The Text Is Foolish: Brian Vickers’s “The One King Lear”

By Holger S. SymeSeptember 6, 2016

The Text Is Foolish: Brian Vickers’s “The One King Lear”

The One King Lear by Brian Vickers

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, a book comes along that fundamentally challenges the way we think. Brian Vickers’s The One King Lear is such a book. It constitutes a real challenge to the belief that our system of academic peer reviewing works as it should. Published by one of North America’s most august university presses, it is nonetheless 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. Precisely because Harvard University Press seems to have set scholarly standards aside in putting Vickers’s tome into print, The One King Lear now requires the rigorous critique the press either did not solicit or, more likely, chose to ignore.

I. A Debate is Reignited

What is this book about? Vickers is out to settle a very old score. King Lear exists in two distinct texts: the 1608 Quarto contains about 290 lines not to be found in the 1623 (posthumous) Folio, but it also lacks around 100 lines that are only printed in the later text. Aside from those obvious differences, there are hundreds of variants between the two texts. Generations of Shakespeareans have puzzled over the relationship between the editions and their relative authority. For a long time, it was standard editorial practice to conflate the two versions and preserve as many lines from both as possible, while negotiating the textual variants either on aesthetic grounds or on the basis of a general judgment as to which of the two texts was more reliable. In the mid-1980s, however, under the influence of a landmark collection of essays edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren (The Division of the Kingdoms [Oxford, 1983]), that practice changed profoundly. 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. The Quarto became Shakespeare’s first Lear play, with preoccupations and thematic foci of its own; the Folio his second tragedy of Lear, with subtly distinct perspectives and angles. In its most extreme form, this revisionist position remains contentious. Claims for Shakespeare’s complete control over the Folio revision have proven difficult to sustain. The view that the two texts can be read as two different plays, however, has found more favor, reflecting, in part, 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.

Vickers isn’t having any of this. He rejects the idea that the two printed texts constitute two separate versions of the play at all, and he reserves particular scorn for the theory that Shakespeare could have had anything to do with the later text: “it is impossible to believe,” he writes, that he would “make such crude cuts to a play on which he had expended so much care and imaginative energy.” Later: “At no point can Shakespeare be considered as the agent who destroyed his own design.” And: “He had no reason to go back to his greatest play. Nothing needed to be changed.”

Vickers’s anger at the success of the revision theorists and their “disturbingly vacuous” ideas is palpable. In two extraordinarily scathing chapters, he repeatedly suggests his intellectual opponents find some other employment, and casts aspersions not only on their own scholarly standards but also on those of the journals and presses that published their work. He paints the revision theorists as a small, incestuous cabal of scholarly snake-oil salesmen whose ideas were never accepted by the Shakespearean community at large despite the invidious influence they’ve exerted over some academic publishers.

The authorial revision hypothesis has always had its critics, and rightly so. But to claim that only the “members of [the] group” of scholars represented in the 1983 collection of essays have “accepted the Two Versions theory,” and that this “group” has been holding the debate hostage for decades now, is nothing more than a conspiracy fantasy. As even a casual glance at the scholarship published about King Lear in the last few decades shows, the idea that there are two authoritative versions of the play has been adopted by many Shakespeare scholars who had nothing to do with Taylor and Warren’s “group.” The revisionist camp includes such eminently sober-minded scholars as the editor of the most recent Arden text, the late R. A. Foakes — who (in an essay Vickers ignores, though he must know it, since it appears in a collection he cites frequently) reaffirmed a few years before his death his view that “the most plausible explanation for [the differences] is that someone (probably Shakespeare) skillfully reshaped the play by cuts, additions and numerous small changes accordant with a detailed overall view.”

To some, this may seem like a storm in a rather tiny teacup. Yet Vickers writes with a broad, non-academic audience in mind: his first chapter offers a basic introduction to the “terms and technical processes that feature in subsequent discussions” precisely because he does not want to limit his reach to “those familiar with bibliography and textual criticism.” Despite their highly technical nature, his arguments, no less than those made by Taylor et al. in the 1980s, could potentially have a profound effect on Shakespeare studies at large, on all levels of erudition. What is true of most bibliographical discussions is true of Vickers’s book as well: the debates are arcane, but their impact is fundamental. They are designed to redefine what the very text of King Lear is.

If the hypotheses of The One King Lear were accepted, we would return to editions of King Lear that dismiss the differences between the Quarto and the Folio as interpretatively irrelevant. We would accept that the Folio lines absent from the Quarto were part of the text Shakespeare wrote before 1608, rather than later additions; and we would reject all the cuts made to the Folio text as non-authorial theatrical omissions. In other words, in the post-Vickers textual universe, neither the Quarto nor the Folio would have real independent authority, and editors would reconstitute the ideal text Shakespeare actually wrote from both imperfect printings. That is why Vickers not only rejects the authorial revision hypothesis but the very idea that the Folio text is anything more than a cut-down version of Shakespeare’s lost original. In his eyes, nothing can have been added to the later text; all the seemingly new lines are merely restored from Shakespeare’s pre-1608 vision of the play.

