Clean-up in the Shakespeare Aisle

There is nothing wrong with Shakespeare that couldn’t be fixed by getting rid of all the violence, and, oh! those sad endings. So many of his plays end with a pile of bodies on stage and no detective to sort it all out for us and arrest the bad guys. No one leaves the theater smiling after seeing one of those productions.

For the first few generations of critics and theater producers that followed Shakespeare, this was a common attitude. The audiences loved Shakespeare from the start, the 1590s, when his plays started to be performed in London, even if they missed some of his … finer points. There were a lot of entertaining murders, after all.

Dr. Simon Forman was a doctor and astrologer of the era who would be forgotten except he kept a diary about his day-to-day life in 1610. In it, he recounts seeing several Shakespeare plays live in production at the Globe Theater. He describes seeing Macbeth on April 20, 1610, in what may have been the earliest production of the tragedy. He only devotes a couple paragraphs to describing the play and crams several acts into this:

Simon Forman's diary

Simon Forman’s diary

Then was Macbeth crowned kings; and then he, for fear of Banquo, his old companion, that he should beget kings but be no king himself, he contrived the death of Banquo, and caused him to be murdered on his way as he rode. The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had to bid to a feast, to the which also Banquo should have come, he began to speak of noble Banquo, and to wish that he were there. And as he did thus, standing up to drink a carouse to him, the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he, turning about to sit down again, saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury, uttering many words about his murder, by which, when they hard that Banquo was murdered, they suspected Macbeth. Then MackDove fled to England to the kinges sonn, and soon they raised an army and cam to Scotland, and at Dunstonanse overthrue Macbeth. In the meantime, while MacDove was in England, Macbeth slew MackDove’s wife and children, and after in the battle MackDove slewe Macbeth. Observe also how Macbeth’s queen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walked and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words.

Macbeth was an action movie. Did Dr. Forman notice the themes of ambition, the arrogance inside pointless ambition, or the violence that that begets? Perhaps, but the revenge plot seems to have been the shiny bauble that caught his attention.

Enter Nahum Tate to the rescue. The Poet Laureate from 1692 till his death in 1715, in 1681 he wrote King Lear. You may have heard of King Lear, but that one, the one by a writer named William Shakespeare, that one is too sad. Cordelia is killed, Lear carries her dead body to the stage where he then dies, every audience member with a heart is weeping, and “Who wants a snack now? Anyone?” Everyone wants to go to bed and hide under the covers after seeing a performance of that number. Dr. Samuel Johnson thought that Shakespeare had gone too far in killing Cordelia; it “shocked” him, he said. He preferred a play called The History of King Lear by Nahum Tate.

And who wouldn’t? It has a happy ending. Tate’s Lear ends with Lear killing Cordelia’s executioners like an action hero arriving as the bad guy’s bombs click down 3-2-1, and then Lear announces a wedding: He will give Cordelia’s hand in marriage to Edgar. Lear then says that he is old and will retire to die sometime soon and gives his kingdom to the newly engaged. Edgar speaks the last line: “Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed.”

Tate did not try to put across his play as Shakespeare’s or as something superior to the Bard’s work; the title page of the printed edition says it was “revised with alterations,” and he writes a poem of praise to his forebear:

‘Twere worth our While t’ have drawn you in this day
By a new Name to our old honest Play;
But he that did this Evenings Treat prepare
Bluntly resolv’d before-hand to declare
Your Entertainment should be most old Fare.
Yet hopes, since in rich Shakespear’s soil it grew,
‘Twill relish yet with those whose Tasts are True,
And his Ambition is to please a Few.

“Shakespeare’s rich soil.” He goes on to state that plays ought to teach morals:

Why shou’d these Scenes lie hid, in which we find
What may at Once divert and teach the Mind?
Morals were alwaies proper for the Stage,
But are ev’n necessary in this Age.
Poets must take the Churches Teaching Trade …

For more than a century, Tate’s Lear was the play that theater-goers saw when they attended a production of King Lear. In the mid-1800s, the tragic ending was restored and around that time Shakespeare’s original version became the revolutionary and new version of Lear that everyone was talking about.

In the early 1800s, Thomas Bowdler came up with an idea: an edited edition of Shakespeare. His thinking was that if Shakespeare’s plays are of value, why not make those values more obvious? His Family Shakespeare promised to be an edition “in which nothing is added to the original Text: but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” A parent or teacher could confidently place the Family Shakespeare in the hands of a pupil and leave them alone with it “without fear”:

From [it] the pupil may derive instruction as well as pleasure; may improve his moral principles, while he refines his taste; and without incurring the danger of being hurt with any indelicacy of expression, may learn the fate of Macbeth, that even a kingdom is dearly purchased, if virtue be the price of acquisition.

Bowdler’s version of Macbeth sounds a bit boring after Dr. Forman’s description of an action-movie Macbeth from two centuries before.

Among his edits, Bowdler changed “Out, damned spot!” to “Out, crimson spot!” and he converted Ophelia’s suicide in Hamlet to an accident, which gives the lie to his claim that there would be “nothing added to the original text.”

Just as Tate was ridiculed in his time yet saw his renditions of the plays become popular in their own right, Bowdler was also ridiculed in his time but saw his editions become the best known version of Shakespeare’s plays for generations.

His name became a verb: “To bowdlerize” means to clean up a famous work and make it more “family-oriented.” A hundred years later, the entry for Thomas Bowdler in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, the most famous edition of that encyclopedia, plainly states what drives bowdlerization: “false squeamishness.”

* * * *
This first appeared in November 2014. I’ve cleaned it up a bit from that first publication.

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2 comments

  1. Leigh W. Smith · November 17

    I didn’t know (or didn’t remember) this about Lear. Thank you for sharing it, Mark—very interesting, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · November 17

      Thank you, Leigh. I’m here to remind us of things we all already knew …

      (And thank you for your enormously kind words on my article/column last week.)

      Liked by 1 person

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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