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Nahum Tate's Revision of Shakespeare's King Lears
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SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.3 (2000) 435-450

In his 1975 edition of The History of King Lear (1681), James Black could still claim that Nahum Tate's notorious adaptation was "one of the most famous unread plays in English." Since then, mainly as a result of an unprecedented interest in the afterlife of the Shakespearean text, The History of King Lear has been studied both in relation to the changed stage and dramatic conventions of Restoration theaters and for its historical and political significance. Despite this revival of critical interest in Shakespearean adaptations and Christopher Spencer's advocacy of Tate, the stigma of mediocrity which was first associated with Tate in the nineteenth century still discourages critics and editors alike from investigating Tate's competence as a professional reader of Shakespeare.

Tate had the privilege of reading and adapting Shakespeare's King Lear in a preconflationist age, when no theory about the origin of the copy texts behind the Quarto or the Folio had been advanced. His adaptation is the only surviving instance of a critical assessment of the dramatic qualities of Quarto and Folio King Lear before Lewis Theobald's editorial policy of conflation and the theory of the lost original denied both texts a direct link with the author's holograph. Tate felt free to rely on his Quarto and Folio source texts independently of their formal qualities, thus highlighting dramatic differences between them which supporters of the theory of revision in King Lear now regard as intentional and possibly authorial. Unlike Black, who argues that Tate must have relied on his Folio source(s) more and more consistently after act I, because he had by then realized that the Quarto is formally inferior to the Folio, I believe that Tate must have regarded his Quarto and Folio source texts as dramatically independent versions of the same play and that he used them according to which text provided an alternative better suited to his own strategy of revision of the Lear story. This article therefore provides new indirect evidence in favor of the theory of internal revision in King Lear, by establishing a connection between Tate's dramatic and ideological agenda as an adapter of Shakespeare and his selective and discriminating reliance on his Quarto and his Folio sources in The History of King Lear.

I. Quarto Variants in Acts I And II Of The History of King Lear And Tate's Revision Of The King

Tate's political affiliations played an important part in his decision to replace Shakespeare's tragic ending with "the King's blest Restauration" (K1v, line 10). The new ending bears a close resemblance to the comic resolution in Shakespeare's main dramatic source, the anonymous The Chronicle History of King Leir (1605). More importantly, Tate's revision is symptomatic of the progressive decline of tragedy and the increasing popularity of tragicomedy in postrevolutionary drama. Similarly, Tate's expansion of the female roles and his introduction of the love affair between Edgar and Cordelia are clearly a tribute to the new practice of having women actors on the Restoration stage. Further evidence of the influence of current dramatic conventions on Tate's revision is a strong concern with decorum, which, as Tate himself suggests, led him to tone down "Lear's real, and Edgar's pretended Madness" (Epistle Dedicatory, A2r, line 14; A2v, line 1). The omission of the Fool, however, seems prompted by matters of ideological rather than dramatic concern, the Fool being the main source of the vexing criticism the king is exposed to in the Shakespearean originals.

Tate's adaptation of Shakespearean tragedy into Restoration tragicomedy entailed a radical departure from both his Quarto and his Folio originals. Particularly interesting is Tate's recasting of his tragic hero in acts I and II.

In order to suit Tate's tragicomic revision of the Lear story, the king is transformed into a character with an obvious but minor flaw, easily blamed at the beginning for initiating his own fall, but also easily forgiven in the end, because of the obvious imbalance between his share of responsibility and the potential magnitude of the avoided catastrophe. Tate helps...