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Dividing the Kingdoms: Interdisciplinary Methods for Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates: Text

Modules developed for The Folger Shakespeare Library's "Teaching Shakespeare to Undergraduates" grant

Overview: Text

This module introduces undergraduate students to the ways that textual criticism can shed new light on King Lear.  The three activities and two assignments should allow students to explore textual variants in different editions of the play, to understand how editorial choices shape the play, and to create their own version of Lear by becoming editors themselves.  After mastering these skills, students can use the service learning exercise in this module to familiarize middle or high schoolers with basic aspects of these early printed texts.

The goal of this module is to show students that there is no one, single version of Lear, but rather two different early editions: the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 First Folio (the latter represented in this module by the 1685 Fourth Folio).  Comparing these early printings allows students to grasp the instability of print while also offering new possibilities for understanding characterization, plot, and theme in Lear.  By becoming editors themselves, students will learn firsthand that every edition of Lear is really an interpretation of the play.

It will be very useful for students to have some basic terminology about early modern print: 

  • Most plays were printed in the quarto format, a medium-sized book of about 12 inches maximum in height.  Relatively inexpensive to produce, the quarto was used for popular texts that were viewed as ephemeral. 
  • In contrast, the folio format was reserved for publications with cultural importance, like the King James Bible.  The folio was the largest possible format for a printed book, ranging from 12 to 50 inches in height.  Shakespeare’s First Folio is on the smaller side, at about 13 inches in height.

Students may also find it helpful to know about the critical debates about the origin of the differences between the Quarto and Folio:

  • Some scholars have proposed that the 1608 Quarto is a bad Quarto, or a seriously defective copy of the play that does not reflect Shakespeare’s completed work.  Critics have argued that the Quarto text was copied in shorthand during a live performance, or that it is a memorial reconstruction based on the memory of one of the players.  This theory has now largely been discredited.
  • The revision hypothesis dominated views of Lear until very recently and continues to be influential.  According to this theory, Shakespeare wrote the Quarto first, and then he and/or his company revised that version to create the Folio text.
  • In recent years, scholars have advanced a new theory, that there is one Lear, which is the basis for both the Quarto and the Folio (see Brian Vickers, The One King Lear, 2016).  Cuts made by the original printer (who miscalculated the amount of paper needed to print the play) and the acting company (who needed to streamline the play for performance) resulted in apparently different texts.
  • Most modern publications of Lear are conflated editions, combining material from the Quarto and Folio to present the fullest possible version of the play.  Some editors who support the revision hypothesis have published side-by-side versions of the Quarto and Folio.

As a supplement to this module, we have digitized the Quarto and Fourth Folio (see Digital Texts).  Students can use the Mirador reader for side-by-side comparison of these editions.

Assignments (out of class)

Assignments (service learning)

King Lear Quarto (1608)

William Shakespeare. M. William Shak-speare: his true chronicle historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three daughters. With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam. London, 1608. LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection. Digital Image File Name: 782. The Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection.


About the Scholar


Jaime Goodrich
Associate Professor
Room 9203.1
5057 Woodward
Detroit, MI  48202

Jaime Goodrich is the coordinator of Dividing the Kingdoms and an Associate Professor of English at Wayne State University.  She has published over a dozen articles and book chapters on women writers, religious literature, and humanism in early modern England.  Her monograph Faithful Translators: Authorship, Gender, and Religion in Early Modern England (Northwestern University Press, 2014) examines the social and political functions of women’s devotional translations.  She is currently editing texts written by and about early modern English nuns in Benedictine and Poor Clare convents, and she is also researching a book on textual production and communal identity in English Benedictine convents on the Continent.