King Lear Had A Happy Ending For 140 Years

May 13, 2024

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A marble statue of David Garrick, the famous eighteenth century Shakespearean actor, in Westminster Abbey. He's parting a big curtain and wearing a fancy cape, and looking sassy in a big bolo tie and lacey collar.

For reasons that’ll soon become clear, I’ve been on a deep dive about eighteenth century literature lately. Along the way, I’ve gotten fascinated by the ways that people rewrote Shakespeare’s plays for the stage — not just to sanitize the dirty bits, but to add more female characters and give them happier endings.

Basically, people did to Shakespeare’s plays the same thing he did to his source material: reshaped it to fit the needs of the moment. And this helped make Shakespeare more popular and ensure his status as the most important English playwright. I feel like this sheds some light on the current debates over rewriting authors like Roald Dahl.

To learn more, I spoke with Kristine Johanson, an associate professor in English renaissance literature and culture and the author of Shakespeare’s Golden Ages: Resisting Nostalgia in Elizabethan Drama. She also edited Shakespeare Adaptations from the Early Eighteenth Century, a collection of five Shakespeare plays that were rewritten for eighteenth century audiences. [This conversation has been edited and condensed for ease of reading.]

The 18th century is when Shakespeare goes from being just one playwright among many, to being this sort of iconic literary figure. Is there an argument to be made that the practice of altering his plays for popular audiences at the time is part of what helped him become so popular and attain the status he has today?

Yes, by changing Shakespeare to basically fit the tastes of the time, Shakespeare becomes much more interesting to his audience. And it also demonstrates for generations after how malleable Shakespeare is.

We have this concept of Shakespeare now as almost this kind of holy icon that you can’t touch — how dare you leave out one of his lines, or how dare you cast this person in that role? He has this kind of aura of distance and untouchability. That’s not at all how the late 17th century and the 18th century viewed him. It was like, “Oh, he came from this kind of barbaric time, in the 16th century, and they spoke weirdly then, and they had this crazy idea of combining genres, which we have nothing to do with. We follow neoclassical principles, and we like the concepts of poetic justice, so we need to fix Shakespeare.” And they hated his puns, [which they saw as feminine].

The eighteenth century is also when Shakespeare becomes widely available in print, thanks to new mass editions that contain faithful versions of the text. Is it weird for audiences that at home they’re reading Shakespeare in his original version, and then they go and see him on stage and it’s completely different?

There were multiple collected works of Shakespeare’s plays, printed by Jacob Tonson and his publishing company. That company, according to Michael Dobson’s book The Making of the National Poet, had a massive role in shaping the canon of English literature because they started pumping out Milton and Shakespeare for popular audiences.

Title page from The Works of William Shakespeare, printed by Jacob Tonson in 1709. Facing page features Shakespeare's picture surrounded by angels.

But I think it’s still important to remember that the majority of people are not literate at the time. They’re more literate than they were when Shakespeare was writing, but it’s still not a majority of the population by a long stretch. So it’s really a minority of people that are doing the reading at home and then are going to see the plays. And then those are our critics, right? The people that ask, “Why did you do this? Or why did you change this? Or that kind of thing.”


I think also many people might’ve gone to the theater and seen Shakespeare to feel improved. So I think the classic example, from the late 17th century, is Nahum Tate’s History of King Lear, which is the classic example of giving Shakespeare’s most tragic tragedy a happy ending. And that version of the play dominated the London stage: it was the definitive version of King Lear from the end of the 17th century into the first half of the 19th century.

Cordelia gets a romance, there’s no Fool…

Cordelia gets a romance, exactly. She gets her love, Edgar. King Lear gets to rule. The bad people are punished. The good people get rewarded. It’s poetic justice. 

When the poet John Dryden is criticizing Shakespeare and rewriting The Tempest. Shakespeare has only been dead for around 50 years. It’s like if I’m criticizing Faulkner or Hemingway. He’s not this distant figure. He’s pretty recent for Dryden, right? 

Yeah. And maybe Dryden would have known William Davenant, who’s rumored to have been Shakespeare’s illegitimate son, or maybe godson. Davenant had these claims to having known Shakespeare. Dryden was also not so many degrees separated from Shakespeare. 

But Dryden, too, is writing from this kind of conviction of neoclassical unities and neoclassical ideals. And so this is where he’s like, “Shakespeare needs help.” And Dryden in his version of The Tempest is looking for balance, right? So like, Caliban gets a Lady Caliban. 


So there’s this notion that all these couplings need to be paired, and the element of tragedy or isolation needs to be rolled back. And again, this interest in staging the notion that the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished. 

And I think that’s something that [people in] the late 17th century and 18th century really struggled with, I think: the absence of a clear moral message or any kind of didacticism in Shakespeare’s plays. I think you go to a Shakespeare play and you can come out of it and you’re like, “Well, what? This is not a play that’s telling me how to live my life. This is not a play that’s giving me a clear moral message. It’s a play that’s showing that chaos can happen to — if we’re going to a tragedy — chaos can happen to anyone.”

And if you find yourself in a tragedy, you’re also going to encounter comedy. And if you find yourself in a comedy, you’re also going to encounter tragedy. I think that was tough for late 17th century and 18th century writers to stomach. They wanted these kind of Aristotelian ideals present in their art, and they found Shakespeare lacking that.

