chapter  9
20 Pages

The True Chronicle History of King Lear

The title page of the 1608 Quarto of The True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Lear and his Three Daughters not only gives the name of the playwright in unusually large type but also announces a double provenance for the play itself; it was acted before the King at Whitehall on St Stephen's night (26 December), by 'His Majesty's servants playing usually at the Globe on the Bankside'. Fascinating though it is to speculate on the effect of this play at a court performance, and common though it is to see it as the work of a famous playwright, our concern here is with King Lear as a play for the Globe audience. It may not have been so popular as the other three plays we have looked at, but there is no reason to believe it was an outright failure. A second quarto was printed eleven years earlier, substantially the same as the first, and the play appeared again in the 1623 Folio edition of the author's collected works. The Folio version represents a substantial revision, possibly carried out by the author himself; this suggests that the play had, or was intended to have, a continuing life in the repertoire. On the other hand, a comparative lack of contemporary references suggests that it did not have the impact of, say, Richard III or Hamlet, and the printing history does not indicate anything like the wild (and admittedly unusual) success of If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody. In this chapter we shall look at the grounds of the play's appeal to its first audience, and at the reasons why this appeal may finally have been limited. The discussion will be based on the Quarto version, with occasional excursions into the Folio. The Quarto, being somewhat more discursive and moralizing than the Folio, is closer to the play's roots in popular dramaturgy; the revision makes the play more elliptical and sophisticated. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the Quarto text, like that of Part One of If You Know Not Me, is based on a shorthand transcription of the play in performance, giving it at some points the special value of an eyewitness account. 1

King Lear is part of a Globe tradition of plays about family troubles: The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, A Yorkshire Tragedy and The London Prodigal are other examples. But while each of these centres on the destruc-

tive behaviour of a relatively young husband (who in two of the three cases is also a father) King Lear concerns itself with the problem of children dealing with aged parents. It was unusual in this society for grown children to live with their parents - unusual, and discouraged because of the inevitable tensions built into this situation.2 Respect for one's parents was a deeply ingrained value; it surfaces in popular culture in ballads of ungrateful children punished by the wrath of God.3 When elderly parents become difficult, that respect would have made the situation doubly painful. As we shall see, some of the play's theatrical power comes from its use, and abuse, of the gestures that define personal and family relations.4 It is also a play of state. After the low-key opening, in which Kent, Gloucester and Edmund talk a little of state and much more about Gloucester's sons, the first entrance of Lear and his court is firmly hierarchical: 5 'Sound a sennet. ... Enter one bearing a coronet, then King Lear, then the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, next Gonoril, Regan, Cordelia, with followers' (i.33SD). First comes the symbol of power, as though to imply that there is a principle of authority that transcends the individual person of the King; then the King; then the royal Dukes, with the women after them, grouped for this occasion not as their husbands' wives but as Lear's daughters - this being the relation that matters most to Lear and goes on mattering most throughout the play. But while in the last scene of If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody, Part One, the symbols of power are bestowed and exchanged in a way that consolidates both the monarch's authority and her reciprocal relations with her people, here the symbols are used to express the undoing of the state: the map is divided, the coronet is parted. At the centre of the stage, presumably, is an imposing chair of state - like the one Beningfield treats disrespectfully in If You Know Not Me - perhaps mounted on a dais, with a canopy over it (see Plate 6). It could have been flown in, assuming the Globe had descent machinery,6 either at the start of the play or just before Lear's entrance. It would have to be flown out later - at Lear's exit, or at the point where Gonoril and Regan are left alone, or at the very end of the scene, just before Edmund appears for his first soliloquy. At any of these points, the departure of the chair of state would be effective punctuation for the play's depiction of social and family order crumbling.