Adaptation to Modern Audience in Nahum Tate's Adaptation of King Lear

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Kent speaks these lines on Lear’s death in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606), an end which comes as the final blow in a play where “every resolution and scrap of certainty the story appears to promise is systematically denied us”. The “promised end” (KL.V.3.262) of this tragedy was so horrifying that Samuel Johnson could scarcely bear it, writing “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”. Whether from a similar feeling, or for more mercenary reasons, Nahum Tate took it upon himself to adapt Shakespeare’s play into The History of King Lear (first performed 1681). Drastically different from the original, most noticeably in its lack of tragic ending, Tate’s Lear was such a success as to replace the original, in whole or in part, on the British stage for over a century. In his prefatory note to Thomas Boteler, Tate describes Shakespeare’s Lear as “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazling in their Disorder, that I soon perceiv’d I had seiz’d a Treasure”. Around the time of Tate’s adaptation, the popularity of reading Shakespeare had not taken hold, as there was still a relatively small reading public. Thus, people revered the idea of Shakespeare in adapted dramatic performance rather than the purity of his language in text, meaning that drastic adaptations flourished.

The “unstrung and unpolisht” Shakespeare plays, considered unrefined by neo-classical tastes, were “seiz’d” and made more palatable to Restoration audiences. Whilst from 1670 onwards certain adaptations were marked, showing what was new and what was Shakespeare’s (most notably in the case of Colley Cibber’s Richard III, which made use of two different kind of notation to reliably inform the reader of the provenance of line), at the time of Tate’s adaptation “the concern for authenticity which was to mark later eighteenth-century attitudes to Shakespeare was not present.” Instead, it was important for Tate to keep the spirit of Shakespeare whilst changing much of the rest; what was considered central to the playwright’s genius were his plots and characters, not his manipulation of language or subtle and winding sub-plots. Thus, the distasteful puns and the Fool who tells them could be removed, the characters simplified into camps of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, “love betwixt Edgar and Cordelia” (HL, prefatory note) could be added, and the whole subtly altered to suit the political climate in which Tate was writing.

Tate wrote to Boteler that it is not “of so Trivial an Undertaking to make a Tragedy end happily, for ’tis more difficult to save than ’tis to Kill”. A glance at his adaptation of Coriolanus shows that it was not horror at bloodshed which informed his decision to change King Lear’s ending, but critics have struggled to agree on whether it was to make a political comment, or merely to neatly wrap up the love story between Cordelia and Edgar. Certainly, the restoration of the monarchy at the end of the play, where Edmund gasps out “Legitimacy/At last has got it” (HL.V.2.242-43) speaks to some of the contemporary tensions surrounding the Exclusion Bills and the Restoration. Edgar’s last entrance of the play supports this reading, as he strides on stage leading Gloster behind him, like Aeneas bearing Anchises out of Troy, and heralds a “second Birth of Empire” (HL.V.3.408). This replaces the tragic stumbling onto stage of Shakespeare’s Lear bearing Cordelia’s body in a reverse-pieta; instead, the audience are faced with “a reminder of the refugees from Troy, the culmination of whose narrative was the establishment of empire”. The two possible reasons for such an ending are both satisfied in Edgar’s last lines, which end the play, looking forward to both “Love” and “Empire” (HL.V.3.448). All the tragic events are tied up in one neat moral lesson: (Whatever Storms of Fortune are decreed)/That Truth and Vertue shall at last succeed.” (HL.V.3.450-51). The bad have died, whilst the good may triumph.

