I’ve spent a good deal of time and energy writing about why Brian Vickers’s The One King Lear is such a terribly misguided book — both in an almost endless string of tweets and in a forthcoming long-form essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. One of the things that I find particularly disappointing about the book is how much of a missed opportunity it is: the 1608 Quarto of King Lear is an exceptionally interesting artefact. It raises intriguing questions about what printers knew and did not know about the texts they were turning into books, and is ripe for reinterpretation. My review wasn’t the place to begin that effort, and I haven’t really had time to work out a full-scale reading either; instead, I want to offer here a brief illustrations of what the Quarto might reveal if looked at without Vickersian blinders.

Vickers’s account of the 1608 volume focuses almost exclusively on the notion that its peculiarities can be explained as efforts to save space — to use less paper. But it’s far from clear to me that this is the best explanation. Nor am I convinced that the Quarto supports the general idea that the printer, Nicholas Okes, was willing to alter, refashion, and cut Shakespeare’s text however he had to in order to fit it into 10 sheets of paper. Take the frequent setting of verse as prose: was Okes really just trying to save space? He may have been – and it was certainly a method used by other compositors when coming up against the hard page breaks created by the setting-by-formes method. But it was just as common in manuscript, for less readily apparent reasons.

Line breaks in verse were never quite as clearly marked in early modern texts as they are in their modern editions. Very often, authors and scribes did not capitalize the first word in a new line, thus blurring the distinction between verse and prose; less frequently, they simply ignored line breaks altogether and wrote something that looks like prose but follows metrical and syntactical patterns that identify it as verse. For Vickers, such a practice is tantamount to aesthetic vandalism: he describes it as “destroying the true lineation” (46). How does he feel about playwrights doing the same thing to their verse? More to the point, since he helpfully shares the majority view that “Hand D” in the manuscript play of Sir Thomas More is Shakespeare’s, how does he feel about Shakespeare doing the same thing?

That is the end of one of More’s speeches at the bottom of a page in Shakespeare’s hand. Four lines of correctly lined verse are followed by two that run together four separate verse lines – in this case, probably, to fit the entire speech on the page. Shakespeare does not mark where the breaks “should” fall. He seems unconcerned about “destroying” his scene’s “true lineation.”

If verse can look like prose in Shakespeare’s own holograph, the reverse is also true. In this scene, all the “common” characters speak in prose. Or so we think. But how do we know that the first two one-line speeches in the image are prose? Visually, they are indistinguishable from More’s blank verse lines. The first, Doll’s, speech has ten syllables. A solid knowledge of prosody suggests that the second speech is probably in prose – but Doll’s remains ambiguous. But would Okes and his compositors have understood prosody?

If the More manuscript is representative, Shakespeare wrote his verse fairly consistently with the line breaks falling where we might expect them – though when he added phrases, that changed quickly. It is therefore somewhat unlikely that the pages in Lear where Okes set whole verse speeches as prose (such as Edmund’s first soliloquy) are examples of a printer simply following what he found in his copy. But does that mean they are necessarily instances of space-saving efforts? Edmund’s soliloquy is preceded and followed by prose scenes – is it not just as likely that Okes’s compositor, an inexperienced apprentice who had never set from a play manuscript before, got confused and was unsure whether to ignore or respect the fact that the author hadn’t run every line to the right margin? Certainly, the Lear Quarto seems to contain comparable examples of confusion going the other way – when a prose passage surrounded by verse gets mistakenly printed as verse and consequently takes up more space than necessary. One case in point is Gloucester’s long speech in what is Act 3 Scene 3 in modern editions, a prose passage the Quarto prints as 13 verse lines (modern editors continue to struggle with the distinction between verse and prose in this scene, though Gloucester’s speech is clearly prose). If we assume that Okes and his compositors had a clear understanding of the difference between verse and prose, such instances are difficult to reconcile with the notion that they were trying to set the text in as economically a fashion as possible.

