theorists ideas of his own. They had argued that the Folio revisions were so brilliant that “only Shakespeare” could have made them. Syme aligns himself with some more recent critics, who apparently have a

growing interest in theatrical practices and the diminished status of the author as the singular focus of interpretation. The Folio Lear may not be all Shakespeare’s, but it is interestingly and coherently different from the earlier text nonetheless, and may be read as a company’s or a revising collaborator’s take on the play. (emphasis in original)

Syme may belong to a postmodern or post-truth generation, but these unsubstantiated suggestions of a collaborator or reviser are a throwback to premodern scholarship, when critics like J. M. Robertson casually “disintegrated” Shakespeare at their whim. Syme’s readiness to admit unknown collaborators shows the sacrifices he is willing to make in order to establish the Folio as a revised text. The great majority of scholars, I trust, will think that too high a price to pay for any theory.

My book radically challenges the Two Versions orthodoxy for having fundamentally misinterpreted the evidence. To begin with the 1608 Quarto, the revisionists claim that the passages missing there but found in the Folio were subsequently added by Shakespeare. I argue that they were in fact omitted by the printer, Nicholas Okes, because he had under-estimated the amount of paper that he would need. (Paper was the second most expensive item on a printer’s account book, and printers went to great lengths to avoid waste.) In the opening chapter, I draw on modern bibliographical scholarship to describe the basic processes used in hand-press printing, from estimating the length of a text to ordering the right quantity of paper, and from setting the text in type to proofreading and printing it. I introduce two important concepts: “text space,” the size of the play text in hand, bearing in mind the typical alternation between verse and prose found in early modern plays and the need to identify the characters speaking, their entrances, exits, and other stage business, all elements that must be typographically differentiated; and “print space,” the number of pages that have been estimated. Publishers then and now need to forecast in advance a book’s size, a relatively simple task today, when manuscripts are typewritten. But in Shakespeare’s age a printer had to deal with handwritten copy, containing any number of corrections, deletions, and insertions. He had to count every letter and every space between words — easier when dealing with verse, much harder with prose — and allow all the extra space needed for Act and Scene titles and stage directions. Once he had counted “the number of letters in the whole written copy,” he divided the total by the number of lines he planned to print on each page, thus settling the number of pages and the quantity of paper he would need.

The authoritative account of this process is given by Joseph Moxon in Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing (1683–84), from which that quotation comes. Moxon was a man of remarkable intelligence and practical skills (rather like his more famous contemporary, Robert Hooke), who started life as a printer but acquired the skills to become a famous globe- and map-maker, being appointed Hydrographer to the King in 1662. He published a best-selling book on astronomy and specialized in printing scientific books, associating with Haley, Pepys, Hooke, Boyle, and other members of the scientific revolution. Moxon had a great gift for lucidly describing every stage of printing, starting with cutting type (at which he excelled), and his copiously illustrated manual, over 300 pages, is accepted by all textual scholars as the indispensable guide to early modern printing throughout Europe.

Yet Holger Syme, with vaunting superiority, states that my “sole reference point appears to be” Moxon’s treatise, and that I “simply judge Okes’s Jacobean work by Moxon’s Restoration aesthetic principles.” Seeing that Moxon’s aim was purely to describe the mechanical process of printing (“the doctrine of handy-works,” as he called it), to invoke his supposed Restoration aesthetic principles in order to catch me out only shows that the reviewer is unfamiliar with this text. Syme describes casting off copy as “an imprecise art, and potentially time-consuming,” and also thinks that “analyzed” is a good synonym for this process. These are not comments that anyone would make who had read Moxon’s description of a rough method using compasses and “Another way Arithmetically perform’d.”

To return to our printer calculating how much paper he would need: if he had overestimated, he could pad out the text by inserting larger amounts of white space (created by using three-dimensional blank pieces of type), set prose as verse, or divide verse into shorter lines. If he had underestimated, he could do the reverse: use less white space, set verse as prose, make longer verse lines by splitting them up and running them together, and run short speeches of two or three words into one line, each with its own speech-prefix. These are all clear signs that the compositor was trying to save space: they have no other significance. He could also use smaller space-saving devices, often used in the normal practice of fitting each line on the page, such as replacing “and” with an ampersand (&), placing a tilde over a vowel to signify a missing letter (as in “cōdition”), turning the last part of a verse line into the preceding or following line, and replacing a number by a numeral. (Moxon disapproves of these common printers’ tricks to save space, calling them “botches,” but he concedes that necessity justifies them.) If these smaller tricks did not suffice, the printer had to use more drastic means of reducing text space: leaving out a word here or there, omitting lines, speeches, or even whole scenes. I imagine that some kind of editorial process would have marked longer cuts in the text before typesetting began, leaving the compositor to make smaller cuts as he went along. I have consulted several textual scholars on this point, and that all agree that it would be sensible to make a preliminary mark-up. Sometimes the cuts made on the manuscript didn’t always save space on the printed page, although a compositor or pressman could make local adjustments. (Holger Syme, needless to say, ridicules this suggestion.)

We can study what happened when print space is insufficient to accommodate text space by comparing plays that have survived in two different versions, such as some Quarto and Folio versions of Shakespeare. Following Charlton Hinman’s innovative work on the Folio, Eleanor Prosser made a detailed analysis of the printing of 2 Henry IV in her outstanding and neglected book, Shakespeare’s Anonymous Editors (1981). Hinman had shown that the Folio printers, who dealt with the plays in sequence, according to genre, realized in the middle of the Histories that they had underestimated the amount of paper needed. They had to insert an extra quire, comprising eight leaves instead of the usual six (with the anomalous double letter signature “gg”), and beginning in the middle of what we know as Act Three, Scene Two. But before they made this decision, a compositor had started setting 2 Henry IV on quire “g” and was forced to compress the text in every way possible. By comparison with the play’s Quarto (1600), Prosser showed that the printers turned verse lines up or down, used ampersands and tildes, cramped stage directions, omitted spaces, shortened the spellings of speech prefixes and other words, and resorted to numerals instead of letters.

But these local adjustments turned out to be insufficient to accommodate the text space to what was — at that point — the available print space, so the compositor started omitting words and phrases and abridging speeches. The Quarto contains Falstaff’s marvelously irrelevant self-justification to the Lord Chief Justice, “My Lorde, I was borne about three of the clocke in the afternoone, with a white head, and something of a round bellie.” The Folio omits the italicized words. Ruling on Mistress Quickly’s complaint, the Justice accuses Falstaff of having “practised upon the easie yielding spirite of this woman, and made her serve your uses both in purse and in person.” The Folio compositor cut the Justice’s pun —no great loss, perhaps, but he ruined Doll Tearsheet’s memorable comment on a current bawdy sense of “occupy”: “a captaine? Gods light these villaines will make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted.” The Folio reads: “A Captaine? These Villaines will make the word Captaine odious,” destroying the whole point of her joke. These and other omissions in 2 Henry IV show that our concept of the sanctity of a writer’s creation did not apply in early modern printing houses, where the copy text was a flexible object, subject to material contingencies, and where setting what has become a masterpiece of world literature was just another job.

