We are so used to today’s definitive texts that it is easy to forget how elusive in the early modern period a definitive text can be. Indeed, literary experts still argue about whether early volumes of Shakespeare are the same play or different versions. It’s something that a trip to the University of London’s Senate House Library (SHL) can illuminate as it celebrates the 400th anniversary of one of its prized possessions – the second quarto of King Lear.

Below, Dr Karen Attar, SHL’s curator of rare books and university art, provides a compelling look at the story behind the ‘Q2’ publication and how the library came to own a copy, one of three early Shakespeare quartos.

Lear, more than any other Shakespeare quarto, fascinates scholars for the connection between the quarto and folio texts. (See for example, The One King Lear by Professor Sir Brian Vickers, distinguished senior fellow at the School of Advanced Study and senior research fellow at the Institute of English Studies). Differences between the two, most saliently some 285 lines present in the quartos but not the folio and some 115 lines to be found in the folio but not the quartos, have been discussed widely, alongside whether the quarto and the folio versions should be seen as a single play or two separate ones.

Insignificant as the second edition of any book regarded as essentially a reprint of its predecessor might seem, the appearance of this book is important enough to constitute inclusion in Annals of English Literature 1475–1925 (1935). The first edition of King Lear, printed rather badly by Nicholas Okes for Nathaniel Butter (‘Q1’), appeared in 1608. The second quarto (‘Q2’) is less cramped. Using an extra half-sheet and a page that was blank in the 1608 publication, it covers 85 pages rather than the 79 of its predecessor. Q2 makes some textual changes, introducing both corrections and errors.

Described erroneously on the title page as printed for Nathaniel Butter in 1608, it was actually one of ten ‘Pavier quartos’, namely plays by or attributed to William Shakespeare printed in quarto format by William Jaggard for the bookseller Thomas Pavier in 1619, in the first attempt to produce a collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Traditionally it is thought that Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men, may have objected to Pavier’s intentions.

When the Lord Chamberlain intervened to the Stationers’ Company on their behalf to prevent publication of plays to which the King’s Men held rights, Pavier circumvented the order to desist by assigning false dates to the quartos so that he could pass them off as remainders. Conversely, in 2008, Cyndia Susan Clegg, pointed out that Pavier knew and had collaborated with Butter, who owned the rights to King Lear, and quite probably printed the text with Butter’s permission. She further postulates that Butter could have insisted on the appearance of the date 1608 in the imprint as a warning to the King’s Men that they would need his agreement to print the play in their bruited First Folio.

The 1619 quarto is noteworthy for a unique half-line before IV.v.189, but more especially for its relationship to the First Folio. The current consensus, based on spellings, variants, punctuation, and discrepancies between the quartos, is that the 1619 quarto was used directly for the folio text, whether the folio composers used an annotated copy of the second quarto as their base text, along with a manuscript, or whether they merely referred constantly to it for punctuation.

The Senate House Library copy of the 1619 quarto is one of three early Shakespeare quartos to have entered the University of London as part of the collection of English literature amassed by Sir Louis Sterling. It is through him that the book came into public attention.

Absent from Bartlett and Pollard’s first census of Shakespeare quartos, it appears in their revised census of 1939. Henrietta Bartlett clearly had not seen it when she wrote to Sterling about the copy, which she thought must be ‘the Holgate – J T Adams? – Harris copy’. ‘Holgate’ refers to one William Holgate, an employee of the General Post Office, whose library included a large number of Renaissance plays.

Lear is one of 12 Shakespeare quartos in the sale, if one includes spurious texts. By this time, it had already acquired its present binding of red morocco and gilt leaves, and the imprint had been repaired. The bookseller Pickering purchased the copy for £6.15s.0d.

The link between the book and J T Adams is evident from Holgate’s bookplate, no longer present. Adams had been a resident of Smithfield, Sheffield. His library, sold by Sotheby’s in December 1931, was advertised by the auctioneer as: ‘principally of important books in English and French literature, and of fine illuminated manuscripts … it comprises two Caxtons … an important Shakespeare Collection, including an unusually good first folio … an extremely fine second folio .. Poems, 1640 … and twenty quartos’. The description of Lear (lot 232) includes: ‘the date and one word of the imprint defective and restored in facsimile, a tiny hole through first few leaves, otherwise a good copy’. Harris bought it for £55.

The book next appeared on the market in April 1937. Sterling purchased it in June that year from his standard West End booksellers, Lionel & Philip Robinson, for £195 (about £9,900 in today’s terms). The copy was highlighted in a description of Sterling’s library in the Times Literary Supplement of 4 February 1939, and again in a review upon the publication of the printed catalogue of Sterling’s library in 1954. Sir Norman Birkett, Chairman of the Court, mentioned King Lear, alongside the other quartos in Sterling’s library, as a particular treasure in the speech at the official opening of the Sterling Library in 1956.

In 1958, the then librarian of the University of London, J H P Pafford, examined the book. He wrote to the booksellers that neither he nor any of his staff could detect the facsimile noted in auction catalogues and the bibliography: ‘The chain lines on the paper seem to be perfectly regular and the title page to be intact.’ (UoL archive, UL/4/18/66/1). Philip Robinson replied promptly: ‘Since the reorganisation of my firm I do not have our records by me, but my recollection is that this item was repaired as stated and I would not be surprised it was almost miraculously well done!’ Discerning the repair continues to engage scholars today.

Dr Karen Attar is the curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Image: © Lilli Walsh