Nahum Tate's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear : political, social and aesthetic considerations.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
Because of its vivid and intense portrayal of human suffering and life experience, modem audiences or readers often use words such as 'timeless' and 'universal' to praise Shakespeare's King Lear. Yet for almost a century and a half Shakespeare's Lear was not performed on the English stage. Instead, a radical adaptation of Lear by Nahum Tate, a Restoration dramatist, was the only version performed from 1681 until 1838, the year when Macready fully restored Shakespeare's text. Traditionally, in analyzing the enduring stage success of Tate's version, most critics have argued that his happy ending was the determining factor. It has been assumed that Tate wrote a happy ending in order to suit the aesthetic taste in drama at that time, and that the survival of Cordelia demonstrates the neoclassical principle of poetic justice (where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished). Thus, according to a traditional analysis, the supposed didactic function of the play was fulfilled, and audiences satisfied. Recent critics, however, have suggested that the happy ending which restores Lear to his throne was based on Tate's intention to create a literary affirmation of the prosperity and stability of the reign of Charles II. Through a close study of the text of Tate's Lear and its relevant historical and cultural context, this thesis concludes that these explanations of the happy ending are not alternative, but are both indispensable: while Tate made his artistic purpose explicit in changing the play to suit the changed aesthetic taste of his time, there was also an unstated political subtext concerned with the monarch's role in maintaining political and social order; and this aspect held considerable appeal to audiences. The restoration of Lear to his throne is clearly related to the stability of the monarchy since the restoration of Charles II, and the original ending would have been politically unacceptable for a considerable time. The appeal of Tate's neoclassical reworking of Lear, however, ensured his play's continuing success until the nineteenth century.