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'Conflation' fights back
on 31 August 2009
Although RA Foakes' Arden³ edition appeared some years after those of Wells & Taylor (Complete Oxford) and Jay L Halio (Cambridge) it did not follow their precedent of issuing separate texts based on Quarto and Folio originals. These early texts (Q 1608 and F 1623 respectively) occasionally offer quite different versions of the play and reconciling them to form a single, coherent whole is a task that is, arguably, less elegant than the dual edition solution. By comparison, Arden's text looks cumbersome, with numerous Q and F superscripts surrounding passages found exclusively in one or other source.
Foakes is well aware that his single, 'conflated' text isn't as fashionable as those of the 'revisionists' mentioned above, who believe that the Folio text of Lear represents Shakespeare's revised and final draft, and that modern editors should not pick and mix between Q and F but respect the integrity of the two early sources. While seemingly reactionary, Foakes is in fact countering the new orthodoxy of Halio et al. In his view, their 'dogmatic and purist stance ... abandons the idea of King Lear as a single work of which we have two versions.' He is cautious and level-headed in his approach, acknowledging the limitations of scholarly speculation. And in presenting both Q and F variants he allows the reader to make up his/her own mind.
Aside from this central controversy, the Arden³ Lear has much to offer. Foakes reminds us of some key differences between the Jacobean world and our own: the original audience, he says, would have tuned in much more readily than us to puns and linguistic innovation; grasped the symbolic difference between crown and coronet; fully understood the distinctions of 'thou' and 'thee'; and recognised the constitutional impossibility of a monarch giving away his kingdom as though it were in his personal gift. The Introduction also presents illuminating discussions on loyalty and disobedience (in which Oswald could conceivably be seen as an ideal servant and Kent a bad one), on the problem of illusion in Gloucester's attempted suicide (IV.6) and on the influence of writers such as Harsnett, Erasmus and Montaine. Plentiful examples of dramatic practice from the play's long stage history are skilfully integrated into these discussions, while its equally rich critical history - especially that of the C20 - is helpfully evaluated. The conclusion is that there can be no return to Christian redemptionist optimism on the one hand or to totally nihilistic interpretations on the other. A recognition of the play's complexity, paradoxes and contradictions have led many to feel, in the words of Richard Fly, 'a deep distrust of all attempts at closure' in King Lear.
Ultimately, therefore, this Arden³ is not as radical as rival editions. But it presents an honest, balanced and democratic version of the play in which judgements are occasionally forcefully expressed and occasionally left unresolved. It is comprehensive, authoritative and thought-provoking and should be of value to any serious student.