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Tate’s Lear

Alexander Thom

Alexander Thom is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, working with the Birthplace Trust as a Research Advocate for Midland 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

King Lear

As I mentioned in my previous post on playbills, I’ve been looking at Nahum Tate’s 1681 adaptation of King Lear. The Birthplace Trust Collection has several editions of this play-text, including copies from 1689 and 1767. Tate’s Lear displaced Shakespeare’s from the English stage for over a century and a half, until 1838. The tremendous popularity of this adaptation was summed up by Samuel Johnson in 1765, who wrote:

Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor. [1]

The happy ending, including Cordelia’s survival, is probably the most famous and controversial change that Tate made. The German critic and translator, A. W. Schlegel, deplored the choice to preserve Lear in particular: “After surviving so many sufferings, Lear can only die […] if he is to be saved and to pass the remainder of his days in happiness, the whole loses its signification.” [2] However, Tate’s choice is worth putting into context.

Tate was writing in the decades immediately following the Restoration of the monarchy. In 1680, the year prior to his adaptation of Lear, he had adapted Richard II — a play depicting the deposition of the king. His attempts were suppressed twice on political grounds. This censorship goes some way to explaining why Tate opted for his Lear not to end in political cataclysm but rather in restoration. That he had this political context in mind is made quite clear when Gloucester cries out:

Where is my liege? Conduct me to his Knees, to hail
His second Birth of Empire; my dear Edgar
Has with himself, reveal’d the King’s blest Restauration. (56) [3]

The internal rhyme in the third line — “blest Restauration” — catches the ear, stressing the key issue at stake here. Lear’s survival is therefore not simply a matter of sentimentality, Tate is carefully responding to his own times. Tate’s revision of the climactic civil war also demonstrates this. Shakespeare’s invading French army is cut completely. Instead, “[t]he Commons cry aloud at their female Tyrants, already they cry out for the re-instalment of their good old King.” (22)

With Tate’s “blest Restauration” in mind, it is worth noting the religious inflections here as well: “hail”, “second Birth”, “to his Knees”, “blest Restauration”. This imagery continues to echo throughout Tate’s final scenes, conjuring up the image of a political state emerging from civil war into a state of repentance, of baptismal recovery, and of salvation. This all falls into line with the dominant orthodoxy of the Restoration. There are religious resonances in Shakespeare’s ending also, but the differences are instructive:

Lear.                Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
                        That heaven’s vault should crack: she’s gone for ever.         (5.3.256-7) [4]

Kent.                                                          Is this the promised end?
Edgar.             Or image of that horror?                                                         (5.3.261-2)

The apocalyptic tone of Shakespeare’s conclusion is diametrically opposed to the salvation of Tate’s but it is to Tate’s credit that he repurposes the imagery so carefully to his new context. Where Shakespeare creates an unendurable loss, a catastrophe, Tate offers us recovery and restoration. In truth, I think Shakespeare’s is the better play, and one that speaks more clearly to our own times. But, setting aside our own politics, critics should also weigh Tate by his ability to bring Shakespeare’s play into conversation with the political climate of his own era and, by those standards, he earned his success.

[1] Samuel Johnson, “from the Preface and Notes of his edition, 1765,” in King Lear: A Casebook, edited by Frank Kermode, London: Macmillan, 1969, 29.

[2] A. W. Schlegel, “from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 1811,” in King Lear: A Casebook, edited by Frank Kermode, London: Macmillan, 1969, 33.

[3] Nahum Tate, King Lear, London: R. Bentley and M. Magnes, 1689 (Stratford-upon-Avon: Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections, S.R.50.17 (3993) KING LEAR ver. 1689).

[4] William Shakespeare, King Lear, edited by R. A. Foakes, London and New York: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2009.

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