As unstable as the King but never daft (?): Texts and variant readings of 'King Lear'

Richard Madelaine


‘Variant readings’ is basically an editorial term that acknowledges the existence of two or more viable readings of a word in the text, but I am applying this term more broadly to ways of reading the text as a whole, or parts of it. Sometimes, editorially, one or more of the variant readings seem to be at variance with what we like to call ‘common sense’ (a point of view that an individual does not feel the need to justify), and the same is sometimes said of certain readings of the play. Why, then, should we investigate variant readings? Firstly, for the kind of enrichment that comes from open-mindedness; secondly, because of changed conceptions of what reading and criticism are; and thirdly, because King Lear is a performance text: written to be performed, by an author who worked in the public entertainment industry and who never (unlike Ben Jonson) showed any sign of regarding his plays, as opposed to his poems, as literary texts. Because it is a performance text, it has a different (or additional) kind of textual instability, which we ignore at our peril.

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