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. Even the most strident critics of the authorial revision theory concede that the Folio is a different version of the play. And Vickers knows this, since he quotes one of those critics: “the question is not whether there was revision — of course there was — but who did it, and when, and why.” That’s Richard Knowles, in a passage Vickers reproduces without comment despite the fact that he relies on Knowles more than on any other critic for support.

Ironically, by rejecting all notions of revision so totally, Vickers ends up reiterating his revisionist foes’ conviction that both the Quarto and the Folio are equally Shakespearean. In other words, he rejects the two-version theory that almost no one has questioned in decades, but accepts the argument about authorship that has been rather more difficult to sustain: that most of what can be found in the two texts is by Shakespeare — but not because he rewrote his own play. Both printed versions instead preserve different selections from the one authorial Ur-text.

Precisely because he stakes out such an idiosyncratic claim, Vickers works extraordinarily hard, on the one hand, to distance himself from the Taylor and Warren “group,” despite some of the common ground he and they actually occupy; and, on the other, to claim alliance with “independent scholars” (his phrase) who sometimes do not in fact share his position. In the process, he misquotes and misrepresents not just those with whom he disagrees, but also authors whose support he attempts to claim. A case in point is the late Ernst Honigmann, one of the most distinguished modern Shakespeare editors. Vickers presents Honigmann as an ally, a former believer in the revision theory who supposedly recanted in The Texts of “Othello” and Shakespearean Revision (1996). Vickers quotes a long passage as if Honigmann were writing about King Lear and even claims that he “recognized [the Folio-only passages] as having been cut from the Quarto,” but Honigmann does nothing of the sort. In fact, although he notes his change of mind about revisions in Othello, Honigmann explicitly sets aside the question of whether Shakespeare revised Lear: “whether or not this affects the case for the revision of King Lear I leave to others to determine.” About cuts to the Quarto, Honigmann says nothing at all. Similarly, 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.”

Vickers’s enemies fare no better than his friends. Again, a single spotlight will have to do. No one comes in for more of a drubbing in this book than Gary Taylor, a critic who “has lost contact with the play and should seek some other occupation.” But when he tries to summarize Taylor’s influential hypotheses, Vickers’s own critical reading skills fail to impress. First, he quotes a long passage in which Taylor starts off with the express assertion that “we have no need to postulate the loss of the original promptbook” (the theatrical manuscript used during performance), then comments that “Taylor had to hypothesize first that the King’s Men had (conveniently for the revisionist thesis) lost their 1606 Booke” (“booke” is Vickers’s idiosyncratically faux-early-modern term for promptbook). This might feel like mendacious misrepresentation, had Vickers not graciously given us Taylor’s own words, displaying openly just how severely he distorts the argument. It seems, then, that the egregious misreading is genuine — though no less baffling for that.

Most bizarrely, Vickers consistently writes as if his opponents actually agreed with him that nothing was added to the Folio: “it is hardly conceivable,” he notes, that Shakespeare would have revised the play “merely by making cuts.” Indeed. Which is why quite literally no one makes such a claim. All the revision theorists argue that Shakespeare (or someone else) wrote additions, changed the wording of lines in dozens of instances, and made cuts; no one argues that he “revised by cutting” alone. It is simply false to claim that the “whole theory [is] based on passages omitted from the Folio.”

II. A Textual History Reimagined

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.) So how does he try to make the case that there only ever was one authorial manuscript of King Lear? Essentially, by devising two interlinked narratives of textual corruption at the hands of two separate sets of agents. That all-inclusive text, he posits, was first mutilated by the printer Nicholas Okes, who cut over 100 lines and did violence to Shakespeare’s verse by altering its lineation or setting it as prose when producing the 1608 Quarto. The same text was then subjected to a separate indignity when it was cut again (but in different places than the Quarto) by someone working with Shakespeare’s company of actors, the King’s Men, and subsequently edited for publication in the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Vickers’s story thus imagines one originary act of authorial creation, yielding a masterpiece unrivalled in its perfection, and three subsequent acts of non-authorial vandalism.

It is worth unpacking these hypothetical scenarios a little, to separate out evidence-based argument from speculation. 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. Although Doran’s book was savaged and dismissed upon publication by W. W. Greg, the most influential bibliographer of the time, in the last 30 years or so her ideas have found far more favor than Greg’s. Similarly, few scholars would dispute the assertion that Okes, in printing the Quarto, made some efforts to economize his use of paper (though not consistently). And there is little question that the later version of the text printed in 1623 was shaped by various “editorial” hands, including those of the compositors that typeset the Folio. That the Folio text displays the efforts of someone intermittently keen on regularizing Shakespeare’s meter is widely accepted. There is also general consensus that the 1623 version reflects a version of the play edited (and perhaps revised) for performance.

Beyond those areas of agreement, Vickers is largely on his own. The strategies he adopts to come to terms with the challenges of the two texts are strikingly distinctive: in his discussion of the Quarto, he relies heavily on the history of the early book trade and of early modern printing practices; in his treatment of the Folio, he largely abandons bibliographical arguments and adopts the mantle of the literary critic (and, occasionally, the theater scholar). The former strategy runs into far more severe problems, on which I will spend much of the rest of this review. The account of the Folio text does not merit this kind of in-depth engagement simply because its arguments do not rely on factual assertions of the same kind. I may find it strange that Vickers can spend 93 pages confidently identifying specific changes as either a playhouse scribe’s or a stationer’s agent’s edits while also postulating “the impossibility of knowing who was responsible for the Folio omissions,” but this is the kind of conceptual stretch some critics can sustain or ignore. 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. I may find his account of the ethics of the play simplistic and uninspiring, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong and I am right. I will therefore make just two general points about what I find troubling in Vickers’s discussion of the Folio text, and then move on to his quite different approach to the Quarto.