The text of King Lear, as printed by Nicholas Okes’s compositor in December 1607 (aided, as Blayney established, by an apprentice who joined him in the New Year), shows all the characteristics of space saving, but on a far larger scale than any other play Quarto known to me. In chapter three of my book, I documented Okes’s massive use of these devices, and compared them with other Jacobean Quartos. James Roberts printed the authentic text of Hamlet in 1604–05, needing 99 pages; George Eld printed Troilus and Cressida in 1609, needing 88 pages. Roberts used four tildes, 33 ampersands (mostly for Hamlet’s prose speeches), five turned lines, and no numerals, an average of 0.4 space savers per page. Eld used eight tildes, 14 ampersands, 16 turned lines, and no numerals, also averaging 0.4 space savers per page. Okes, however, used 45 tildes, 37 ampersands, 65 turned lines, and five numerals, averaging five times as many space savers. But that was only the beginning, for more desperate remedies had to be used. According to my calculations, Okes and his compositors turned 145 of the verse lines in Lear into prose, yielding many uncomfortably crowded pages. He also relined 84 verse lines by simply taking the first half of one verse and tacking it onto the end of the preceding line, bringing back the next line and so forth. On 20 occasions he ran smaller speeches together, each with its own speech prefix, saving 56 lines. Needless to say, by these adjustments he ruined Shakespeare’s prosody and provoked earlier scholars into speculating that Shakespeare had written his verse first as prose, or written “rough verse,” or even that the play was produced by stenographers and other reporters.

So, now I have established the proper historical context for my deduction that Okes did not have enough print space, or paper, for the text space. Like other printers in this predicament, Okes had to cut the text, removing longer and shorter passages that fortunately survive in the Folio. In my chapter four, I discuss many instances of Okes’s cuts, attempting to classify them into groups according to some basic principles. The largest category is cutting verbal repetition (also visible in the Folio’s treatment of the garrulous Doll Tearsheet and Justice Shallow), removing what seemed to Okes — whose principles differed from ours — matter not strictly necessary to the play. In the opening scene, during Lear’s long-prepared division of his kingdom, the Quarto compositor cut 10 of his most orotund lines, leaving an unfortunate theatrical ambiguity. In the Folio, which contains these lines, Lear addresses by name his two sons-in-law, Cornwall and Albany, informing them that he is about to divide his kingdom into three, giving each of his daughters their dowry. The Quarto omits these names, essential markers for the audience to identify the characters on stage; confusingly, it does name France and Burgundy, who have yet to appear.

In the following scenes, Okes had the compositor abridge a repetitious passage from Gloucester concerning astrological divination and shorten Goneril’s justification to Albany for her hostile treatment of Lear, a process of abridgement he continued throughout the play. Another consistent target for his cutting were utterances not anchored in the text, having no “take-up,” as modern linguists would put it. Okes seems to have thought that if no character responded, a speech could be dispensed with. The aside and the soliloquy fall into this category by definition, and so Edgar lost several important asides and had a soliloquy cropped. Other unanchored utterances were forfeited, including several that modern readers would consider important to the character or plot, such as the Fool’s “And Ile go to bed at noone,” Gloucester’s “And that’s true too,” and Goneril’s “Oh, the difference of man, and man.”

Of course, I am aware of the revisionists’ argument, that these are all lines subsequently added by Shakespeare (and not, as Syme allows, by someone else). This issue can only be settled by examining each omission in its typographical context, as I have done, and by using arguments from probability. One striking example of what I call unanchored utterances is the Fool’s attempt to divert his master with a trick question concerning the social categories “gentleman” and “yeoman”:

Foole. Prithe Nunckle tell me, whether a mad man be a Gentleman or a Yeoman.
Lear. A King, a King,
Foole. No, he’s a Yeoman, that ha’s a Gentleman to his Sonne: for hee’s a mad Yeoman that sees his Sonne a Gentleman before him.
Lear. to have a thousand with red burning spits come hissing in upon them.

This is a striking effect, Lear being so obsessed with his own grievances and impotent wish for revenge that he fails to answer the Fool’s witticism. But there being no reply, the Quarto abridger removed the italicized speech, which the Folio preserved. It seems to me very probable that this deliberate juxtaposition of two mental states was in Shakespeare’s original text and unlikely that he added it at a later date. I cannot prove this and thus emphasize that my arguments are from probability. In the humanities, we can seldom claim certainty, but some arguments can be more persuasive than others.

For a few other instances where omission seems a better argument than revision, take this exchange when Gloucester returns, having failed to prevent Lear rushing out into the storm:

Gloucester. The King is in high rage.
Cornwall. Whether is he going?
Gloucester. He cals to Horse, & wil I know not whether.
Regan. Tis good to give him way, he leads himselfe.

The Quarto cuts the italicized lines, giving Gloucester a complete verse line, and moving swiftly on to reveal Regan’s heartlessness. I find it more likely that the Folio preserved these (not strictly necessary) lines from Shakespeare’s manuscript, rather than he added them in revision. Or take Lear’s humbled reunion with Cordelia:

Pray doe not mocke,
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourescore and upward,
Not an houre more, nor lesse:
and to deale plainly
I feare I am not in my perfect mind.

Is it more likely that the italicized line was included in the 1608 Quarto, and cut, or subsequently added for the Folio? I have argued the first option. In the hands of a printer short of space, any repetition was liable to be cut, as we see again with Lear’s awareness of the first signs of madness. Shakespeare introduced this symptom using the traditional medical terms (“mother” was a common term for hysteria):

Lear. O how this mother swels up toward my hart,
Hysterica passio downe thou climing sorrow,
Thy element’s below, where is this daughter?

Both Quarto and Folio have these lines. As Lear becomes even angrier, the symptoms recur. The Quarto reads:

Lear. O my heart, my heart.
Foole. Cry to it Nunckle, as the Cokney did to the eeles, when
she put ’em it’h past alive, she rapt ’em a’th coxcombs with a stick,
and cryed downe wantons downe.

Fortunately, the Folio preserves the complete text of Lear’s perception of an incipient crisis: “Oh me my heart! My rising heart! But downe.” With his dislike of repetition, the Quarto abridger cut something integral to the sense here, for both the words “rising” and “downe” refer back to the symptoms of hysteria that Lear had just recorded (“swels upward,” “climing”), which are echoed at a bawdy level by the Fool’s punning reference to the phallic eels squirming in the pie: “downe wantons downe.” Proponents of the “Two Versions” theory would have us believe that in Shakespeare’s original version Lear’s exclamation read, as it does in the Quarto, “O my heart, my heart,” a curiously vapid and unmetrical utterance, and that the author subsequently returned to it and made three separate insertions. He first added “me” before “my heart”; then he inserted “rising” preceding the repetition of “my heart,” and followed those two insertions with “But downe,” finally achieving a regular blank verse line. That seems to me utterly improbable. (This is, however, an instance of the process I suggested, whereby a cut made on the manuscript did not save space on the printed page.)

