Monday, 14 January 2013

What did Nahum Tate do to King Lear?

Nahum Tate's work was a product of the changing tastes
of the Restoration
The son of a clergyman, Nahum Tate was an Irish poet and lyricist. As well as penning his own works, Tate turned his hand to 'adapting' a number of Elizabethan dramas, including some of Shakespeare's.

Nahum Tate was just an eight-year-old when Charles II took the throne and the Restoration permitted the reopening of the theatres.

And by the latter part of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when Tate began tampering with the works of Webster, Fletcher, Marston and Shakespeare, London theatres were very different from Blackfriars or The Globe.

A Very Different Type of Theatre 


Restoration theatres were very different from
Shakespeare's Globe
More importantly though, Restoration theatregoers were very different from Shakespeare's audiences.

Unlike the socially diverse crowd at The Globe, Restoration theatre was attended by the crème de la crème; London's elite, the richest and most well-connected men and women.

This, more refined and more prudish, audience demanded something different from their evening's entertainment.

Now, it's not difficult to comprehend why Tate would alter Richard II, given what had so recently occurred in England. A play that almost glorifies and encourages the usurping of a king was, understandably, a touchy subject post-Cromwell, if not with audiences, certainly with the censors.

Shakespeare appealed to a very different kind of crowd
And, of course, this altered sensitivity toward all things to do with the monarchy accounts for some of Tate's tampering (for there is no other word for it) with King Lear.

However, there are other changes that were simply prompted by changing tastes. And, credit where credit is due, he was right. Tate's version of King Lear became incredibly popular and continued to be the only one performed on English stages for nearly 150 years.

Imagine, if you will, that She's The Man not only becomes the only version of Twelfth Night performed, but also remains the only version performed or shown, until 2156. - I'll say no more about that.

How Nahum Tate Changed King Lear


Nahum Tate's 'Reviv'd' version of
King Lear, with 'alterations'
Tate's version of King Lear, titled The History of King Lear, is drastically different from Shakespeare's. For one thing, it is not a tragedy. 

Tate felt, and many agreed with him, that the ending of King Lear was just too sad to bear. So, he replaces Lear on the throne and doesn't kill off Cordelia. However, he doesn't stop at having a happy ending.

Nahum Tate decides to do away with the King of France and insert Edgar as a love interest for Cordelia. 

When Cordelia refuses to answer her father's request for a declaration of love, this is later explained by the youngest daughter as an intentional ploy to leave her dowerless and, therefore, lose the romantic interests of Burgandy.

Consequently, she doesn't go to France and when her father becomes lost in the English countryside, she goes in search of him. 

And, of course, it is not she (with the help of a French army) who can mount an attack against her sisters. Instead, it is the British people who revolt against Goneril and Regan's tyranny.
Restoration audiences found the original
King Lear too sad 
Lear and Cordelia are still taken prisoner, and orders are given to murder them, but Lear manages to fight and kill the would-be assassins, while Edgar is killing an utterly unrepentant Edmund.

Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan are poisoning each other (rather than Goneril poisoning Regan then stabbing herself). 

Albany happily offers the crown to Lear, who confers it on Cordelia and his soon to be son-in-law, Edgar. 

Despite a lower body count, and big alterations in cast (there is no fool in The History of King Lear) Tate does maintain a considerable amount of Shakespeare's dialogue and this is perhaps both a blessing and a curse.

Was Tate Wrong to Tamper With Shakespeare?


Should we be thanking Nahum Tate for Shakespeare's
longevity?
Although an adaptation superseding Shakespeare's original seems crazy (at least to some of us) now, we have to remember that Shakespeare wasn't always perceived to be the world's greatest. 

In fact, in 1681 when Tate's version of King Lear was first performed, Shakespeare was just another Elizabethan/Jacobean poet and playwright. His work was no more sacrosanct than any other writer of the era (read more about that here).

And, of course, the original King Lear was out of fashion. Many deemed it too depressing; audiences simply didn't want to sit through an evening of misery. So, why was Tate's use of Shakespeare's dialogue a blessing? Well, it ensured that audiences and critics did not forget about Shakespeare's genius. And prompted the likes of Edmund Kean, in 1823, to resurrect the original. 

For Tate, of course, despite the popularity and longevity of his adaptation, using so much of Shakespeare's original material was a curse, as it quite naturally lead to unfavourable comparisons between his own verse and the Bard's.

As much as I think Tate's adaptation is a bastardisation of King Lear, it's important to keep in mind the important role he played in keeping Shakespeare's work alive. If it weren't for Tate finding what he believed to be an 'unpolished' and 'disordered' play in King Lear, perhaps it would have faded into obscurity. 

It is clear, if Shakespeare's work had not undergone a revival by the likes of Tate, the Bard would now be no more famous than his numerous contemporaries.

2 comments:

  1. Hello, I think I have noticed an error? :)

    Lear and Cordelia are still taken prisoner, and orders are given to murder them, but Lear manages to fight and kill the would-be assassins, while Edgar is killing an utterly unrepentant Edmund.

    Albany happily offers the crown to Lear, who confers it on Cordelia and his soon to be son-in-law, (Edmund.)

    Albany happily offers the crown to Lear, who confers it on Cordelia and his soon to be son-in-law, (Edgar.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rebecca.

      You're quite right! Thanks for spotting the mistake and pointing it out to me. Has now been corrected.

      Best wishes.

      Delete