In dismissing revision theories, Vickers castigates his opponents for using “aesthetic rather than textual criteria” to support their case. But his entire analysis of the Folio relies exclusively on aesthetic criteria. He moves from example to example, assessing their merits with a connoisseurial eye: “I feel that the Quarto abridger made the better choice,” and so on. (He even subjects typographical marks to this treatment: ampersands, for instance, are judged “ugly.”) His criticism may not rise to an especially sophisticated level — representative “arguments” include the claim that feminine endings are “often more expressive” or that “thou wilt” is more “colloquial” than “thou’lt” — but it is nevertheless entirely grounded in questions of aesthetic merit, not textual or bibliographical analysis.

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, nor does he address the paradox that this supposedly perfectly designed play does not in fact exist, but needs to be brought into being through editorial intervention (since neither printed text fully represents Shakespeare’s vision). Having settled on a reading that emphasizes a balanced moral structure to the play, though, Vickers has to characterize any aspect of either text that deviates from that interpretation as destructive of the playwright’s artistic intention. In that sense, his interpretation of King Lear is not a reading of either of the surviving versions, but imagines the existence of a text that can support such an interpretation, which then becomes the basis of an editorial approach. A newly edited, ideally realized King Lear will be one that lives up to the play as Vickers understands it, and leaves out all the lines and textual differences that complicate the picture. As literary critical methods go, this is an unusually creative approach.

Such a text will be based more on the Quarto than the Folio, since the later text distorts Shakespeare’s “moral design” more profoundly; again and again, Vickers identifies moments of “goodness” that are cut in the 1623 text. But as he lists these changes, it seems that a pattern emerges — not a pattern of “thoughtlessness” and ignorant destruction of the play’s purpose, as Vickers thinks, but of subtle changes that amount to a different (not a “distorted”) “moral design.” It would be easy to mount a narrative of revision on the very evidence Vickers provides, of a reconceived King Lear depicting a much darker moral universe than the Quarto. I am not at all convinced that this would be a good reading of the Folio, but as Vickers presents his evidence, it seems to support the case for purposive reshaping more than his own case for pointless textual vandalism. He does not dismiss such a reading: he does not even consider it. Since he rejects the very possibility of real revision a priori, all change has to be destructive.

In effect, though, Vickers ends up replicating the very critical maneuver for which he mocks the revision theorists. He ridicules them for “canonizing” the Folio text as Shakespeare’s “final conception” and for disregarding the Quarto: “in upgrading the Folio, revisionists are patronizing toward the fundamental text.” But Vickers does the exact same thing: declaring one of the two texts “fundamental” is no different than regarding the other as “final.” Except he takes the game one step further. Where (some) revisionists consider the Folio closer to Shakespeare’s ultimate intentions for the play, Vickers sees those intentions ideally realized not in any actual text, but only in the editorial reconstruction he proposes — a reconstruction grounded in his own aesthetic preferences and choices. The one King Lear is neither the Quarto nor the Folio, but the play Brian Vickers wants King Lear to be.

One major difference between Vickers and the revisionists is how they feel about something they both regard as established fact: that the Folio text derives from a promptbook and therefore reflects the theatrical life of the play. For Taylor et al., Shakespeare’s willingness to alter his text in response to the demands of the stage marks him as the consummate playwright. For Vickers, the changes may have been made “for theatrical reasons,” but they destroy “carefully worked out elements of plot and motivation” and cannot be ascribed to the author. The early modern theater, in his account, emerges as a place where dramatic works of art are treated with disrespect and a deep lack of understanding.

Vickers believes the cuts as a whole make the play more difficult if not impossible to understand, and that many of those cuts are “in fact theatrically impractical.” Among other things, the Folio omits some of Edgar’s asides and soliloquies while he is in disguise as Poor Tom: Vickers thinks this would have caused a “problem” in the theater because “there is a danger that the audience may forget that ‘Poor Tom’ is still Edgar.” He never hesitates to assume that Shakespeare was surrounded mainly by dullards: audiences slow to pick up on things unless they were clearly explained, actors who neither understood how the play worked nor what would fly over their spectators’ heads. The necessary correlative of that attitude is that the modern critic has to suppose that he knows better than Shakespeare’s company what an early modern audience needed from a playtext.

That would seem like an arrogant attitude if Vickers did not clarify that his understanding of how King Lear worked on the Jacobean stage relies not simply on his intuition, but also on 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. But while his respect for contemporary theater makers is laudable, it does not solve his historiographical dilemma.