Altogether, Okes made 72 large cuts, omitting 28 complete verse and prose lines, the majority less than six lines long, and a further 67 smaller cuts, the majority consisting of two to four words, amounting to 197 in all. (I have placed a complete list of these omissions on my website, so that readers may judge for themselves.) The case for these being additions rather than omissions breaks down here. Looked at in situ, most of them are local, space-saving cuts, words or phrases of little significance. It is difficult to imagine that Shakespeare felt it necessary to insert extra phrases in Edmund’s opening soliloquy (“Base, Base?”; “Fine word: Legitimate”), or Kent’s mauling of Oswald (“arise, away,” “goe too”), or Edgar’s obscure utterances as Poor Tom (“Humh,” “O do, de, do, de, de, de”; “sayes sum, mun”), since all three speeches make their point with sufficient emphasis. We are very fortunate that the Folio preserves the passages that the Quarto cut.

I have briefly summarized the first part of The One King Lear since readers will have received no inkling of its contents from Syme’s review. Having (presumably) read these 170 pages, Syme dismisses their detailed arguments from primary texts as if I had never made them. Commenting on my central claim that the Folio-only passages are not additions made by Shakespeare (or someone else) but omissions from the Quarto, he writes: “Vickers never attempts to ground this assumption in textual evidence.” Again: “Vickers never attempts to make a textual or critical argument for the presence of the Folio-only lines in the manuscript from which the 1608 book was set.” And again: “Vickers makes no argument of any kind for the belief that the Folio-only lines always were in Shakespeare’s original draft.” Posing the question, “Does Vickers make his case?” Syme replies:

With regard to the wider context, not at all. He offers no systematic analysis of how other printers (or even Okes himself, elsewhere in his output) compressed and abridged copy to fit a specific page-count. A scattered selection of other printed plays provides some anecdotal evidence.

I have italicized the dismissive phrases, typical of Syme’s many sneers and snide comments expressing his total negativity. The self-evident hostility may damage himself more than me, but it is dismaying that a professor at a major Canadian university, claiming to produce a “rigorous critique,” can so persistently ignore 50,000 words of argument as if they had not been made. His categorical denials continue: “Vickers’s story of the stationer who ran out of paper is a fantasy. It has no historical or bibliographical context or precedent and it lacks all internal narrative logic.”

I regret that Syme should make so many untrue accusations. His resounding claim that I failed to show how early modern printers “compressed and abridged copy to fit a specific page-count” ignores — whether deliberately or out of carelessness, I cannot judge — my whole chapter on this issue. There I discussed the Folio’s problems with 2 Henry IV, already referred to, a text that had to be shortened during production due to insufficient print space. I also examined the problem that Andrew Wise faced in 1598, preparing to publish his Quarto edition of 1 Henry IV. In the 1880s, a Shakespeare scholar discovered in the binding of an old book four leaves of an earlier edition of the play, also printed for Wise by Peter Short. By comparison with this fragment, we can see that the typesetter of the Quarto as published evidently had orders to save space by whatever means, in order to avoid the expense of running into a new signature. So he added one line to each page-length; he ran two speeches, complete with speech headings, into a single line; he omitted the spacing before the initial stage direction, thus saving another line; and he twice compressed three prose lines into two, thus saving two lines more. Altogether, in the portion of the play covered by this fragment, he saved 12 lines out of a total of 311, changes that were made simply to save paper. This bibliographical fact cannot be dismissed as “anecdotal evidence.” Syme has read my book so inattentively that he lists this discussion among my “basic failures of comprehension,” since “the 1598 Quarto is highly regarded for its quality; it shows very few of the kinds of issues evident in Okes’s volume.” Precisely so, since the publisher or printer had already taken care of the space problem. A reviewer whose whole focus is on finding errors should be careful not to invent them.

Syme elsewhere rebukes me for not citing enough instances in support of an argument, so I add here a particularly telling example of a printer who had to abridge copy to fit a specific page-count. In 1616, William Stansby printed the Ben Jonson Folio, in which the first play is Every Man in His Humour (Quarto, 1601). As James Riddell has shown, Stansby set aside six full quires of paper for the play (signatures A through F) but postponed its printing until later, starting to set the rest of the volume. When Stansby returned to the play, all went well until about four pages from the end, when he belatedly realized that he was seriously short of space. From this point, the 1601 Quarto has room for 320 lines, but the Folio only 171. In order to bridge a gap of 149 lines, Jonson had to severely abridge the text, shortening many speeches, including Lorenzo Junior’s “defence of poetry,” a crucial riposte to Old Kno’well’s attack on it, already printed in Act One. Where critics have sought (in vain) literary reasons for this anomaly, Riddell suggests that “the extensive cuts” made in the play’s last few pages “were influenced by a compelling, if awkward reality: Jonson and Stansby had run out of space.” In guessing the amount of space he needed, Stansby erred; so did Nicholas Okes. I quote (but Syme suppresses) the observation by Peter Blayney, undisputed authority on the 1608 Quarto, that “Okes probably guessed (badly) that he could fit Lear into 10 ½ sheets.” Blayney found it puzzling that Okes didn’t return to the publisher, Nathaniel Butter, who supplied the paper and paid for the printing, especially since “it would have been to Okes’s advantage to confess that he’d miscalculated and ask to renegotiate. He’d earn more for printing twelve sheets.” At this distance of time there are many matters in the Jacobean book trade that we cannot fathom. But one thing is sure: a story of the stationer who ran out of paper is no fantasy.

Syme cannot pass over the evidence that early modern printers often miscalculated the ratio between text space and print space, for he evidently realizes that it destroys one leg of the revisionists’ case. So he attempts to disqualify my argument in advance:

Vickers’s challenge in persuading scholars to change how they think about Lear consequently is twofold: in the absence of textual evidence to support his theory that those passages were omitted rather than added, he needs to establish that it is reasonable to believe that Nicholas Okes would have cut over 100 lines in this particular instance; and […] he needs to show that it is reasonable to believe that any printer would have done such a thing. Without accomplishing these objectives, the entire anti-revisionist thesis of The One King Lear collapses. (emphasis in original)

Since I have shown that many printers were willing to cut the text where necessary (and more could doubtless be cited), it is Syme’s argument, not mine, that collapses. He continues to contest this point, in the process digging a large hole for himself — or, rather, a series of holes. He claims that “one feature of the 1608 Lear sits strangely with Vickers’s narrative: Okes repeatedly neglected to use all the space available to him.” Peter Blayney established that King Lear was the first play text that Okes printed, a crucial point Symes never mentions, arousing doubts that he has ever read Blayney.

As a printer, Okes made some idiosyncratic decisions. He preferred to leave a book’s outside pages blank, in order to protect the print (folded or stitched copies were stored without wrappers). Accordingly, the text of the 1608 Quarto ends on the penultimate recto, leaving the final page of the 10th sheet blank. The same practice, applied to the beginning of a play, means that the title page has to be placed on page three, as we would number them, with page four blank. Having used a half-sheet for this purpose, Okes left three of its pages blank. Other printers often set the preliminary material last, allowing the author or printer to add a preface or epistle as the production process was drawing to an end. Blayney showed, however, that Okes printed the title-page first, since he reused part of its type on the first page of the text proper, together with a printer’s ornament, taking up nearly half of the print space on that page. I argued that, given these choices, Okes had to work even harder to accommodate the nearly 3,000 lines of this play on the 79 pages left, at 38 lines per page. Syme attempts to reverse that argument, claiming that the large title and ornament on the first page “shows little to no evidence of its printer’s sense that space was at a premium.” I don’t know exactly how many early modern printers used an ornament on the first page of text, but many Quartos that I have seen include one, and I suppose it was a standard feature, without which the page might have looked rather bare.

