Did Shakespeare rewrite 'King Lear'?; Reexamining the earliest surviving versions, a bevy of scholars say 'yes'; The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, edited by Gary Taylor and Michael Warren. New York: Oxford University Press. 506 pp. $67.

The ''King Lear'' that we read and watch may not be the ''King Lear'' Shakespeare wrote. It's a ''Lear'' his many editors wish he had written, a quilt of ''good'' lines taken from the first two distinctly different versions of the play, the 1608 Quarto and the 1623 Folio editions.

In fact, argues ''The Division of the Kingdoms,'' Shakespeare revised ''Lear'' about six years after its first production. Just as we recognize two ''Preludes'' (Wordsworth) and two ''Hyperions'' (Keats), so must we admit two ''Lears.''

Traditionally, Shakespeare's editors have chosen to accept the Folio edition as the correct one, dismissing the Quarto as a corrupt reconstruction based on an actor's memory of the manuscript. Personal taste and editorial tradition alone justify this decision; no one can prove the Folio is more accurate. To make matters worse, editors from the time of Pope's edition (1725) have reinserted most or all of the 300 Quarto lines missing from the Folio (not wanting to waste good poetry, whatever the dramatic consequences), thereby recognizing the Quarto's authority, which in every other case they deny. So, the text we read today is at best an approximation of the manuscript. At worst it's a travesty of it.

The 11 Shakespearean scholars whose essays make up this volume maintain that the Quarto edition is Shakespeare's first version of ''King Lear,'' and the cuts , additions, and rewordings in the Folio are improvements Shakespeare himself made after observing the play in production.

Roger Warren argues that Shakespeare cut the mock trial from Act III, Scene 6 , as well as Edgar's closing soliloquy (''Who alone suffers suffers most i' th' mind . . .''), to give the middle of the play more dramatic urgency. The theme of justice receives more adequate treatment in Act IV, Scene 6 anyway (''see how yond justice rails upon yond simple thief . . .''), and the ''mad'' dialogue of Edgar and Lear, though wonderful reading, is often confusing on stage, especially to an audience unfamiliar with the play.

There's a similar method in other cuts, say Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Gloucester's kindly servants relieve the awful blinding scene, just as the Gentleman's poetry about Cordelia (''There she shook/ The holy water from her heavenly eyes . . .'') softens the terror of Lear's madness, but structurally both scenes are incidental. Shakespeare removed moralism like this from the second version (making the middle of the play much darker), and brought the blind Gloucester and mad Lear into sharper juxtaposition, Wells and Taylor argue. Shakespeare's editors, in restoring these passages, have thwarted his intentions.

Several scholars have written essays on character revisions in the Folio. The biggest change is Kent, whose role, especially in the later acts, is drastically reduced in the second version. The reason, says Michael Warren, is that Kent has no plot function after Lear loses his wits; Lear is beyond Kent's advice. In the Quarto he becomes a choric figure. The more concentrated Folio omits the choric passages, all but eliminating Kent from the last two acts, until he returns in the final scene.

Albany is also diminished in the Folio, while Edgar is augmented. Goneril is less harsh, Cordelia sterner. The Fool is more worldly. Even Lear himself is changed. His final lines in the Quarto are ''O,o,o,o'' followed by ''Break heart , I prithee break.'' In the Folio he says, ''Look her lips/ Look there, look there,'' and dies. The ''Break heart . . . '' line is given to Kent.

It's an important discrepancy. Folio Lear dies seeing; Quarto Lear dies howling and heartbroken. Gary Taylor suggests that Shakespeare rewrote the play around 1610, while working on his rebirth plays - ''Pericles'' and ''The Winter's Tale.'' His feeling about death had grown less tragic. Pericles recovers his daughter, Leontes his wife. Shakespeare added a little of this new optimism to Lear's final lines.

Such fascinating theories as this one remain to be proved. But for the common reader, the scholar's verdict isn't the point. It's hard to get a fresh perspective on one of the best-known plays in the world. This book gives you one.

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