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. At one point, he notes that the Folio cuts cannot have amounted to a deliberate shift in interpretative perspective, because they were made by “the company” — and therefore, their effect would have been “coincidental.” When Shakespeare’s actors cut, in other words, they only cut to save time; their interventions could not have been motivated by a desire to reshape the meaning or effect of the play. Instead, companies were driven by “contingencies of cost, practicality, and the availability of specific performers.” With those considerations in mind, they often blundered into cuts, with unforeseen consequences, because, as Vickers reminds us, “a work of art is an ecosystem: damage it at one point, and it will suffer unforeseen consequences somewhere else.” Small wonder he thinks theater and opera can be discussed as equivalent enterprises, and that he is unwilling to grant the outcome of such an exercise in cost- and time-reduction the status of a “revision.” But it needs to be said that this extreme belief in the inviolability of an organically coherent text, and the extremely limited role Vickers grants theater professionals in the transformation of a play into a performance, have much more to do with the 20th century than with anything we know of Shakespeare’s time.

III. A Printer Abridges

If Vickers’s discussion of the Folio is designed to reveal the un-Shakespearean weaknesses of an ostensibly authoritative text, the Quarto requires him to do the opposite. Since he wants to tether it closely to Shakespeare’s original (“fundamental”) and ideal manuscript, Vickers works hard to maintain the authority of the 1608 text despite its manifest bibliographical problems, and to explain how so good a manuscript yielded such a poorly printed book.

Decades ago, when the Quarto was believed to have been printed from a “reported” text, either memorially reconstructed or taken down by shorthand during a performance, differences between that version and the Folio could be explained as errors of transmission. However, now that the consensus has shifted to regarding the Quarto as based on an authorial manuscript, that explanation has evaporated: under the more recent explanatory regimen, scholars broadly agree that the passages missing from the 1608 version simply did not exist yet in Shakespeare’s manuscript, and were added to the play sometime between the composition of the first draft and the printing of the Folio. Vickers wants to revive the conclusions of previous generations of scholars while rejecting the “memorial reconstruction” hypothesis: 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. The corruption of transmission did not occur in the written document from which the book was set, but in the printed book itself.

The One King Lear offers an inventive scenario in place of the old narrative of corrupt transmission. That narrative featured a motley cast of characters (note-taking audience members or bit-part players), a clear motive (money from selling the text of a successful play), and a coherent theory of how lines might go missing (a slow pen, an errant memory, an actor off-stage in a particular scene). Vickers’s new story likewise encompasses a colorful cast of characters (the commissioning stationer, Nathaniel Butter; the incompetent printer, Nicholas Okes), a clear motive (money, from saving on the amount of paper used), and a coherent-sounding theory (lines were cut to make the text fit the amount of paper available). But despite these apparent differences, his approach and that of the memorial reconstructionists share a central assumption: that the Folio-only passages are not additions to the later text, but omissions from the earlier one. Vickers never attempts to ground this assumption in textual evidence: that the two versions spring from an “original unity” is simply the fundamental conviction with which he begins his narrative of what must have happened in Okes’s printing house. It is, and remains throughout, a credo, not an argument.

The old “memorial reconstruction” hypothesis relied on a powerful, if now discredited, account of book trade practices that went well beyond the single example of King Lear’s first Quarto. By the late 1930s, nine of Shakespeare’s quartos had been identified as “bad” and possibly pirated: King Lear was far from unusual, but rather part of an industry-wide trend. The resurgence of the view that the 1608 Quarto was printed from authorial manuscript copy went hand in hand with the general collapse of the “memorial reconstruction” thesis. As scholars lost faith in that hypothetical context, what kind of text the Lear Quarto was thought to be had to change as well. And the new range of perspectives on that 1608 volume left little room for agents that might have cut over 100 lines from Shakespeare’s manuscript. If the book no longer represented an instance of corrupted transmission, the text it contained had to be substantively what was in the document from which it was set. The question therefore became why the two versions differed as much as they did, and when the passages only found in the Folio were added. 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, as with the memorial reconstruction hypothesis, 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. 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. Although it would be difficult to imagine what such a case might look like, he certainly acts as if he, unlike his opponents, had in fact made it. The revisionists, he keeps writing, marshal no “material evidence”; their theory relies exclusively on aesthetic judgments, not on “marks left by print on paper.” That may or may not be a fair criticism, but it fully applies to Vickers’s own case: there is no bibliographical evidence for cuts in the Quarto (what kind of “mark” would the non-printing of an absence leave “on paper” anyway?), nor is there such evidence that Shakespeare did or did not revise the Folio text. Print is not the work of authors, nor is it, typically, a type-facsimile of a manuscript source. The kinds of arguments Vickers (and his foes) want to make cannot be made on purely bibliographical grounds.

Moreover, Vickers makes no argument of any kind for the belief that the Folio-only lines always were in Shakespeare’s original draft. His entire case rests on his ability to show that it is more plausible, as a matter of print history, to posit that Okes cut those lines than to believe that they were added to the play in a revision. Never mind that this is a comparison between two categorically different kinds of arguments (one based on the history of a craft, the other on aesthetic judgment): the plausibility of Vickers’s bibliographical and book-historical claims bears a very heavy burden. It alone can provide a basis for giving any credence to the notion that the Folio-only lines even existed prior to 1608.