As for Blayney’s demonstration that Okes differed from other printers in leaving the outside pages blank, Syme accepts that this was Okes’s “usual preference” but seems unhappy at this waste of space, describing it as “a thoughtful practice, but by no means an industry standard and certainly not a requirement in Okes’s printing house or elsewhere” (emphasis in original). That comment is logically redundant: having described this as Okes’s preference it cannot have been either an “industry standard” or “a requirement”; it’s just what Okes normally did, in this case without considering its knock-on effect. Wishing to disprove my diagnosis of Okes’s inadequate supply of paper, Syme argues that, since he wasted so much space, he had no shortage — an obvious non sequitur. Syme continues this argument to its conclusion:

And, on the last page of the text, instead of using all available space, his compositors left a generous four lines for a large “FINIS” […] None of these decisions were dictated by rules or even conventions. There certainly was no need to repeat the title of the play on the first page, let alone in such large type. There was no need to insist on a final large “finis.” And there was no need at all to leave three pages entirely blank (although Okes certainly followed a well-established convention in leaving a fourth page, the verso of the title page, blank).

I have used italics to bring out the strange course this argument has taken. Syme complains that “Vickers frequently applies modern expectations to early modern printed artifacts and finds them wanting,” a fault he exemplifies here. He never realizes that printing a text was a dynamic process; mistakes and errors would arise in the course of setting, and expedients of all kinds had to be found to remedy them. In any case, we cannot second-guess why an early modern printer made the choices he did. Syme now proceeds to elaborate on the choices he thinks that Okes should have made:

If these readily apparent instances of unused available space challenge Vickers’s thesis, the same is true of less immediately visible but no less significant unexploited opportunities. For instance, Okes’s compositors set most of the 1608 Quarto with 38 lines of text to the page. In two cases, however, they added an extra line — demonstrating that his press could easily print pages with 39 lines of text. It would therefore have been easy, simply by adding an extra line per page, to accommodate an additional 77 lines of text. When one adds up all the additional space readily available to Okes in the 10.5 sheets of the Quarto, it becomes clear that the urgent need to cut lines simply did not exist. Without interfering in the text at all, he could have found room for well over 200 additional lines — far in excess of the 102 Vickers says he was forced to cut. (emphasis in original)

Syme’s argument suddenly includes a flurry of conditionals, known to linguists as “counterfactuals,” things that did not take place: “could easily … would therefore have been easy … could have found room ” The fact that Okes did none of these things cannot support a claim that he had plenty of print space available. The decisive point was made by Blayney: “Okes probably guessed (badly) that he could fit Lear into 10 ½ sheets.”

In trying to demolish my argument, Syme ignores all the other evidence I have accumulated of the means Okes used to save space, from setting verse as prose, lengthening verse lines, running speeches together, and all the standard typographical tricks — turned letters, tildes, ampersands, and so on. He does mention the first of these devices but gives it a very strange interpretation:

Finally, as Vickers describes at length, Okes set verse as prose with some frequency; extending this practice would have been a far easier and far less invasive means of saving space than cutting lines … (emphasis added)

However, since it is likely that Shakespeare’s manuscript resembled a majority of surviving play books in distinguishing verse from prose, and since Okes was perfectly capable of setting verse with the correct lineation when space permitted, the option of setting all verse as prose would have meant a complete disregard of his copy. Having committed himself to this argument, Syme pursues it to its completion, mounting a counter-thesis:

Vickers’s story therefore requires us to believe that Okes preferred to cut text wholesale to altering line breaks — that he saw significant cuts not as the last resort, but as his best opportunity for reducing demand on paper. This review is not the place to mount an alternative reading of Okes’s practices, but […] the confusion between verse and prose in the 1608 volume can actually be interpreted as evidence that the printer was actively trying to avoid altering the text, and was doing his best to reproduce faithfully what he thought he saw in his manuscript copy. (emphasis in original)

Syme appears to be blind to the fact that, in a period that saw the wonderful flourishing of verse drama in England, by setting verse as prose Okes was totally “altering the text” (my italics). Other printers took this desperate step occasionally when caught for space, but no other play quarto did so for page after page. As a teacher of English literature, Syme should realize that a poet-dramatist would not be pleased if a printer reduced his carefully formed verse to prose, not just altering the text but ruining it. In 1612, Thomas Heywood complained about a much smaller piece of negligence by William Jaggard in printing one of his books, including “the misquotations, mistaking of syllables, misplacing half lines.” Imagine his feelings if Jaggard had followed Professor Syme’s recipe.

Holger Syme either ignores my arguments or misrepresents them. He writes that “Vickers wants to revive the conclusions of previous generations of scholars […] the passages found only in the Folio were present in Shakespeare’s manuscript all along, he argues, they just didn’t find their way into the printed Quarto text” (emphasis in original). Seeing that I spent many pages arguing that Okes cut them from the manuscript, having wrongly estimated the quantity of paper he would need, Syme’s false account must be due to inattention. Nor have I revived “the conclusions of previous generations of scholars.” I explicitly acknowledge that my explanation for the Quarto omissions had been anticipated (as I discovered late in the day) in a little-known essay by Edward Hubler (1933) and in two notes by G. B. Evans in recent years, but I am the first to bring out the full implications of this insight. Syme seems not to like me citing scholars from beyond his horizon, to judge from this disparaging comment:

Vickers’s case clearly does not rest on an especially nuanced reading of previous scholarship, or on a particularly thorough review of that scholarship. (He tends to rely on works published before World War II rather than in the last few decades.)

I think that my knowledge of “previous scholarship” is reasonably complete, and has certainly been thorough; however, if I have missed something important, I hope that Professor Syme will inform me. But he gives a totally false impression of my reading. Of my 697 footnotes, the great majority refer to works published in the last few decades. The only prewar scholar I cite with any frequency is Madeleine Doran, who has a good claim to be the heroine of my book. This is by no means Professor Syme’s only exaggeration. He claims that “large parts of the book are taken up by strongly worded attacks” on scholars who use literary-critical arguments to settle bibliographical problems, when in fact this occurs on perhaps five pages. When Syme uses words like “frequently” or “repeatedly,” you can be sure that he means once or twice.