Lear, restored to his throne, abdicates fully in favour of Cordelia to spend his days with Kent “retir’d to some cool Cell” (HL.V.3.438), in much the same way as he wished to “sit alone, like Birds i’th Cage” (HL.V.2.148) with Cordelia in prison. Edgar and Cordelia, with the blessing of the parents, may rule a newly restored kingdom together. Whilst Tate has indeed supplied the audience with the “probable Means to recover All” (HL, prefatory note) that was refused to us in King Lear, that his Lear’s life is prolonged in order for him to retire to “calm Reflections” (HL.V.3.440) seems in many ways unlikely. Though far less cruel than his fate in Shakespeare’s play, his death upon seeing Cordelia dead, this retirement refutes the idea that Lear has learned much from his trials. Shakespeare’s Lear is so humbled as to say “Thank you, Sir” (KL.V.3.309) to someone who helps him undo a button, but Tate’s Lear still commands Kent to do his bidding, and appears only to have learned that an abdication cannot be done in part. He seeks to go into hiding, having learned that though he is “Old now” (HL.V.3.330), he was still able to kill guards to save Cordelia, so he is not entirely impotent. Amidst these decisions and rejoicings, Edmund’s death is announced, but because he is a villain no one cares. Edgar dismisses the fact that he has killed his brother, stating “Edmund (but that’s a Triflle) is expir’d” (HL.V.3.438). Though the language is similar to Shakespeare’s, the tone is entirely different. With Cordelia dead and Lear mad with grief, Albany receives the news of Edmund’s death with the line “That’s but a trifle here” (KL.V.3.295), showing the scale of the grief and death that has occurred. Within all this, with a King on stage cradling his dead daughter’s body, and his two other daughters dead on stage too, another body offstage is “but a trifle”. The very triviality of human life is emphasised, not the lack of consequence of a villain’s death. This is what Tate wished to alter, however: the absolute moral narrative of his play must hold, and within it the death of a self-confessed libertine is nothing, especially when compared to the triumph of the good and legitimate Edgar. In his introduction to his play The Triumphs of Love and Honour, Thomas Cooke wrote that he had “read many Sermons, but remember[ed] no one that contains so fine a Lesson of Morality as this Play”. Above all, Tate’s happy ending is central to his motive of didactic morality.

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Such clearcut distinctions between good and evil, teaching a lesson of morality finer than any to be found in the pulpit, require a clear and distinct mode of transmission. Thus, Tate’s adaptation simplifies Shakespeare’s language considerably, in order to avoid confusing the audience. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum (1620) reveals the anxiety around the power of language which permeated the period. He writes that “the ill and unfit choice of words wonderfully obstructs the understanding. Nor do the definitions of explanations wherewith in something’s learned men are wont to guard and defend themselves by any means set the matter right. But words plainly force and overrule the understanding, and throw all into confusion, and lead men away into numberless empty controversies and idle fancies.”

To avoid leading his audience away from his moral lessons, Tate cut much of Shakespeare’s elaborate metaphors and meandering speeches, ensuring that every long speech ended with a couplet explaining in no uncertain terms what the speaker had just said, or meant to do. Jean Marsden points to the “painstaking linguistic simplicity” of Restoration adaptations, so different to their Renaissance originals, which were full of “with puns and sometimes elaborate conceits, literary figures which by their very nature promote ambiguity by adding an additional layer of meaning”. Not only were such linguistic tricks seen as unrefined by the time of Tate’s Lear, but for a playwright with Humanist ambitions they could be downright dangerous. As a consequence, “the adaptations of the Restoration and early eighteenth century rarely used the original language of Shakespeare’s plays”, preferring to keep a great deal from Shakespeare, but simplify it considerably. Even though Tate claims to have “us’d less Quaintness of Expression” than he might have in order “partly to comply with my Author’s Style to make the Scenes of a Piece, and partly to give it some Resemblance of the Time and Persons here Represented”, a comparison between Edmund’s soliloquy in the original and in The History of King Lear show how different the two plays are. Whilst Shakespeare’s Edmund fiercely questions his fate, repeating “Bastard”, “base”, “baseness” and “bastardy”, Tate’s Edmund simply asks, “Why Bastard, wherefore Base” once. Shakespeare’s Edmund describes legitimate sex as “within a dull, stale, tired bed,/Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,/Got ‘tween asleep and wake” (KL.I.2.13-15), but Tate’s stops at “The scanted Births of the stale Marriage-bed” (HL.I.1.10). Most tellingly, Tate replaces Shakespeare’s ambiguous “I grow, I prosper” (KL.I.2.22) with a long explanation of exactly what Edmund has plotted, and how he will replace his brother by telling, “A Tale so plausible, so boldly utter’d/And heightned by such lucky Accidents” (HL.I.1.18-19) that his father will name Edmund heir instead of Edgar. This formula is one that Tate uses again and again throughout the play: each speech that he keeps is simplified and made to build to a coherent conclusion explaining the speaker’s motives.