Speaking of Caliban getting a Lady Caliban, obviously one of the things that changes is women aren’t allowed on the stage in Shakespeare’s day. And then at some point, I guess, in the Restoration, women are on the stage a lot. Women even played men’s roles — the role of Romeo in Romeo and Juliet was commonly played by a woman, because it was seen as a feminine character. But maybe one reason to add more female characters to Shakespeare’s plays because we need to create parts for all these women. For example, the altered Macbeth has a much bigger role for Lady Macduff, to create balance with Lady Macbeth. 

Is there an argument that these are more feminist, in a way? That we could view these as a more feminist version of Shakespeare?

That’s interesting. I would not initially say yes. I mean, I guess it’s like maybe typical of a literary critic to be like, Yes and no. I can see both sides. 

I guess because you’re expanding these roles, you’re expanding the possibilities for women to demonstrate themselves as powerful actors, as powerful interpreters of Shakespeare. And you’re giving them that influence in the theatrical world. So, on the one hand, now we’re seeing more women, but what are those roles really like?

In the adaptations that I’ve written about, we see new roles that are invented for women that don’t exist in Shakespeare’s plays, or maybe an expansion of women’s roles that are in Shakespeare’s plays. But at the same time, those roles can be, for like a contemporary feminist, disappointing. 

There’s this thing that some critics call “she-tragedy,” that emerges in the late 17th and 18th centuries and it’s this idea of a woman who has to sacrifice herself for the good of the nation. The woman is ultimately marginalized or dies, but there’s some kind of positive outcome for the nation, or for the male protagonist.

On the one hand, we’ve got this this whole profession of “actress” that’s developing and this whole [group] of women who are becoming influential in creating and interpreting Shakespeare. [Take] Anne Oldfield, who’s acting at the end of the 17th century: She really uses her profession to secure her own financial independence and to be influential in the theaters at the time. And someone like Peg Woffington, who even before [David] Garrick comes onto the scene, is an important interpreter of Shakespeare. 

And in the 18th century, you have something called the Shakespeare Ladies Club. These are women who are getting together to support the reading and publishing of Shakespeare, or Shakespeare performances. So you do have a sense that women’s influence is increasing. And there’s a wonderful scholar named Fiona Ritchie who’s written Women and Shakespeare in the 18th Century. She makes the argument that women make Shakespeare, and Shakespeare also makes women, because of how they interpret his plays and the roles that he creates for women.

So you’ve edited this volume of five of these plays. Why should people read these versions of Shakespeare? 

I think that’s a totally fair question. And I guess what I would say is I think they are weird and also super interesting for having insight into a time when Shakespeare was this person who could be molded, who could be kind of torn apart and rethought. People have very strong opinions about the plays that I looked at, because they weren’t particularly successful.

But they were also really trying to respond to a tumultuous political time at the beginning of the 18th century when there were multiple constitutional crises in Britain. Where, basically to make a long story short, the Brits had to look to their German cousins, the Hanoverians, to get a Protestant on the throne because they didn’t want anyone who was Catholic and that basically created a fight for the throne that went on into the mid-18th century. There was a massive financial crisis in 1720 with the bursting of the South Sea bubble. 

They’re looking to Shakespeare as a means of responding to tumult, uncertainty and political uncertainty. So I think [these versions of his plays] are worth exploring to see, how are other people responding to uncertainty and chaos in history? And how did they use Shakespeare to do that?

You talked before about how people like Samuel Johnson hated Shakespeare’s wordplay because they thought it was too feminine. And some of the sexual puns were also removed from his plays. But the idea in the popular imagination is that Shakespeare was bowdlerized — though that was more in the early nineteenth century. Most people believe that Shakespeare was sanitized and all the dirty stuff was taken out, and that was the main thing that happened. But in fact, it’s much more complicated than that. That’s kind of the final takeaway, right? 

Yeah, absolutely. So, “bowdlerized” refers to The Bowdler Family Shakespeare. Which actively sought to eradicate all the sexual bits that were inappropriate for a family’s copy of Shakespeare. And of course, ironically, at the same time, then revealing to everyone what Bowdler knows to be sexually inappropriate, right?


But in the late 17th century, the Restoration is known as being really, bawdy, if we think about Aphra Behn, Colley Cibber, and other folks in the late 17th century — until there’s actually a law that comes in that tries to restrain the bawdiness on stage. And I think through changing some of the language, that that’s how they get [the dirty bits] out. 

I think some of the language is also changed just because they don’t understand it. English is actively changing at this time, right? It’s a dynamic language, so it’s also important to realize that Shakespeare’s language for his 18th century readers and listeners was not necessarily super easy to understand. So edits come in that way.

Edits come in also just because they’re trying to create ideals in Shakespeare. And Shakespeare’s not really interested in ideals, I would say. So that’s where the interest for neoclassical unities comes in, but also to these kinds of pairings that we see, like the creation of heroic lovers which happens throughout the adaptations that I talk about, but also just throughout the adaptations of Shakespeare. Like, let’s introduce a new pair of heroic lovers so we have this ideal of love.

So all along the way, they’re trying to kind of create an ideal, because again, I think it goes back to this notion of the stage as an edifying art, that we should be teaching people from the stage, we should be offering them a clear moral message. 

And that’s way more complicated than just oh, we can’t refer to genitalia. You can’t include this third dick joke of the play. And other [dirty jokes] probably just got in there anyway, because they didn’t realize that they were a pun, you know? Like, “nothing” is slang for “vagina.”

So, Much Ado About Nothing is basically… Oh my gosh, I did not know that. 


Holy cow.

Yeah, Much Ado About Nothing is a play about a vagina, right? I mean, it’s basically all about your virginity.

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