Syme devotes his whole review to seeking out faults in my book, frequently claiming that my scholarship is deficient, unlike his own. While this shows considerable self-assurance, it is not always justified. He cites my discussion of the two basic choices that were available to a hand-press printer when planning his work: either to set the pages in their normal reading order (“seriatim”) or to set them “by formes,” as the pages of type were known, four of which would be needed to set one side of a sheet in the Quarto format. The advantage of the first method was that the printer could start work without a careful casting-off. Syme rightly credits Blayney as having shown that Nicholas Okes set King Lear seriatim, describing this as “an understandable decision given the play’s frequent switches between prose and verse.” But this comment reveals Syme’s inadequate knowledge of Blayney’s book, which explicitly states that Okes chose this method due to Shakespeare’s messy manuscript. Syme then summarizes the disadvantage of seriatim setting for a Quarto — that “a compositor … would have to set a total of seven pages before anything could be printed,” due to the fact that a Quarto sheet would contain on one side pages 2, 3, 6, 7 and on the other side pages 1, 4, 5, 8. A few sentences later, however, he writes that “the seriatim method made it necessary for the printer to have 11 pages of type available at all times,” which shows that he has confused Quarto and Folio setting. Another example of Syme’s limited knowledge of bibliographical scholarship emerges in the course of this diatribe:

A kind of arrogant anachronism emerges over the course of The One King Lear as its author’s intellectual hallmark. Over and over again, Vickers claims superior knowledge about historical objects and phenomena than could have been available to the people who made and lived with those objects. Perhaps the most baffling of those assertions comes late in the book, when Vickers mocks […] MacDonald P. Jackson […] for assuming that Shakespeare knew that printers often mixed proofread and corrected sheets with uncorrected ones. Since that habit was not “noticed before the late nineteenth century and only properly documented by Greg in 1940,” Shakespeare could not possibly have been aware that “such things existed.” That is to say: In Vickers’s world, historians of print and bibliographers reconstructing stationers’ practices merely by looking at the books they produced know more than could possibly have been grasped by someone who actually had his plays and poems printed in the 16th century and probably set foot in actual printing houses with some regularity. (emphasis in original)

In claiming the moral high ground, or perhaps ascending the highest branches of a tree in order to pelt me more effectively, Syme is guilty of careless misreading. I did not accuse (let alone “mock”) Jackson of not knowing that early modern printers mixed corrected and uncorrected sheets together; indeed, it would be a mark of arrogant ignorance on my part to make such an accusation. My point was quite different, as can be seen from the passage that Symes omitted: “Jackson extended his inquiry into the variants that occur between the uncorrected states of some sheets in the Quarto (‘Qa’) and the corrected ones (‘Qb’), apparently assuming that Shakespeare realized that such things existed.” My point is that, since sheets in both states were randomly mixed as the finished copies were assembled in the printing house, Shakespeare could not possibly have known that 12 copies of the 1608 Quarto, preserving some uncorrected sheets, would survive until now, scattered round the world’s libraries. If Syme were more familiar with Shakespeare scholarship, he would have appreciated that the date I gave referred to Greg’s classic book, The Variants in the First Quarto of ‘King Lear’ (1940), which studied these sheets. It was Greg who introduced the distinction between Qa and Qb, and provided a fascinating insight into Okes’s printing practices. Perhaps Syme is unfamiliar with this part of Greg’s work? At all events, his attempts to label me with such terms as “arrogant anachronism” and “superior knowledge” can only rebound on him.

Syme continues his attack with the extremely damaging accusation that “Vickers […] misquotes and misrepresents not just those with whom he disagrees, but also authors whose support he attempts to claim.” I shall discuss only one of these allegations, concerning the second issue of Okes’s Quarto, made by Jaggard and Pavier in 1619 with the false date “1608.” According to Syme,

Vickers cites Knowles — his favorite witness for the prosecution — to dismiss the revisionists’ claim that the typesetters of the 1623 Folio made reference to the 1619 Second Quarto; he asserts that Knowles “disproved” any such notion. Odd, then, to find Knowles, in the very article Vickers references, say this: “Compositor E [of the Folio] […] continually consulted printed copy, the Second Quarto (Q2) edition of Lear […] Compositor B also consulted Q2 frequently.”

Syme may well find this to be the most embarrassing of his frequent claims that I have misrepresented other scholars. I cited Richard Knowles’s authoritative essay, “The evolution of the texts of Lear” (in Jeffrey Kahan’s King Lear: New Critical Essays [2008], pp. 124–154). Syme, however, failed to notice that Knowles was referring to two different things. In the first passage I cited, which Syme does not quote, Knowles reported the results of a computer-aided search that showed that

F rejects some 1,300 substantive readings found in Q2, and seems to accept a mere 90. Moreover […] the F readings could all have been arrived at independently by such natural means as the substitution of obviously correct readings for Q1 misreadings. Both F compositors obviously derive their substantive readings from elsewhere — i.e., from a manuscript, not from Q1 or Q2 (emphasis added).

A substantive reading, as Greg defined it in his classic essay, “The Rationale of Copy-Text” (1950), is one that “affects the author’s meaning or the essence of his expression” — namely, the actual word used. Knowles continues:

Nonetheless, Q2 seems to have had a significant influence on the ‘accidentals’ of F1, particularly its punctuation and to a lesser extent its spellings, elisions, and the like […] [T]he inexperienced Compositor E adopts several times as many of Q2’s accidentals as does his more experienced co-worker Compositor B […] Obviously compositor E consulted Q2 constantly […] while Compositor B consulted it less frequently and adopted fewer (emphasis added).

Holger Syme claims to have found in my book “a string of serious technical errors that cast doubt on the author’s basic bibliographical competence,” and he judges my work so “unrigorous” that “any first-year PhD in the discipline” could do better. It seems as if Syme is unaware of the most fundamental difference that a textual scholar must know, between substantive and accidental variants.

Syme makes an unpleasant number of similar claims that I have misread or misinterpreted the work of some major scholars, including Adrian Weiss, Peter Blayney, Don McKenzie, Richard Knowles, and Ernst Honigmann. These charges are all false, as will be seen from the discussion on my website.


The second part of my book concerns the Folio text of King Lear and needs no technical background since the issue is simple: were the cuts of 288 whole lines, and many additional words, made by Shakespeare or by his company, the King’s Men? The original revisionist claim, made by Gary Taylor, was that Shakespeare revised the play in 1609–11 by annotating a copy of the first Quarto. Several scholars have objected that it would be extraordinarily difficult to mark up in its relatively restricted margins all the corrections that would be needed, starting with the pages of prosified verse that would need relineation, together with the many verse lines forcefully extended, the many missing stage directions to be added, and about a thousand verbal variants to be changed.

That this never happened is clear from the Folio text, which had evidently preserved Shakespeare’s text from an independent manuscript. I argued this important point in chapter five, “One Play, One Manuscript, Two Printed Books.” I began with the Quarto, which must have been printed from the dramatist’s final draft since it contains many traces indicating that it was set from a manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand. (Theater companies regularly dispensed with the author’s manuscript once they had made their own copy.) As I showed, the evidence for this was first produced in 1931 by Madeleine Doran, that long unacknowledged pioneer of textual scholarship on this play. Doran drew on the seminal work of John Dover Wilson on Shakespeare’s handwriting and spelling, and her conclusion has been supported in more recent scholarship by A. C. Partridge and Jay L. Halio. I then reviewed the evidence, again first cited by Doran, that the Folio also contains clear signs of Shakespeare’s characteristic spellings, which must have been preserved by the playhouse scribe when he made a fair copy of the play in 1606 for the company’s original “Booke” or reference manuscript. Doran’s identification of Shakespearean spellings in the Folio was extended in recent times by G. I. Duthie, the late Trevor Howard-Hill, and Richard Knowles, three of the leading modern authorities on the text of King Lear.