Does Vickers make his case? 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. For the most part, they are by Shakespeare; four pages are devoted to Ben Jonson’s plays in an account indebted to the textual essays in the recent Cambridge Jonson. Vickers’s most sustained effort to “test” his arguments comparatively amounts to 12 pages of commentary on three other Jacobean quartos of Shakespeare plays — one of which is the second Quarto of King Lear, a reprint from printed copy. As sample sizes go, this is what one might expect from an unambitious seminar paper. In a scholarly age that offers immediate access to a vast electronic corpus of texts, Vickers draws on a startlingly inadequate archive, though that does not stop him from concluding that he has “shown” what “printers in the period” “commonly” did. Even if he had managed to gather relevant evidence in the handful of other plays he has looked at, the sample size is so small that it cannot bear probative weight.

But that’s not even the key problem. It also turns out that virtually none of the examples Vickers offers for comparison match Okes’s situation. To detail why that is, a brief technical detour is necessary. In producing a printed book, early modern stationers had two distinct choices of approach: in simplified terms, they could either set the pages seriatim, proceeding through their copy line by line, typesetting page after page until they had enough to assemble them into a “forme” — the frame holding, in the case of a quarto, four pages worth of type.[1] When setting seriatim, a compositor (the person responsible for turning copy into type) would have to set a total of seven pages before anything could be printed: at that point, the “inner” forme was complete and could be made ready for the press (or “imposed”). Alternatively, a stationer could set by formes. In that approach, the copy first needed to be analyzed (“cast off”) to determine where the page breaks would fall; that done, each page could be set individually and out of order. As a consequence, a compositor only needed to complete the four pages of either the inner or the outer forme before printing could commence. Setting by formes allowed for a more efficient work-flow between typesetting and printing, maintaining a steadier supply of new formes to the pressmen. It also required less type: the seriatim method made it necessary for the printer to have 11 pages of type available at all times, whereas setting by formes theoretically only required eight, because the type could be reused more quickly.

However, that efficiency came at a price. Casting off was an imprecise art, and potentially time-consuming. Worse, if the compositor miscalculated (easy to do especially in prose, with its unpredictable space requirements) he might find himself with too much or too little text for the pages he still had to fill. If this occurred once one of the formes (usually the “outer”) was in press, there was nothing to be done: where the four mostly non-consecutive pages on that side of the sheet began and ended could no longer be changed. A compositor in such a situation might stretch his copy by breaking verse lines more frequently than required by the meter, say, or inserting extra line breaks or ornaments; or he might have to compress the text to make it fit. When setting seriatim, these problems would not normally arise: a compositor would simply set line by line, until he had reached the number of lines he was planning to include on each page. There would still have been specific spatial pressure points even in this method, in particular the end of a book’s last sheet. But in general, the specific need to begin and end each page at a certain point that was the major disadvantage of setting by formes did not arise when using the seriatim method.

Nicholas Okes, as Peter Blayney established over 30 years ago, set King Lear seriatim — an understandable decision given the play’s frequent switches between prose and verse, which might have made casting off a daunting prospect. Early modern stationers used both techniques, sometimes even within the same book. Okes himself set other play quartos by formes, including The Two Maids of Mortlake the year after Lear. Vickers labors under the misapprehension that setting the text of Lear seriatim was a strange choice. He is largely alone in this belief, even if he occasionally ascribes his own surprise to scholars who are in fact not at all puzzled when encountering plays not set by formes.[2]

This is where our detour rejoins the main road: why does the distinction between two methods of setting type matter? As we saw, setting by formes could frequently create spatial complications unlikely to arise in seriatim work. It so happens that all the relevant examples Vickers draws on to establish a context for Okes’s work on the 1608 Quarto are drawn from books set by formes; they exhibit problems common in such books, but normally absent from books set seriatim. In fact, a number of the scholars Vickers cites, including John Creaser, make this very point: a book that shows few signs of a fluctuating treatment of space, such as having some pages crowded and others with excessive spaces between lines, is likely to have been set seriatim. In other words, the context Vickers establishes is not only extremely thin, it is also a completely inappropriate context for Okes’s 1608 volume (although it may be appropriate for some other book set by formes). Even in books set by formes, though, Vickers can find almost no unequivocal examples of stationers cutting lines from their copy to solve a space problem; in the few arguable instances he can offer, the problem invariably arises from the hard boundaries created when setting by formes, and would not at all have arisen in a text set seriatim, such as King Lear. Without such examples, there is no evidence against which to test Vickers’s theory that Okes sliced over 100 lines from Shakespeare’s manuscript. It is a story without context or historical precedent.

Even so: What about the narrative’s inherent plausibility? Okes may, after all, have been a spectacular outlier. Here is what Vickers imagines must have happened: Okes provided the stationer Nathaniel Butter with a binding estimate for the cost of printing the book, based on the assumption that he could fit the text onto 10.5 sheets of paper. When he discovered, after the job started, that his original estimate was too optimistic, he did not tell Butter, who would have supplied the paper, that he needed more stock, but instead instructed his compositors to compress the type as much as possible and cut a substantial number of lines from Shakespeare’s manuscript to make sure he would not exceed the 10.5 sheet allotment.

