The history of King Lear. Acted at the Duke's Theatre
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Tate, Nahum, and William Shakespeare. The history of King Lear. Acted at the Duke’s Theatre. Reviv’d with alterations. London: 1681.
Image Source: The Huntington Library
In his retelling of the rule of King Lear, Shakespeare rejected the happy ending found in the histories that were his sources. He gave the play one of his bleakest endings, with both Lear and his daughter Cordelia dying. This resolution shocked and dismayed audiences at the end of the 17th century.
In 1681, playwright Nahum Tate revised Lear, restoring the happy ending of the historical chronicles, among many additional changes and cuts. Tate makes his villains crueler and centers the plot on a romance between two characters, Cordelia and Edgar, who never speak to one another in Shakespeare’s version.
Tate’s revision made Lear one of “Shakespeare’s” most popular plays – but no longer a tragedy. Lear was performed exclusively in Tate’s version for over 150 years. While some readers criticized Tate’s alterations, Tate also had many advocates (including the audiences that made it a favorite). Defending Tate’s Lear’s happy ending, the great scholar Samuel Johnson noted in his Preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s works that audiences preferred it and that it was true to the history chronicle sources. He added a personal note that makes vivid just how upsetting readers could find Shakespeare’s less “just” ending: “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.”
In a prefatory letter, Tate describes his work as a revisor as shaping Shakespearean roughness and disorder into a more polished and logical story. For Tate, Shakespeare’s original Lear is “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazling in their disorder, that I soon perceiv’d I had seiz’d a Treasure.” He also notes that the love plot between Cordelia and Edgar can explain her stubbornness with her father (she wants to test Edgar’s love), which he does not otherwise understand. Simultaneously that love motivates Edgar’s decision to disguise himself and stay in proximity to Cordelia, a decision that to Tate otherwise seemed “a poor Shift.”
The images below (click to enlarge) include Cordelia's revised resistance to her father, which Lear now interprets as motivated by love for Edgar; Lear’s exciting turn as an action hero saving himself and Cordelia, giving the audience a “Lucky” universe – in stark contrast to Shakespeare’s version; and the happy ending, in which Lear can yield the throne again to a more worthwhile recipient.