The significance of these traces of Shakespeare’s spellings in the 1623 text of King Lear is that they authenticate the Folio as being in a direct line of descent from Shakespeare’s manuscript. This fact makes the Taylor thesis of an intermediate copy of Q1, extensively annotated by Shakespeare, then copied into the margins of the second Quarto (1619), and from which his company created a completely new “Booke,” pure speculation. Since their manuscript derived from Shakespeare’s own, the Folio compositors reproduced (for the most part) his intended verse lineation, together with his dramatically functional distinctions between verse and prose, and could print a very large number of correct textual readings, compared to Okes’s Quarto. In summarizing my argument, Syme only mentions the first part, making it sound superfluous:

There is broad (if not unanimous) scholarly consensus these days that the Quarto was printed from a fairly rough manuscript in Shakespeare’s own hand. Vickers spends a long section summarizing and slightly extending the case Madeleine Doran made for this position in 1931, but he is pushing at open doors.

And that is all he has to say. Syme accepts the case made for the Quarto by the best modern scholarship, while concealing that for the Folio. This would be devious behavior by any standard, but Syme’s silence on this point shows that the Two Versions thesis is built not upon sand but on air.

The main point at issue is the quantity and nature of the Folio’s omissions, compared to the Quarto. The revisionists believe that they express Shakespeare’s coherent intention to revise the play, but there is an overwhelming objection, as Richard Knowles memorably put it: “Scholars have often imagined that they can discern a genuine Shakespearean line, but how does one recognize a genuine Shakespearean cut? Only Shakespeare can have written some lines, we believe, but anyone can delete any line in any canon.” Compared to the Quarto, the Folio mostly cut longer passages, omitting one whole scene reporting Cordelia’s return to Britain in search of her father, removing 40 lines from the scene where the mad King imagines he has brought Goneril and Regan to trial, and shortening several other scenes. The standard explanation for the Folio omissions — that they reflect a text reduced for theatrical performance — was made in 1875 by the formidable German scholar, Nikolaus Delius, who not only documented them for the first time but analyzed their effect on the play’s structure and meaning, as compared to the full text in the Quarto.

Shakespeare’s unique achievement in Lear, compared to his other tragedies, was to combine a main plot, in which a father disinherits his one good daughter, Cordelia, in favor of his two evil ones, Goneril and Regan, with a subplot in which the bastard Edmund deceives his father, the Earl of Gloucester, into rejecting his legitimate son, Edgar. The double plots run in parallel, each casting a bitterly ironic light on the other, coming together when Goneril and Regan fight for the sexual favors of Edmund, shortly followed by the catastrophic ending. Another unique feature deriving from this complex plot is that events take place in at least six different locations, with the 12 main characters frequently moving from place to place; but Shakespeare made sure that we always know where they are. We receive notification of their comings and goings from their announced intentions, from the many letters sent or intercepted, and from reports, not always reliable. This means that scenes and speeches that might seem unimportant in another play can be vital here. Act Three begins with a long conversation in which Kent tells an anonymous Gentleman that the French soldiers who are on their way to rescue Lear are about to land in Dover, and gives him a message to take to Cordelia. The Quarto abridger left out eight unimportant lines in Kent’s speech but kept the crucial conclusion, which the Folio omitted. Delius rightly objected:

The actors overlooked the fact that the omission of this passage renders that which follows incomprehensible. How could the nobleman find Cordelia, and deliver Kent’s message to her, if he did not know that she was with the French army at Dover? Naturally such a palpable error cannot have emanated from Shakespeare, who better understood the plan of his drama.

Delius makes many such penetrating comments on the damaging effects of the Folio cuts on the play.

That I should take seriously a scholar who wrote so long ago does not impress Holger Syme: “I may find it odd that Vickers’s reading of King Lear frequently seeks guidance in an 1875 essay by Nikolaus Delius and never tries to enter into any kind of dialogue with more current interpretations of the play, but critical nostalgia is any reader’s prerogative.” That sneering dismissal distorts my clear purpose in citing Delius, for his sustained analysis of the Folio’s cuts and their effect on the play’s structure and our experience of it has not been matched in any “more current interpretations,” which do not discuss it.

Syme’s own attitude is deeply conservative, and he repeatedly censures me for disturbing the status quo, as if the Two Versions theory embodied the ultimate in human knowledge. Summarizing my case that “all the seemingly new lines [in the Folio] are merely restored from Shakespeare’s pre-1608 vision of the play,” he comments: “This is a truly radical position. It diverges from practically all recent scholarship on King Lear, which holds that the 1623 text includes additions by Shakespeare or someone else as well as alterations and cuts that are either authorial or not.” (I italicize Syme’s casual sacrifice of Shakespeare’s authentic text.) Syme expresses his post-revisionist beliefs again in commenting on my “idiosyncratic theory” that “both the Quarto and the Folio are equally Shakespearean,” and my claim that both printed versions “preserve different selections from the one authorial Ur-text.” Yet I made no such claim. As I showed in my book, proponents of the two-version theory have made great sport with the idea of a lost “Ur-text,” as if only Indiana Jones could find it.

True, Shakespeare’s original manuscript has disappeared (like other printers, Okes would have discarded it once the book was set in type), but it is preserved in the two authoritative texts, the Quarto and the Folio, neither of which is free-standing. They are certainly not “different selections,” since both texts complement each other and interlock without any wastage. Syme’s patronizing superiority prevents him from paying too close attention to my argument. Repeating his favorite word “never,” in connection with my book, he tells unsuspecting readers who have no access to it that “Vickers’s central point is that King Lear is Shakespeare’s ‘most complex, most carefully designed play,’ and that the 1623 text does terrible damage to that design. He never argues this claim.” In fact, I spend the whole of chapter seven doing just this, and I can only speculate whether such false assertions are a sign of careless reading or deliberate misrepresentation; either way, a responsible reviewer would be guilty of neither.


As will now be evident, Syme expends a great deal of time and energy disputing positions that I hold, alongside others that he falsely attributes to me, while ignoring large parts of my argument, particularly those that provide the strongest challenges to the Two Versions theory. His censorship of uncomfortable arguments is most glaring when it comes to the final two chapters of my book, which review the scholarly reception of the revisionists’ argument and discuss the methods they used in attempting to get their claims accepted. Holger Syme is so upset by what he describes as my “two extraordinarily scathing chapters” that he dismisses them without further discussion. Yet the whole basis of scholarship in the humanities, as in the sciences, rests on an open engagement with conflicting interpretations and a readiness to discuss differences. In denying any engagement, this epigone reproduces the behavior of the original “bi-textualists” (as Knowles dubbed them).

Syme twice asserts that I am “idiosyncratic” and “largely alone” in taking a position of which he disapproves, complaining that I reject “the two-version theory that almost no one has questioned in decades.” This is not true. Although the revisionists have done their best to ignore any evidence of disagreement, the fact is that, between 1981 and 2008, over a dozen independent scholars produced cogent, fully documented critiques of the revisionist theory. They included several who had published scholarly editions of King Lear (Kenneth Muir, Gwynne Blakemore Evans, Richard Knowles); authorities in textual bibliography and editing (Philip Edwards, Ernst Honigmann, Paul Werstine); outstanding scholar-critics (Frank Kermode, William Elton, William Carroll); Andrew Gurr, a leading theater historian, and Robert Clare, a scholar of English literature who is also a professional actor and theater director. Their critiques were published in a dozen major English and American journals, and Evans listed most of them in the second edition of the Riverside Shakespeare (1997). Wells and Taylor pointedly ignored their critics in the revised edition of the Oxford Shakespeare (2006), as elsewhere. When these critiques are brought together for synthesis and analysis, as I do for the first time, they add up to a complete refutation of the Two Versions theory.

