- Adapting King Lear for the Stage
Lynne Bradley’s Adapting King Lear for the Stage skillfully tracks how our understanding of adaptation and our relationship to canonical works have undergone significant changes over the course of the twentieth century, given expanding notions of authorship and increasingly complicated concepts of text, originality, and the role of authenticity. Claiming that the study of adaptation to date has lacked a critical framework that analyzes the process from a historical perspective, Bradley proposes a model that accounts for changes in the cultural sensibilities of the age in which the work is produced. Using Shakespeare’s King Lear as a case study, she demonstrates that, at the heart of this contemporary impulse to adapt, is a “double gesture” (7) that is simultaneously a nostalgic embrace of literary tradition and a contradictory rejection of tradition in order to create new forms of individual and collective subjectivity. In proposing this model, Bradley rejects the traditional “conciliatory” model that understands adaptation as a process of authorial collaboration, as well as the view that adaptation corrupts the integrity of an original artwork through a “destructive process” of erasure (4). Instead, her model of the double gesture emphasizes that “new works and new ideas [can] express twentieth- and twenty-first century concerns without severing all ties to the cultural traditions that underlie our society” (7).
Adapting King Lear for the Stage thus contributes to a long-overdue conversation concerning the merits of adaptation, particularly regarding the works of Shakespeare. While traditional scholars of Shakespeare simply cataloged adaptations of the Bard’s plays, Bradley insists upon the need to explore the impulses and methodologies that gave birth to these adaptations. Shaping the book’s four chapters is the relationship between the adapted work and the historical moment in which that adaptation is made. In her discussion of Nahum Tate’s History of King Lear (1681), for example, Bradley demonstrates a keen awareness of the Restoration-era interest in revising the old and constructing a new literary tradition built on a foundation of technical innovation and new aesthetic standards. She contrasts this with a discussion of David Garrick’s productions in the mid-eighteenth century, as well as nineteenth-century Shakespeare burlesques, both of which emphasized a nostalgic return to the original. By analyzing the historical moment of these disparate adaptations, which alternate between “the nostalgic and oppositional impulses” of their authors (7), Bradley builds a foundation on which to build later chapters that deal with adaptation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her emphasis on the double gesture that simultaneously embraces and denies the source text allows her to consider how adaptations activate meanings within it that resonate with contemporary social concerns to make the play meaningful in new ways. This leads the author to an insightful discussion of the Women’s Theatre Group’s Lear’s Daughters (1987), a contemporary adaptation of the play that expresses specifically feminist concerns. [End Page 470]
By way of an introduction to her case study of King Lear, Bradley discusses Shakespeare’s own relationship to the process of adaptation. Here, the author documents the tale’s many sources from which Shakespeare may or may not have drawn when crafting his tragedy, focusing her efforts on the anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his three daughters, Gonerill, Ragan and Cordella (1606). Bradley traces the various similarities between Shakespeare’s work and the earlier play and introduces her own reading of several of the primary differences, most notably the absence in the latter work of a recognizable motivation for Cordelia’s answer in the love test. Working from the hypothesis that Shakespeare developed a taste for “opacity” in his later plays, a term she borrows from Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, Bradley systematically unpacks the play in relation to the Edgar/Gloucester/Edmund subplot that is original to Shakespeare’s adaptation in order to “imply” a motivation for Cordelia’s actions (18; emphasis in original). (As she notes, however, the subplot is quite possibly based on Sir Philip Sidney...