A final, particularly striking example: the Fool’s short rhymed lines of doggerel, routinely printed as prose in the Quarto. For Vickers, these are clear and unequivocal instances of space-saving tactics (165-66). However, if we turn to the More manuscript again, we find very similar doggerel passages there, spoken by that play’s Clown and written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Heywood. Every single one of them is written as prose – even though it is obvious that the Clown is speaking in short rhymed verse. Was Heywood, too, trying to preserve paper? Possibly, yes. Or he did not think it necessary to waste space giving a visual form to an obvious textual phenomenon. Or perhaps he thought of verse (or this kind of verse) as an aural phenomenon and did not consider its textual form of paramount importance.

It seems to me that there is an alternative explanation for the textual problems of the 1608 Quarto – the frequent misprinting of verse as prose, or prose as verse, the mislineations, and the occasional misplaced stage directions. Saving paper may have been part of what Okes’s compositors were trying to do, but they may also have been struggling to follow as faithfully as they could a manuscript of which they could not always make sense. They knew that it contained both verse and prose, and that those were governed by more or less stable visual regimes. But they frequently mistook one for the other; and when in doubt, they followed their copy. Thus, when Gloucester’s first line in 3.3 ran long and exceeded the normal length of a verse line, they turned its last two words (“the Dukes”) up into the preceding line – not to save space, but because they assumed this was verse, and did their best to maintain the integrity of the line (sig. G1r):

Similar errors occur throughout the volume: line endings turned into the previous or following line to preserve their wholeness, even in cases where the line in question is not actually verse – which makes no sense, as prose does not have “lines” that need preserving, unless the compositors were under the mistaken impression that they were setting verse. Here is an example to illustrate what I mean (sig. I3v):

On this page, the compositor makes a clear distinction between what he (erroneously) thinks is verse, Lear’s first short speech, which he turns under to avoid disrupting the line; and what he (correctly) thinks is prose, Lear’s second speech. There are no “lines” in that speech, only sentences: and sentences have no real typographical or visual limits. They just flow on until they reach a stop. However, if it were not for the turn-under, Lear’s first speech would be indistinguishable from prose. It is prose pressed into a line, made to follow the typographical logic of verse.

What such examples suggest is that the distinction between prose and verse was a good deal blurrier, more flexible, and more unpredictable in Shakespeare’s time than in the conventions of his modern editors. (This is not a new idea, but one well established in the rich scholarship on such topics that Vickers ignores.) An analogous flexibility characterized other now more rule-governed systems, such as orthography and the conventions of print – two other areas in which Vickers frequently brings an anachronistic expectation of regularity to bear on texts that are characterized primarily by irregularity and flux.

That very unpredictability is why textual scholars usually adopt a tentative tone when discussing early modern books. Not so Vickers. Not only does he confidently measure Okes’s mise-en-page against modern standards, and finds his treatment of Shakespeare’s verse wanting; he also is dismayed that contemporary Shakespeareans have been so slow to grasp the consequences. “The distinction between prose and verse had a real meaning in Elizabethan drama” (86), he informs us – and spends half a dozen pages explicating that meaning in terms not noteworthy for their sophistication (“foreigners, dialect speakers, drunkards” speak prose, Vickers writes [87]). Without citing actual evidence, he asserts that manuscripts clearly distinguished between verse and prose (they did not, as we have seen). In fact, the only reason scholars do not make more of this distinction now is their total ignorance of such basic literary building blocks: “A full realization of the extent to which Okes muddled the two was hindered for many years by the fact that some modern Shakespearians were unaware of these artistic conventions” (91).

If Brian Vickers had not come to the rescue, I suppose the illiterate world of Shakespeare studies would have been forced to continue to rely on the services of such cutting-edge critical resources as Shmoop. However, when approached with a more fully historicized sense of how printed texts represented different modes of literary language, the 1608 Quarto poses challenges and questions that thankfully go somewhat beyond a Shakespeare-for-Dummies-style website – and beyond Vickers’s anachronistic interpretative lens as well.


Vickers, Brian. The One King Lear. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

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