The revisionists claimed that the Quarto and Folio texts are “sufficiently dissimilar” to amount to two distinct versions. The scholar who has done most to expose the deficiencies of this theory, in essays and reviews across the whole period from 1981 to 2008, has been Professor Richard Knowles of the University of Wisconsin. Knowles has been working for 30 years preparing the New Variorum King Lear, which will be the most important edition of the play ever published. (He completed it in 2009, and since then it has been languishing in the vaults of the Modern Language Association of America, a shameful dereliction of duty for a scholarly publisher.) Addressing the revisionists’ belief that the Folio represents “a second authorial revision of the play,” Knowles pointed out that

There are in Folio Lear no new scenes, characters, or episodes; no rearrangements of plot or scenes or speeches; no omissions or renaming of named characters; no new speeches to introduce new themes or different motives. The few reassignments of speeches have seemed to editors to be in most cases either errors or the correction of errors. Though revisionist critics have made the most of existing differences between the two texts, the fact is that […] the speeches and actions of the characters remain on the whole unchanged. Most remarkably, virtually no speech of any length seems to have been either wholly reworked or replaced by a different one.

If Shakespeare really had revised this play, it is hardly conceivable that he would have been content to do so merely by making cuts. In the two undisputed revisions that I discussed in an earlier chapter (not mentioned by Syme), those to Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he added new material.

The main reason that the revisionists gave for Shakespeare allegedly cutting 288 lines was a desire to “speed up the play” in performance. Michael Warren praised the Folio omission of one section, since “the play is shortened and speeded by the loss from 3.6 and the opening of 4.1 of about 54 lines (three minutes of playing time at least).” This would be a trivial reduction of the performance length in comparison to the value of the material omitted. William Carroll noted that “the language of speed” dominated the revisionists’ praise of the Folio cuts as producing a “‘narrative excitement’ […] which apparently did not exist in Q,” and he objected:

To say that a deletion leads to a faster playing time of the surviving material is merely a tautology. How could it not? Every omission necessarily results in streamlining and acceleration; what is not effectively shown is why this acceleration and streamlining are really virtues. Indeed, the very metaphors used by these scholars — positives like “streamline” and “accelerate” rather than, for example, “abort” or “truncate” — beg the question of the argument.

As Carroll concluded, the revisionists’ praise of the Folio for its greater “speed” resulted in a diminished concept of drama:

What all these assertions about “narrative” or “dramatic” momentum, of “more urgent and rapid” dramaturgy, have in common is an implicit poetics of drama which exalts simplicity of structure and speed of performance over complexity and difficulty, an assumption which I doubt can be proven in relation to the greatest Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.

That objection is especially pertinent to King Lear, with its exploration of the extremes of cruelty and compassion in human behavior, a play in which “complexity and difficulty” are of the essence. Some of the most damaging cuts occur in the scenes where Albany, long absent from the play, returns as a fresh judge of his wife and her sister, Regan, comparing their treatment of Lear to the behavior of “Tigers, not daughters.” The outrage that Albany expresses at the inhumanity of Cornwall, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund is there for a purpose, to remind us of the human values that make community possible, as the action before us descends into savagery.

In theorizing that Shakespeare was responsible for the Folio omissions, the revisionists placed themselves in the unenviable position of having to endorse the cuts made by the King’s Men out of theatrical expediency. But in doing so, the Two Versions theorists had to find literary-critical arguments to legitimize the theater company’s omissions. Several of the independent critics whose views I bring together for the first time, pointed out that the revisionists’ concept of “theatricality” is a post facto rationalization of the Folio cuts, which are in fact theatrically impractical. After the terrible scene of Cornwall blinding Gloucester, the Folio omits the compassionate response of Cornwall’s servants, who tend the old man, fetching some egg whites to dress his wounds and finding a guide for him. Their dialogue is not only a crucial representation of the human wish to help others suffering from injustice and cruelty that makes this play unique among Shakespeare’s tragedies — Lear is tended by Kent, Gloucester, the Fool, and Cordelia; Gloucester by his son Edgar — but it is a theatrical necessity, and cutting it leaves only 14 lines for the actor playing Gloucester to have his eyes bandaged and change his clothes. The Folio cuts the whole of Act Four, Scene Three, in which we see Cordelia again for the first time since the opening scene, 2,000 lines earlier, a longer absence than any other major character in Shakespeare. The audience needs to see the intensity of her love for her father and to be reassured that she comes from France to rescue, not to conquer. The scene also brings us news of Lear, gradually regaining his sanity and experiencing profound shame at the way he has treated Cordelia, an essential preliminary stage to the later scene where we see him reunited with her. One revisionist critic justified the omission of 4.3 since it is “at best forgettable”; another described it as “dispensable” and “hardly necessary.” In justifying the Folio’s damaging cut, the Two Versions theorists did further damage — but to their standing as literary critics.

The most regrettable of the Folio cuts concerns the scene where Gloucester has found a hovel in which Lear can shelter from the storm, accompanied by Kent, the Fool, and Edgar — disguised as Poor Tom, a “Bedlam beggar” (according to contemporary accounts, a class of beggars who feigned madness, claiming to have been locked up in Bethlehem Hospital, an insane asylum). The hovel contains two “joint-stools,” humble pieces of furniture. His wits gone, Lear thinks that he’s now in a courtroom where he can bring Goneril and Regan to justice, with himself as presiding judge, assisted by the Fool and the beggar, who is naked except for a blanket around his loins — “thou robed man of Justice,” as Lear respectfully addresses him. In a grotesque scene, Lear begins the prosecution by addressing one of the stools: “Arraigne her first, tis Goneril, I here take my oath before this honourable assembly kickt the poor king her father.” The instance is trivial but we have just heard that “His daughters seek his death.” Then Lear perceives another offender, with “warped looks,” who seems to be trying to escape: “stop her there,” he cries. Everything up to this point comes from the Quarto, which preserves the whole scene. Alas, the Folio abridger cut 40 lines from one of the most remarkable scenes in European drama, with its juxtaposition of Lear, who has really lost his senses, with the Fool, whose trade is to speak amusing nonsense, and Edgar, who is pretending to be mad. The Folio abridger resumes the Quarto text shortly before Lear turns to the second offender: “Then let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her hart. Is there any cause in nature that make this hardnes”[.] By “then” Lear means “next,” following on from Goneril’s arraignment, but since the Folio has not shown this, his speech is truly puzzling. Also, because it omits Lear’s descent into anger, the speech by Kent urging Lear not to get upset seems pointless. With the omission, Lear has hardly entered when he speaks of Regan, and then he falls asleep.

For many readers over the centuries, this has seemed “the unkindest cut of all,” but the revisionists had to justify it, given their belief that Shakespeare had made these cuts. Stephen Urkowitz described it as “a reasonable theatrical revision, designed to sustain the rapid sequence of actions in this part of the play rather than allowing the pace to slow down as it does here in the Quarto version”; Gary Taylor found it “the most dispensable” of the three mad scenes, because it “essentially gives us more of the same.”