Some aspects of Vickers’s story find a degree of support in the text. It is certainly true that Okes employed a number of space-saving techniques: his compositors sometimes set verse as prose, they often eliminated blank lines before and after stage directions, they sometimes placed directions in the margin, and they sometimes set two short lines of dialogue on the same line. There is no question that the 1608 Quarto is not a generously printed volume. But neither are many other early modern printed plays. In the absence of a real corpus of books by which to assess Okes’s attempts at spatial economy, it is quite impossible to know if he appears to have been under unusual pressure or if he simply applied common means of economizing on the use of paper. (Vickers asserts that Okes “differs from his peers” in these practices, but he has no significant evidence to back up this claim. Three other books do not a corpus make.)

However, one feature of the 1608 Lear sits strangely with Vickers’s narrative: Okes repeatedly neglected to use all the space available to him. On the first page of the text, he chose to reuse the large type from the title page to begin the play: “M. William Shak-speare / HIS / Historie, of King Lear” and an ornament take up a good third of a page that shows little to no evidence of its printer’s sense that space was at a premium. Similarly, Okes followed his usual preference of leaving the last page of the book as well as the entire leaf preceding the title page blank to protect the text from stains before the book was bound — a thoughtful practice, but by no means an industry standard and certainly not a requirement in Okes’s printing house or elsewhere. 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” (Vickers, bizarrely, counts six lines). 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).

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.

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. If Vickers’s story is right, the stationers learned and then forgot this lesson during the printing of King Lear. Okes is said to have cut 13 lines from the first sheet, and a further 12 from the second. He didn’t have his compositors set any verse as prose on the first sheet, although he seems to have grasped the potential use of this method by the time the second sheet was being printed, possibly saving up to 17 lines this way. It thus took Okes nine pages to think of the additional and far less invasive expedient of relining verse as prose. Having implemented this highly effective method with great success on the third sheet (where, according to Vickers’s tabulation, it saved 61 lines), Okes then more or less abandoned it; for the next three sheets, he cut 39 lines of text while saving only 21 by printing verse as prose. 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, as I have argued elsewhere, 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.

The problems do not end there. One might reasonably ask when Vickers imagines Okes realized that his original estimate was wide of the mark. Blayney has established that the title page was printed before the rest of the book. Accordingly, we might think that Okes’s decision to leave three pages of that sheet blank (the leaf preceding the title and the back of the title page itself) expressed an initial misplaced confidence that evaporated later in the process. But as Vickers’s own tabulation of the printer’s purported abridgments shows, the “cuts” begin almost immediately: on the second page of the text, eight lines that can be found in the Folio are absent. How could Okes possibly have known this early in the printing process that he had made a catastrophic mistake? Did he suddenly realize that the majority of King Lear was in verse, and would therefore take up more space than anticipated? Perhaps — but if so, why would he come to that realization during the setting of the first page, which is in prose? The supposed “cut” occurs almost as soon as the play switches into verse, after five lines. Okes would have to be a remarkably quick study, and a shockingly overzealous editor, to surmise the consequences of his mistake in that instant and jump to as drastic a measure as simply dropping eight full lines of verse.

As it turns out, the explanation Vickers offers is more surprising still. He first establishes his fundamental thesis that an adequately printed text of Shakespeare’s full manuscript would have taken an additional 11 pages (or just under 1.5 sheets, for the total of 12 sheets Vickers erroneously counts in the 1619 Second Quarto). In providing his apparently binding estimate to Nathaniel Butter, the printer therefore misjudged the actual length of the text by 14 percent. The Okes that initially looked at the manuscript and calculated the amount of paper required is, in Vickers’s story, a seriously incompetent craftsman. But as soon as the narrative shifts to an account of the supposed cuts to the text, we encounter a very different Okes: this one sat down, “reading through the text in advance and making whatever cuts he could.” So astute was this Okes in judging the relationship between manuscript and print that he focused the majority of his cuts on sequences no longer than five words in length — apparently now able to tell, without printing a single line, where such abridgments in the manuscript would result in a likely reduction of lines in print. Perhaps needless to say, this kind of fine-tuned intervention would require a vastly more complete understanding of the relationship between copy and printed page than the relatively straightforward operation of calculating the rough estimate that Okes allegedly got so catastrophically wrong. Nevertheless, Vickers now supposes the printer to be so acute a reader of Shakespearean drama that he could cut with a great deal of sensitivity and responsibility, having “establish[ed] a ranking order of semantic importance and dramatic function.”

If all of these narrative inconsistencies and leaps of logic were not enough to discredit Vickers’s theory, the very evidence he tries to marshal in its support only serves to undermine it further. For one thing, many of the “omissions” in the Quarto do not actually reduce the number of lines at all. Vickers admits this in a section titled, with spectacular sang-froid, “Unnecessary Cuts.” In many cases, if the Quarto text in fact represents alterations made with a view to saving space (rather than simply an earlier state of the play than the Folio), those changes bespeak yet another level of printerly ineptitude: not only could Okes not estimate properly, his compositors also could not tell if their rearranging of words in fact used up fewer lines or not. That they ever managed to produce a book at all must appear a small miracle in Vickers’s mind.

