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Into the 18th Century: Shakespeare in Performance

In the 18th century, authors began to reinterpret and adapt Shakespeare's plays through text and performance, producing such intriguing versions as 'The Enchanted Isle' and Nahum Tate's 'King Lear'.

Victoria Joynes

Once Shakespeare's works had been preserved and made available, performers, writers, and directors were free to interpret them however they wanted. It is surprising how quickly this happened! There are many who would be careful to meddle with great works; however,  17th and 18th century poets felt more free to do so.

The Prologue page in "The Tempest or The Enchanted Isle", 1762
The Prologue page in "The Tempest or The Enchanted Isle", 1762

Most Shakespeare plays were used as a basis for an altered version produced in the 18th century. These versions were supposed to  make the stories and characters more palatable, as well as entertaining, to be able to fit in with the fashions of the time. Here are a few examples:

The title page from "The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle" by Dryden. 1762.
The title page from "The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle" by Dryden. 1762.

The Tempest or the Enchanted Isle is an adaptation of The Tempest which was put together in 1667 by William Davenant and John Dryden. They cut two thirds of Shakespeare's original text and added new characters to achieve symmetry in the play: Miranda gained a sister, Dorinda, Ferdinand a rival, Hippoloto, Caliban a sister, Sycorax, and Ariel a companion named Milcha. This replaced Shakespeare's version until well into the 18th century. When Samuel Pepys saw it in 1667, he wrote in his diary, “No great wit; but yet good, above ordinary plays.” More modern critics have generally condemned the alteration, with George C. D. Odell deeming it "the worst perversion of Shakespeare in the two-century history of such atrocities."

Tempest Dryden
Tempest Dryden

William Davenant also wrote Macbeth, a Tragedy, with all the alterations, amendments, additions and new songs in 1674. He aimed to refine the tragedy to suit the tastes of Restoration audiences. He significantly expanded the role of Lady Macduff to create a balance between the Macduff's, who were supposed to be virtuous, and the murderous Macbeths. He cut most of the minor characters (most notably the Porter) and introduced music, dancing and spectacle. Davenant's adaptation replaced Shakespeare's Macbeth for 80 years! Again, later critics disparaged the version complaining that it simplified the text at the expense of Shakespeare's poetry. James Quin starred in productions of Davenant's Macbeth staged between 1717 and 1751. He always wore the same outfit regardless of the role or the play. When David Garrick announced that he would present Macbeth "as written by Shakespeare" at Drury Lane, Quin was reported to have said, "Don't I play Macbeth as written by Shakespeare?"

King Lear 18th Century

One more notorious Shakespeare adaptation is Nahum Tate's King Lear in 1681. King Lear had not been competing well with the other Shakespeare dramas until this version was written--with radical alterations... Brace yourself!

King Lear 18th Century

Tate made Edgar and Cordelia lovers: a heroic love story which restoration audiences always demanded.

He removed the Fool, considering him to be "too low" of a character for tragedy; the character did not return to the stage until 1838!

Tate gave the play a happy ending, restoring Lear to the throne, permitting Cordelia to marry Edgar, and pledging revenge on her wicked sisters (Tate’s own lines).

Cordelia and Edgar's romantic dialogue together in Nahum Tate's version of King Lear, 1681
Cordelia and Edgar's romantic dialogue together in Nahum Tate's version of King Lear, 1681

This version held the stage for a century and a half, during which Shakespeare’s original play is not known to have been  performed. In Tate's dedication "To My Esteemed Friend Tho. Boteler, Esq.",  he describes the difficulties of adding and changing lines to keep them to the standard of Shakespeare's writing. He also says "Neither is it of so Trivial an Undertaking to make a Tragedy end happily, for 'tis more difficult to save than 'tis to Kill".

The ending in Tate's version, spoiler alert!
The ending in Tate's version, spoiler alert!

Henry V was rarely performed between its first performance and 1723. This changed with Aaron Hill's adaptation which borrowed heavily from the original but turned it into a tragic drama, revising it to appeal more to 18th century audiences. He removed the comic scenes from the play and added some romantic involvement. He also cut speeches which he deemed unflattering to Henry, set the whole play in France to unify the setting, and added a love interest--a woman who had been rejected by the king and who became part of a conspiracy against him out of revenge. Hill's version replaced the original until 1735.

Henry V Aaron Hill

The comedies did not escape the 18th century treatment either. In 172,3 As You Like It was reincarnated as Love in a Forest, a confused "improvement" by Charles Johnson. He cut out Touchstone, Phebe, Corin, William, Audrey, and Sir Oliver Martext. He replaced them by dragging in bits of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and a even a little Richard III! He substituted the wrestling match with a duel with rapiers, which he considered more appropriate to the dignity and social status of Orlando.

Rejected lover Harriet's angry tirade against Henry V in Aaron Hill's 1723 adaptation.
Rejected lover Harriet's angry tirade against Henry V in Aaron Hill's 1723 adaptation.

Years after these adaptations, there was a move to restore Shakespeare's original text and story. This was mainly spearheaded by the successful 18th century actor-manager David Garrick (even though his version of Hamlet cut out the "rubbish of the gravediggers scene"). It may seem like these versions are travesties against the original work. However, writers, directors, producers, poets, and artists continue to interpret Shakespeare's works in different ways, whether through hip hop Shakespeare, simplified versions for children, puppet shows, or (in the case of Ten Things I Hate About You) movies which take the stories and set them in high schools . This was just the 17th and 18th century way of bringing Shakespeare's works to "modern" audiences and enabling more people to access and engage with them.

Following the Folios, the next edition of Shakespeare's works to be produced was edited by Nicholas Rowe in 1709. These volumes included illustrations of the plays in performance. The title page for The Tempest featured an engraving by Boitard which matched the stage directions for Shadwell's operatic version of the Davenant and Dryden's version, The Enchanted Isle.

Illustration of The Tempest from William Shakespeare, N. Rowe [edited by], 'The Works of Mr William Shakspear; in six volumes. Adorn’d with cuts. Revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author', London.
Illustration of The Tempest from William Shakespeare, N. Rowe [edited by], 'The Works of Mr William Shakspear; in six volumes. Adorn’d with cuts. Revis’d and corrected, with an account of the life and writings of the author', London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, 1709.