Given their approval of cuts as providing a more “theatrical experience,” it is interesting to see how this scene has fared on the stage in modern times. In my book, I draw on Robert Clare’s study of the promptbooks of seven major productions of the play between 1962 and 1993, six for the Royal Shakespeare Company, one for the National Theatre. It is striking that all seven productions preserved the Quarto text of the mad trial, even though they were purportedly based on the Folio. Nicholas Hytner (RSC, 1990) planned to use the Folio but was unable to convince his actors that its cuts in the mock trial were viable. The actor playing Lear objected before rehearsals even began, arguing that the whole scene is essential to the character’s progress toward the climax of his madness in the astonishing confrontation between mad Lear and blinded Gloucester. The restored trial scene turned out to be not only important but actually pivotal to Hytner’s production, for he placed the two joint-stools in the same positions (relative to Lear) that Goneril and Regan had occupied in 1.1, and were to occupy again (in death) in the final scene. Many who love King Lear would salute the director for translating that insight into a visible form that brings out the continuities in this tightly woven drama. The best that Holger Syme can manage is to rebuke me for paying undue attention to

modern performers and their statements about the play. Thus, having learned that some audience members at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1990 production found some of the Folio cuts confusing, Vickers concludes that those omissions would not have been practicable in the 1610s either. […] That modern actors or audiences find particular textual moments difficult has no evidentiary weight in a consideration of what a Jacobean actor or playing company may have considered theatrically effective. Vickers, however, not only considers his own (and the 1990s RSC’s) judgment superior to that of Shakespeare’s colleagues, he thinks little of actors’ power to shape a play or its performance at all.

Those dismissive comments contain several serious misrepresentations. To begin with the closing accusation, by employing Clare’s arguments I have done the precise opposite of what Syme claims here — that is, attending to actors’ abilities to shape a play and its performance by seeing that the cut material is essential to this scene. Next, I never mentioned “audience members,” nor did Clare — the RSC’s discussions took place in rehearsal. I never said that these omissions “would not have been practicable in the 1610s,” nor did I make any disparaging remarks about actors, either now or in the past. The actor who prevailed on Hytner to restore the whole scene did not “find particular textual moments difficult,” a patronizing comment by Syme, who never discusses any scene in King Lear, mentions none of its characters, and seems to have no other interest than trying to find errors in my book.

In the concluding chapter, I try to answer the questions that some of your readers may now be asking: how did the revisionist theory manage to become the new orthodoxy, and how did it gather enough credibility to persuade two eminent academic publishers that Shakespeare’s greatest play should be split in two? The key issue here is the notion of consensus. Normally, in the humanities as in the sciences, new discoveries or interpretations can be gradually accepted by the scholarly community, but also modified or rejected; a consensus will eventually be established. Between 1981 and 2008, as I showed, some of the leading scholars and editors of our time refuted the Two Versions thesis. In their eyes the revisionists had utterly failed to change the consensus. Some members of the revisionist group, however, did not wait for a larger community to endorse their claims, but in effect formed a mutually validating community of their own. Throughout The Division of the Kingdoms, the contributors regularly endorsed each other’s work in the most glowing terms, creating a cumulative effect of authority that must have influenced early readers and reviewers. The revisionists hailed a particular interpretation by one of their number as if it were definitive, awarding it an apodictic status — that is, “proved to be true by demonstration.” One stated that the others “have demonstrated that the whole trend of the Folio revisions is towards streamlining and simplification.” Gary Taylor claimed that his interpretation of a single press variant “demonstrates conclusively that the Folio text of King Lear represents a later version of the play.” William Carroll drew attention to this mutual endorsement process in which the revisionists appealed to authority by citing each other’s work, the end effect being that their collective volume turned into “a self-referential artefact.”

For most of the contributors to that volume, their involvement ended with its publication, with one exception. Their spokesman, Gary Taylor, published several essays in which he celebrated its success, and the consequent publication of two versions of Lear in the Oxford Shakespeare — which he had co-edited. In these essays, Taylor had two goals: to talk up the revisionists’ achievement and to dismiss their critics, following the model of Roman advocates, pairing laudatio and vituperatio. In his version of events, the “two-text revolutionaries” were opposed by “reactionaries,” who held a “pre-Copernican model of the universe,” while his group had effected a “Copernican revolution” in textual studies. The revisionists were young and potent, their adversaries aged and impotent. In his self-aggrandizing polemic, Taylor referred to some of them in regrettably personal terms (“The venerable Frank Kermode leads a chorus of gerontocrats”).

Taylor’s self-image as a revolutionary echoes distinguished forbears. Like Trotsky ordering his forces to seize telephone and newspaper offices in Petrograd, Taylor celebrated the revisionists’ success in “hijacking the international resources and the cultural authority of Oxford University Press, not only the most respectable but commercially the most powerful of all academic publishers.” Yet, throughout this self-mythologizing process, Taylor never once entered into a serious discussion with any of his critics, giving the impression that his position was impregnable, his opponents’ untenable. Several times in my book, I describe the revisionists as advocates, not scholars, and I found an illuminating account of the difference by the distinguished American philosopher Susan Haack, commenting on the adversarial legal system. Whereas “an inquirer’s business is to discover the true answer to his question, so his obligation is to seek out what evidence he can and assess it as fairly as possible,” an advocate’s business is “to make the strongest possible case” that his answer is the true one, “so he will be most effective if he selects and emphasizes whatever evidence favors the proposition in question, and ignores or plays down the rest.” That seems to me a fair description of the revisionists’ behavior — including their disciple Holger Syme, who draws a veil over these two chapters in which independent scrutiny revealed both the weakness of their theory and the unscholarly methods they used to promote it.

Far from a “rigorous critique,” Professor Syme delivered a piece of sustained denigration that systematically ignored or misrepresented my arguments and exposed serious deficiencies in his own knowledge. He did manage to find two small errors, for which I am grateful. I said that Okes should have used 12 sheets, as did Q2: I meant 11, and it is a mystery how I failed to notice the mistake during the many revisions. I referred to setting seriatim as “this casting off method,” which is obviously wrong. Looking back through the editing process I see that the copyeditor had queried my original phrase “this method” as not clearly defining the antecedent: I muddled the correction. Both errors will be put right in the next printing.

The One King Lear is an honest attempt to solve a long-standing problem concerning the text of what many people regard as Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It is the product of a lifetime’s involvement with this play, and several years’ research and writing. It gives the most detailed study yet published of the two texts, and the many issues that they raise in textual and literary criticism and theatrical history, and it offers a new and radical explanation for the cuts in the Quarto. It is surely not without faults, but I hope that your readers might now want to see for themselves why it has been described as “a big, bold book, a major piece of scholarship for everyone to engage with.”


Sir Brian Vickers is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Distinguished Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

LARB Contributor

Sir Brian Vickers has taught at Cambridge University, the ETH Zurich, and the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he is a Distinguished Senior Fellow. He is Director of the Oxford Francis Bacon, general editor of The Collected Works of John Ford (Oxford), and of Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition (Bloomsbury). He lives in London, near his four children and four grandchildren.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!