And there are still more problems. If Vickers is right and the Quarto really is an edited version of the same text that also underlies the Folio, then Okes did not just cut: he actively rewrote the text. Vickers’s story of space shortage has no way of accounting for this, so he simply leaves the issue unaddressed. Here is what might be the most glaring example: in the Quarto, Lear laments (sig. D2v):


In the Folio, that passage reads thus (sig. Qq5r):



Vickers describes Okes’s imagined intervention here as the deleting of a phrase “thought to be redundant”: “Ha? Let it be so.” But even a casual glance makes it obvious that such a characterization fails to account for the complex difference between the two texts. It is simply not true to say that Okes “cut” the Folio’s “Ha? Let it be so” — at most, Vickers could claim that he replaced it with a similar but slightly longer phrase, “yea, i’st come to this?” But why would a printer trying to reduce the text make such a change? Furthermore, why would he then also rewrite the next phrase, “I have another daughter,” as “yet have I left a daughter”? It seems obvious that this is an instance of revision of some kind — that the manuscripts underlying the two printed versions simply differed in this passage. Only if one is determined to rule out the very idea of revision as zealously as Vickers does it make sense to settle for the wholly inadequate description of the Quarto text as an “abridgement.” This is the opposite of following one’s evidence: Vickers ignores the evidence in order to pursue the tale he has already decided to tell.

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. It cannot explain many of the textual phenomena Vickers himself identifies in the Quarto. And it casts Okes as an extraordinarily strange figure: a printer who valued blank space more highly than his copy, and thought the publisher for whom he was producing the Quarto would find less fault with a book lacking over 100 lines than with a printer asking for an extra half-sheet of paper per volume.

In one corner, then: A total absence of textual evidence in the Quarto that there are lines missing, and a narrative rich in inconsistencies, contradictions, and logical gaps. In the other: An explanation of the differences between the Quarto and the Folio as the outcome of one or more revisions over many years. It is difficult to see how Brian Vickers’s account could come out on top in this contest.

IV. A Scholar Stumbles 

Vickers’s hypothesis is not simply poorly supported and logically incoherent, though. Its presentation is also marred by a string of serious technical errors that cast doubt on the author’s basic bibliographical competence. It might appear unkind to dwell on these, but since large parts of the book are taken up by strongly worded attacks on scholars whom Vickers accuses of relying on fanciful “literary-critical arguments” rather than sound “textual evidence,” a thorough critique of his own ability to discuss such evidence would seem to be in order.

Late in The One King Lear, Vickers sagely notes that “genuine textual criticism” is “a sober scholarly discipline concerned with establishing the process and results of textual transmission on the basis of material evidence.” It is certainly true that many textual scholars would aspire to that ideal, though few embody it as faithfully as three of the authors Vickers relies on most frequently: Peter Blayney, Adrian Weiss, and the late D. F. McKenzie. Vickers ignores most of what Weiss writes about seriatim setting (in an essay he nevertheless cites frequently), declares Blayney’s epochal 740-page work on the Lear Quarto “not entirely satisfactory,” and finds McKenzie disappointingly unaware of “the dynamics of typesetting.” Fighting words — and one might consequently expect an extraordinarily high level of bibliographical expertise from their author. It is therefore disappointing to discover that Vickers does not actually understand a good part of Blayney’s bibliographical argument: he puzzles why Blayney “should single out page C3v as the point at which seriatim setting certainly began,” when Blayney in fact shows that, after page C3v, there is unequivocal evidence that the Quarto was set seriatim (before that, no one can know, since the only reliable way to spot the difference is to trace recurring pieces of type; before they recur, the setting method is impossible to determine). Later in the book, Vickers’s misunderstanding has morphed into a complete misrepresentation of Blayney’s argument, and now allows Vickers to state that “the casting off was terminated” on the “final page of sheet C” — a claim for which there is absolutely no bibliographical evidence whatsoever.

Other similarly basic failures of comprehension abound. Just a few more examples: Vickers offers a stemma — a diagram that charts the textual genealogy of the Folio; but his stemma does not correspond to the argument about textual genealogy he makes in the accompanying text. He thinks that Andrew Wise printed the First Quarto of 1 Henry IV (1598) and “encountered the same overall length problem that Okes faced with King Lear” — but Wise, the publisher, did not own a printing press (the printer was Peter Short) and the 1598 Quarto is highly regarded for its quality; it shows very few of the kinds of issues evident in Okes’s volume. He calls setting seriatim a “casting-off method” — when “casting off” is neither a typesetting method nor something a compositor has to do when setting seriatim. He does not seem to know what a catchword is — he thinks it is the last word “in the last line of the page,” when in fact it is printed below the last line and repeats (or rather, anticipates) the first word on the next page.

And on and on. These are extremely technical blunders, it’s true. They may seem too insignificant to merit this amount of attention. But they point to a disturbing lack of bibliographical expertise in a book that repeatedly claims to make a case grounded in bibliographical detail in order to argue against a competing interpretation that Vickers repeatedly accuses of lacking scholarly rigor.

