Tracing Deformity in Shakespeare 3.0: King Lear

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This series focuses on the deformities found in some of Shakespeare’s plays and we examine the possibility that Shakespeare makes these deformities ambiguous in order to complicate what it actually means to be deformed. The deformities we discuss in this series range from physical and mental deformities to deformities of language. It is recommended that readers have read or have a grasp of the specific play before reading this analytical series. Direct quotes of the text come from the Second Edition of The Norton Shakespeare, unless otherwise noted.

1a. n. The quality or condition of being marred or disfigured in appearance; disfigurement; unsightliness, ugliness.
4a. figurative. Moral disfigurement, ugliness, or crookedness.
5. Misused for deformity, n., difference or diversity of form; want of uniformity or conformity.



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King Lear, growing old and too tired to reign, decides to divide his realm amongst his three daughters, leaving the largest share to the one who loves him the most. His two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, foolish and deceitful children, are rewarded for their insincere flattery. His youngest daughter, Cordelia, however, speaks honestly and truthfully, which enrages the old king. He disinherits Cordelia, and then drives himself to madness, left to wander the heath with only his Fool, his servant Caius, and the madman Tom O’Bedlam for company. Once reunited with Cordelia, Lear is too late repents his rashness, and must face the tragic consequences of his choices. — GOODREADS


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In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Albany compares Goneril’s mind to that of the devil’s. The Norton Shakespeare contains the contemporary lines which Albany speaks:

See thyself, devil!
Proper deformity shows not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.
The Norton Shakespeare, 4.2.60-63

However, none of the earlier editions have this exact same punctuation, word choice, and spelling. These differences provide evidence for the fluctuation of the English language over time—such differences could also function as deformities that persist today due to the fluidity of language.

Some productions’ interpretations of this verse include Albany holding a mirror to Goneril’s face so she can ‘see herself’ as the devil which she has become. In these productions, Albany is attempting to show Goneril her inner deformity, regardless of her exterior appearance. If Goneril did not have the appearance of a virtuous woman, Albany would treat her as the devil should be treated. Albany is not only comparing Goneril’s mind to that of the devil, but he hurls the insult that she is the devil incarnate—therefore, she is deformed. This is similar to how Othello also views Iago as the incarnate devil in OTHELLO

Depending on which edition of King Lear one reads, the interpretations of word choice, spelling, and punctuation vary. However, if one is watching the play, then differences in word choice are the most noticeable, as opposed to the differences in capitalization and punctuation apparent when reading. For example, in four different editions of King Lear, from 1623-1733, this specific verse is never the same. The verse in the First Quarto (1608) and a seventeenth century edition (1655) have many similarities, but are different in the First Folio (1623) and an eighteenth century edition (1733). This is significant because the First Quarto is more similar to the later seventeenth century edition than the First Folio, even though the seventeenth century edition was first published after the First Folio. This shows a lapse in time where the interpretations of Shakespeare’s words, and the English language in general, were fluid—which could also be viewed as a deformity of language. 

Here, the “deformity of language” refers to how the language in this verse differs from that of modern-day interpretations. Most specifically, because language was in flux during Shakespeare’s time, his words have been deformed and reformed over time. Since there was not a ‘standard’ way of using language during Shakespeare’s time and the publication years, Shakespeare’s language had nothing to deform from. However, modern-day language could be viewed as deformed because it has drifted away from the way it was used in Shakespeare’s time. In this way, every reformation of Shakespeare’s language for modern contexts could function as a deformity of language. 

The representation of this verse in the First Quarto and a seventeenth century edition are similar, where the verse appears as two lines on single column pages on the bottom half of the page: 

Alb. See thy felfe deuill, proper deformity fhewes not in the

fiend, fo horrid as in woman.

Alb. See thy felfe divell, proper deformity feemes not in the

fiend, fo horrid as in women.

The major difference between the second line in both editions is that the First Quarto uses the word “woman” as singular—referring to Goneril—and in the seventeenth century edition, it is plural—“women.” The implication that this difference has on an audience or readers is that it confuses Albany’s intention—something that could never be known definitively. The fluidity between these words sheds light upon the interpretation that Albany views any woman embodied as the devil as deformed more so than the devil and not just Goneril. A deformity of language is at play here because the intentions of words are textually ambiguous, like in two other editions.

The representation of the same verse in the First Folio and an eighteenth century edition are very similar, where the verse appears as three lines, rather than two, at the very top of the page. The eighteenth century edition also has single column pages, while the First Folio has two column pages. This is important because two column pages could distract a reader from the importance of these lines:

Alb. See thy felfe diuell:

Proper deformitie feemes not in the Fiend
So horrid as in woman.

Alb. See thy felf, devil:

Proper deformity feemes not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman.

Similar to the First Quarto and seventeenth century edition, the deformity of words is shown between the publication years of these two editions. Ironically, the spelling of the word “deformity” was in flux, or deformed, between these editions—where the earlier edition uses “ie” instead of “y” on the end of “deformity.” The word “devil” emerges in its modern spelling in the eighteenth century edition, but appears deformed—or to have been evolving towards contemporary English—in the First Folio.

The capitalization of specific words also plays into the interpretation of deformity in Shakespeare. The capitalization of the word “Proper” in both editions emphasizes the word “deformity” in an oxymoronic way and the capitalization of “Fiend” in the First Folio emphasizes the devil. Each of these deformities of language show the significance that spelling, word choice, and capitalization can have on interpretations of Shakespeare.

The differences in this verse show deformities in the English language over time. The seventeenth century edition seems to reject the fluctuation of the English language in the First Folio by reverting back to and accepting the linguistic ‘deformities’ in the First Quarto.

An important detail in the the First Folio and an eighteenth century edition, that is not in the First Quarto or a seventeenth century edition, is the colon. The colon implies a place where a mirror could be utilized in a production because it adds emphasis to the second part of the verse and represents a pause for an important detail that will relate back to the words prior to the colon. However, not every colon implies a stage direction, this colon just happens to be a specific indicator of where a mirror could be used in a production. 

The colon could represent the exact moment that Albany shows Goneril her reflection in a mirror onstage. The lack of the colon in the First Quarto and the seventeenth century edition could point to a ‘deformity’ in the verse because without it a reader would not be able to see the exact point in which a mirror could be utilized in a production. Without the colon, readers could be led astray from the interpretations that could occur onstage. If Albany were to put a mirror to Goneril’s face at the beginning of the verse, there would be less emphasis on Goneril seeing her reflection. And, if the mirror were to be used at anytime after the colon appears, it would seem too late to take effect on Goneril. 

The similarities and differences between these four editions show the fluctuation  of Shakespeare’s words and the English language over time. The differences—or deformities—between all four editions prove that there can be many interpretations of the same lines and specific language can create emphasis.

The most important differences—or ‘deformities’—between these editions are punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. These ‘deformities’ are important because they shed light on how some differences—like a single letter or colon—can cause different interpretations of the same verse.

Overall, the different editions of this verse show the fluxuation of language and possible deformities in language occur over time. These differences also reflect Shakespeare’s malleable use of the word ‘deformity’ for the possible intention of complicating what it means to actually be deformed. 

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