William Shakespeare’s King Lear in the 1770’s

by Joel Grothe

"The fact that Shakespeare’s original text still invokes pity today, whereas Tate’s does not, says something about the cohesiveness of an original over any form of adaptation applied to it, and the dangers of writing for a specific audience." Mr. Grothe’s essay explores the techniques in content and language by which Nahum Tate’s The History of King Lear changes meaning and interpretation of Shakespeare’s original text in order to make it apply better to a specific audience. Part of Tate’s reason for doing this is not simply to accommodate the audience, but to create a text that is less sensitive to political issue of the time. The History of King Lear was adapted from Shakespeare’s text after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne and therefore intends to create a theme of restoration that is not present in Shakespeare. However, it is particularly interesting that this version is still on the London stage nearly a hundred years after the Restoration, and continues to play, it would seem, until 1860. Two other adaptations of Shakespeare’s original appear in the 1770’s; one constructed by famous Shakespearean actor David Garrick, the other by prominent theatre director George Colman. Neither is as definitively ‘restorative’ as Tate’s version and neither lasts nearly as long on the stage.

Tate overhauls Shakespeare’s original in order to makes it appeal to a specific audience: he gives 18th Century theatergoers "Shakespeare" but not Shakespeare, or, what they would want Shakespeare as their ‘national poet’ to write at the time, not what he actually writes. Lear no longer dies in Tate’s version, Cordelia marries Edgar and order and the monarchy are restored, and the Fool is omitted. Tate’s changes infers meaning on a text that is not truly his which, furthermore, go entirely against Shakespeare’s design. Lear’s suffering and Shakespeare’s point about the nature of humanity is diminished by the complete, calculated redemption at the play's conclusion. "Tate’s ending is more suited to one of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies, and while Shakespeare means for us to see the artificial endings to his comedies as questionable, Tate meant for his audience to embrace it wholeheartedly." Tate’s omission of Lear’s "Never, never, never, never, never" is a grave misinterpretation of Shakespeare because "Shakespeare’s point is ultimately about the reductive power of language- how it is most powerful in its simplest form- while Tate emphasizes that language is most powerful in its most elevated forms."

Nahum Tate’s version of Lear is no longer prevalent because, ironically, his attempts to concentrate meaning on a specific society have diminished the strength of his ideas over time. Shakespeare’s strength of language rests in its timelessness, and those whose work tries to change his ideas to make them fit a particular period time, like Tate, may last for a hundred years or possibly longer, but will never outlast Shakespeare.