And now imagine to find yourself with Shakespeare’s works. And yes, yes – Elizabethan golden age and all that, but it’s been sixty, seventy years, and taste changes. Shakespeare, who was going out of fashion during the last years of his life, by now is mostly the relic of another, cruder era. And mind: the stories are great – if a tad glum – and the poetry has its beauties: if only it weren’t all so desperately old-fashioned, if only it were a little cheerier…But this can be remedied, can’t it? How hard can it be to rewrite the rusty old things? Fast forward a few years, and enter Nahum Tate, Irishman and Poet Laureate of England from 1692 to his death in 1715. In 1681 he is still an up-and-coming young poet, when he stumbles across King Lear – and is rather impressed. “A heap of jewels, unstrung and unpolish’t,” he calls it – and “yet so dazzling in their disorder, that I soon perceiv’d I had seiz’d a treasure.”
So much so that he feels an urge to smooth out the tragedy’s many flaws by rewriting it: cull the Fool, give Edgar and Cordelia a prominent love story, provide the happiest of happy endings – and Bob’s your uncle. Well, Edmund still dies, but everyone else is pardoned, vindicated and/or reunited, Lear is restored on the throne (nudge, nudge), and Cordelia and Edgar are blissfully married.
And yet, this Happy Lear finds much success – so much that, even though David Garrick begins to reinstate Shakespeare bits here and there and in spite of the odd malcontent who would prefer the crude original*, it will take Macready to revert to the tragic ending – and not a day before 1838. Before that, Kean’s attempt will suffer a moderate flop: a great personal success for the leading man, and hisses for the everybody-dies ending…
I don’t think anyone was ever especially horrified. When Tate rewrote/butchered Lear, Shakespeare was not yet the Bard – just a quaint old writer with the odd flash of genius. Bardolatry was yet to come – and even then consider how David Garrick, the man who created the cult almost single-handed, saw it fit to partially rewrite Hamlet to save it from all the absurdities of Act V… And then think of Alexander Pope, and William Henry Ireland, and the Bowdlers… It would seem that, for a few centuries, the Bard was a bit much for the Bardolaters.
Especially, it would seem, when he insisted on killing off sweet and plucky princesses in that barbarous manner of his.
* Not so Dr. Johnson who, having seen, and hated the original version as a youth, deemed Tate’s rewriting to be much preferable.