The problem is that “these linguistic simplifications have larger ramifications, acting to simplify the characters who speak the words, as well as the words themselves.” Certain lines being cut means that characters and their psychology are cut down: in the storm scene, Lear is “robbed of his awareness and compassion for his Poor Fool” and instead addresses his lines to Kent, who has stood stalwart by him throughout. He thus appears as confused and pathetic rather than a man learning to think outside of his own comfort. This is an issue common to all of the Restoration adaptations, not just to Tate’s Lear; D’Avenant’s Macbeth simplifies Shakespeare’s language whilst simultaneously simplifying Macbeth into a villain. In this version, Lady Macduff stands as the virtuous female in opposition to Lady Macbeth, much as Cordelia is a contrast to her sisters. In the third act of his Macbeth, D’Avenant has Lady Macduff speak for virtuous acts in heroic couplets, so that “the orderly progression of the couplets underlines the reason and order of her words, in stark contrast to the irrational and immoral sentiments spoken in blank verse by Lady Macbeth.” Similarly, Tate has Cordelia expand her harsh answer of “Nothing” in Shakespeare’s Lear to a much longer more logical speech, whilst Goneril and Regan have their superfluous, latinate speeches cut right down. Overall, Regan and Goneril lose their individuality of character. In Shakespeare’s play, they display different qualities at different times, with Regan at first being less rash than her sister – “We shall further think of it” (KL.I.1.305) – and then showing that she is just as able to be vicious as her sister – “Till Noon, my Lord? till Night, and all Night too.”(KL.II.2.127) – until finally she commits an act of cruelty worse than any Goneril does in taking out Gloucester’s eyes. Tate’s sisters are interchangeable villains who flaunt their cruelty and adultery, with Regan celebrating “at a Masque” (HL.II.1.218) when her father is out in the storm. Edmund the libertine is there too, another villain whose identity is utterly removed to the point where he stands in the list of characters and in the stage directions merely as ‘Bastard’. The harsh language Gloucester uses in front of his son – “the whoreson must be acknowledged (KL.I.1.22)- and the threatened banishment from court – “he hath been out nine years and away he shall/again” (KL.I.1.30-31) – which in Shakespeare’s play are some of the first lines we hear, are removed in Tate’s, along with any excuse or justification for Edmund’s villainy. Simply put, “characters are clearly identified as either good or bad while the principle of poetic justice informs the outcome of each play.” Edmund does not even have the moment of repentance he is afforded in King Lear; he must unequivocally appear to the audience as a villain. This is also why Edgar challenges Edmund undisguised, as justice must be seen to be meted out from a visible and justified source, a final battle between good and evil in which good triumphs with no ambiguity. Marsden postulates that this need for a black-and-white narrative resulted because “the social class system developed along with theories concerning hierarchies of genre”. In other words, politically and historically there had been to many instabilities for the people watching the play to relish ambiguity; order and stability, clearly demarcated, were necessary.

Nahum Tate’s adaptation of King Lear is drastically different to the original. Its happy, moralistic ending, simplification of language and consequent simplification of character makes it a much easier play to watch and understand than Shakespeare’s, with the result that Tate had to be very careful about the message he was delivering to his audience. Tate was born into a family of Puritan clerics, so anti-Catholic sentiments in the play (present in the original, but highlighted in Tate’s prologue) are perhaps inserted more willingly than they might be, but the turbulent climate following the Popish Plot meant that no plays with any kind of pro-Catholic or rebellious tint would be performed. Tate drew on the Folio version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which features a civil war rather than an invasion from France, as it was important for these adaptations to emphasise the horrors of civil war, which seemed to many of Tate’s contemporaries to be just on the horizon. The entire play is reshaped with this in mind; as C.B. Hardman writes, “to supporters of the legitimate succession, the banishment of Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar would have suggested the potential predicament of the Duke of York, should the exclusionists triumph”. It is for all these reasons that Tate had to let Lear live, and give Shakespeare’s play a different ending. To “let him pass” would be to insert ambiguity into a play which above all relies on poetic justice to make its political point.

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