King Lear in Performance

OK, yesterday, I talked a little about the different published versions of King Lear, in particular the 1608 Quarto and 1623 Folio versions, as well as the early eighteenth century conflations by the likes of Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald.

And if you thought those formed a tangled web, it’s nothing compared to different performed versions…

Despite widespread acknowledgement that Shakespeare wrote the role of Lear for the aging tragedian of the King’s Men, Richard Burbage, there’s only one known performance of the play. On December 26, 1606, the play was performed for the court of James I at Whitehall (and Happy Christmas to you, your highness). The title sheet of the 1608 Quarto publication references that the company “play[ed] usually at the Globe” theater, but it doesn’t state that this particular play received a long run there. We don’t know what kind of reception it received at the Whitehall performance, and it’s completely conceivable that it wasn’t a positive one; but then why did it deserve a fairly quick publication?

Regardless, the Puritan Revolution four decades later brought to an end both the reign and life of James I’s son Charles I. But even before that, it closed the theaters by decree in 1642. Only by the Restoration (of Charles II to the throne in 1660) were the theaters were reopened.

By 1681, Shakespeare’s King Lear was adapted by Nahum Tate under the title The History of King Lear.

“Adapted”’s a nice verb. But first, a digression:

When I used to teach high schoolers, and we’d begin to discuss Shakespeare, I’d ask what was he. And beyond “dead white guy” “writer” was the answer I got the most. Occasionally, I’d get what I wanted, and the word “playwright” was uttered. Then I’d ask for a spelling. Mostly “P-L-A-Y-W-R-I-T-E” … only rarely the correct “P-L-A-Y-W-R-I-G-H-T.” And when I would correct, quizzical looks would abound. The way I’d explain it was thus:

Plays aren’t novels. They’re not written but wrought. You might pour concrete, but you want to wrought iron (thus, “wrought iron fence”). A play had to be WORKED. It didn’t just come out of your mind, it had to be worked with and around the other talents onstage–the actors, the designers, and most of all the audience. Plays have to be wrought. Thus, playwright.

Well, to get Lear back on stage it had to be worked and wrought, as well.

Tate made quite a few changes to the play:

  • King of France? Gone
  • Fool? Gone
  • Romance between Cordelia and Edgar added
  • Motive for Cordelia’s “nothing” added
  • Edmund? Even more of a bastard–he wants to rape Cordelia
  • Goneril and Regan poison each other
  • France is gone so the military action is actually taken up by the people to an attempt to restore Lear to the throne (cough, Restoration, cough)
  • Albany–the last man standing–abdicates the throne to Lear, who in turn abdicates it for Cordelia
  • Edgar marries Cordelia

Cue curtain, and happily ever after. Happily and shorter, too: some eight hundred lines shorter. Even with the shorter text and the many extra plot points above, much of the play was still Shakespeare’s or at least recognizable “Shakespeare-lite,” and as such, it became more and more derided by critics and editors like the aforementioned Pope and Theobald.

That derision didn’t keep it, however, from becoming the de facto King Lear, reigning (see what I did there) for the next century and a half on the stage. Renowned actors like 18th century’s David Garrick used this text (and not Shakespeare’s) to perform Lear. Garrick added some of the original Shakespeare (though not the tragic ending) back into the play, but those restorations was dropped by the next few generations of actors, led by John Philip Kemble (when the play was performed at all…in the 1810’s the play went unproduced altogether, as it didn’t seem seemly to produce a play that had a mad king in it when you had your own mad King George III on the throne). Later, in an attempt to differentiate himself from his rival Kemble, Edmund Kean reinstated the tragic ending in 1823, but–after three performances which were not well received–he went back to the Tate text.

The next generation’s great tragedian, William Charles Macready (yes, he of Shakespeare Riots fame [or infamy]) in 1834 “restored” Shakespeare’s play (though not, it seems, the Fool) to greater success. Within four years, Macready was performing a shortened, but not rewritten, version of the play (now, complete with the Fool!), one that he even toured to America. And within another decade, Samuel Phelps had returned the complete Shakespearean version to the stage.

In England.

It wouldn’t be until 1875 that the full (non-Tate) Shakespearean Lear would be put on American boards, and then it was by that brother of a Lincoln-slayer, Edwin Booth (so lil’ bro killed the Prez, and Eddie-boy re-killed the king).

And now? Tate’s only performed as a kind of theatrical sideshow, a historical curiosity.

Like I said, a tangled web.