Its been argued that the primary difference between the quarto and the folio versions of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is the length and the attribution of dramatic action to different characters. In this sense, it can be fitfully said that the folio is viewed as an editorial improvement to a narrative in order to befit it more satisfactorily to the framework of a stageplay, rather than a readable text. There are many lines in the quarto that may have been removed because they were simply seen as superfluous or not necessary for the edification of an audience during a viewing. An example of this might be an entire scene in which Kent is discussing the states of mind of both King Lear and Cordelia to a throwaway character.
In the folio version of the play, this scene was deemed completely redundant, as Lear’s and Cordelia’s dwindling state of minds are already obviously known to any audience watching the play. The reason for this removal is clear: though in the text, it may be less noticeable that Lear and Cordelia are spiraling downward, in terms of a visual representation within the play, it is undeniable. For this reason, the scene is only beneficial for someone reading rather than watching. Hene, the folio version simply omitted the scene to benefit the flow and progression of the work in a stageplay form.
One of the most interesting scenes to analyze and witness these differences in the play is the final scene that involves King Lear’s death. In this scene, there are several notable distinctions from the quarto and the folio in terms of Lear’s final words of dialogue. The quarto version actually has King Lear saying less before he dies. He penultimate final line is “And thou no breath at all? O, thou wilt come no more, Never, never, never. Pray you, undo this button. Thank you sir.” In the folio version, however, Lear says the word “Never” two more times. It’s possible this was a stylistic choice was made so that Shakespeare could experiment more with the power of the trochee and so that the actor playing a dying Lear could strain the desperation of the dying march-like crescendo quality of these words. Three “nevers” would not work as well as five “nevers” in this case. Also unlike in the quarto version, Lear’s final words are not “Break heart, I prithee break” but rather, “Do you see this? Look on her! Look, her lips. Look there, look there.”
Kent is actually given the line “Break heart, I prithee break.” This difference is extremely significant because it seems to be characterizing Kent as also having reached a point of despair through some form of empathy, one that suggests Kent would rather have his heart broken then to continue grieving himself. The folio version, unlike the quatro, also leads King Lear to die with a grain of hope, while the quatro has him pass in the highest realm of despair and fatality. Lear’s last lines indicate that he is having some form of a delusion, witnessing Cordelia before him, and referring to her lips in his vision, lending him some mild form of redemptive joy before his passing.
The question here is one of taste – is it more affective in a narrative sense to have King Lear die with the knowledge of his brief pounding down on him until his last breath, or is there something more gentle and unnerving about having him hallucinate that his beloved Cordelia is still alive before him? Also, is it more fitful for King Lear to have the line about wishing his heart to finally break, or for it to be delivered by Kent? In my personal opinion, the hallucination should stay, but should be followed AFTER King Lear delivers the line “Break heart, I prithee beak.” Though having Kent say this line may make sense in terms of his character arc, it feels way more narratively forced that way. Having King Lear utter it, but then, witness the hallucination is far more effective because it implies that after a heart has reached its very end, there is a light of hope at the end, a glimmer of relief for a tortured and grieving soul.
Translation of Final Lines Using Modern English:
KING LEAR: The misery seems to never end. And why should it? A man of my caliber doesn’t deserve the redemptive qualities of a leisurely passing. The pain will go on, so I pray, the one time I do pray, that God takes me now… Wait. What is that? Look. Cordelia. Look at her there. Her beautiful lips. Look!
EDGAR: He’s unconscious.
KENT: No, he’s dead, and so am I with him.
EDGAR: Lord, please don’t die.
KENT: His death is the closest thing he’ll ever achieve to peace. Let him go, and perhaps I will soon follow.
EDGAR: King Lear is dead!
KENT: His life was usurped of him as the throne.