Just how unrigorous Vickers’s own work can get is perhaps best illustrated with one final example. Few skills are more fundamental to the discipline of textual studies than bibliographical description. It is one of the first things students interested in the field are taught. Any first-year PhD in the discipline should be able to tell at a glance how many sheets of paper a book was printed on when she learns that its signatures run from A to L: 11. Given the modern alphabet, we might expect the number to be 12, but early modern books did not normally have both I and J as signatures (or U and V). Vickers does not seem to know that, and consequently claims that the Second Quarto of King Lear, with signatures running from A to L, has 12 sheets. What is startling about that assertion: Vickers spends many a page discussing the differences between the two Quartos. He argues at great length that the extra paper the printers of the later Quarto had available allowed them to “undo Okes’s extreme crowding of the text on the page.” In fact, he claims that this was expressly the printers’ “goal” — a curious assertion from a scholar who elsewhere in the book castigates his academic opponents for inferring “intention from effect.” And yet he does not seem to have realized that the Second Quarto was not printed, as he implies, on 96 pages (as 12 sheets would have), but in fact on 88 — as compared to the 84 pages of Okes’s 10.5 sheets. Nor is this a mere slip-up: he repeatedly praises the Second Quarto’s spacious 12 sheets and even uses that figure as the proper amount of paper required for a faithful printing of Shakespeare’s ideal manuscript: it is the figure Okes ought to have picked for his estimate. Yet that number bears no relation to any actual text of King Lear; it is a figment of Vickers’s imagination.

More broadly, and just as problematically, Vickers frequently applies modern expectations to early modern printed artifacts and finds them wanting, although many of the phenomena he describes were perfectly common and entirely unremarkable at the time. His sole reference point appears to be Joseph Moxon’s 1683 treatise on printing; anytime Okes or another stationer deviates from the norms outlined in that (much later) work, Vickers charges them with faults, repeating Moxon’s term “botch” with tireless judgmental regularity. Instead of studying and comparing a wide range of books to develop a sense of what was “normal” — and just how loose and capacious that category was in Elizabethan and Jacobean printing — he simply judges Okes’s Jacobean work by Moxon’s Restoration aesthetic principles. By that standard, few of Okes’s contemporaries should ’scape whipping.

V. Whose Shakespeare?

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 one of Taylor’s group mates, 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.

Historians know more than historical subjects. Modern actors know more than early modern actors. Modern scholars know more than early modern printers, scribes, acting company members, or audiences. Those assumptions inform Vickers’s approach throughout the book, and they underpin his recurrent insistence on analytical clarity and certainty. He has little time or room for ambiguity, doubt, or mess.

Small wonder, then, that this book portrays Shakespeare as a paragon of the unequivocal. The central goal of his dramaturgy, says Vickers, was to “make sure that playgoers — and, later, readers — fully understand what the characters say and why they behave as they do.” In particular, “moral clarity” is a key characteristic of Shakespearean playwriting; Vickers considers it a mere “anachronistic modern” attitude to dislike the “explicit moral judgment” a play such as King Lear supposedly dispenses. It’s a single- rather than a myriad-minded Shakespeare that’s on offer here.

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: the author he describes sounds barely like Shakespeare and a lot like Ben Jonson. In any case, Vickers’s analysis is difficult to square with much of the critical literature produced since the days of the New Critics. Has anyone previously singled out Shakespeare for writing exceptionally easy-to-understand dialogue, designed to ensure everyone would understand everything “fully”? How can one read a play like The Winter’s Tale or Othello and cling to that view — or the view that clarity of motive was central to Shakespeare’s dramaturgy? How can one consider plays such as The Merchant of Venice or Coriolanus or Measure for Measure and think “explicit moral judgment” was Shakespeare’s obvious goal? How read Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night and think that all characters’ actions always have to be perfectly comprehensible? How, for that matter, can one feel such certainty about King Lear?

I do not know — but Brian Vickers evidently does. Thus the title of his book, and its project, are not ultimately grounded in a bibliographical claim. The One King Lear he wants to reveal to us is not primarily a lost-but-recoverable manuscript, it is an interpretation: a reading of Shakespeare’s play so unambiguous, so convinced of its own unassailable correctness, so certain of its perfect correspondence to a perfectly realized text, that the existence of a similarly closed-off, unimpeachably clear, perfectly finished and whole manuscript simply becomes a necessity. King Lear has one meaning, always has had one meaning, and must, therefore, have only one text.

It is a strange interpretative kingdom, this: so narrow, so constricted, so sure of itself, so uninviting. But Brian Vickers is more than welcome to live in it. I just wish he would not insist quite so aggressively that the rest of us must join him there, or else.


Holger S. Syme is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.


[1] The “outer” forme contains pages 1, 4, 5, and 8; the “inner,” 2, 3, 6, and 7, though no early modern stationer would have expressed this in terms of modern page counts.
[2] Vickers makes it sound as if two of the Cambridge Jonson editors, Suzanne Gossett and John Creaser, shared his surprise to find play texts set seriatim, but neither of them expresses any sense that this is an unusual feature in the essays Vickers cites.

LARB Contributor

Holger Schott Syme is associate professor of English and Theatre at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Theatre and Testimony in Shakespeare’s England: A Culture of Mediation (2012), and has edited Edward III and The Book of Sir Thomas More for the third edition of the Norton Shakespeare, for which he also wrote the general theater-historical introduction. He blogs at


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