Sir William Davenant's Use of Shakespeare in 'The Law against Lovers' (1662)

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Sir William Davenant's The Law Against Lovers (1662) was the first adaptation of Shakespeare performed on the Restoration stage after the reopening of the London theatres. This amalgamation unites Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado About Nothing with Angelo and Isabella from Measure for Measure, resulting in a bizarre and fascinating combination. There have been many attempts to explain Davenant's unusual treatment of Shakespeare; most scholars have attributed Davenant's changes to either aesthetic or political motivations. In the most recent study of The Law Against Lovers, A. D. Harvey asserts that Davenant "may be counted amongst the Bard's least sensitive adapters" and condemns his "radical structural vandalism" of Shakespeare's plays. Similarly, N. W. Bawcutt remarks that "the effect of Davenant's alterations is to reduce Shakespeare's play to a meaningless jumble."(1) Others have proposed various political reasons for Davenant to combine these two plays in such a fashion. Michael Dobson maintains that Davenant's adaptation is a "royalist drama" which "wishes to erase" all of the "crimes, discomforts, and civil strife" of the Commonwealth period. Nancy Klein Maguire similarly tries to connect the play to the Restoration political climate, arguing that Davenant "perhaps to stabilize the new regime, stresses that obligations are based on accepted duties rather than on personal loyalty."(2) However, these political and aesthetic readings do not adequately explain Davenant's adaptation.(3) Davenant's changes to Shakespeare were clear and calculated choices made by an experienced theatre manager attempting to capture current audience taste for entertainment; the need to create a successful play took precedence over any desire to craft political parallels or improve Shakespeare aesthetically. For a clearer understanding of Davenant's motives in creating The Law Against Lovers, we must look to the conditions of theatrical production in the early years of the Restoration.

Theatre historians have excused Davenant's treatment of Shakespeare by arguing that Davenant was legally required to adapt extensively the old plays in his possession before performing them, resulting in such plays as The Law Against Lovers. For instance, John Freehafer asserts that "Davenant was legally obliged to `reform' those plays, as a prescribed condition for obtaining the right to perform them .... Whether or not Davenant wished to `reform' those `ancient' plays, he bound himself to do so in order to obtain plays his company badly needed."(4) Davenant's warrant demands that he "reform" and "make fit" the plays granted to him before producing them;(5) several other contemporary theatrical documents show that the requirement to reform and make plays fit for the stage simply means to clean up any obscene passages. In the King's grant of August, 1660, both Davenant and Killigrew were forbidden to "at any time Hereafter cause to be acted or represented any Play Enterlude or opera Containing any Matter of Prophanation, Scurrility or Obscenity." They were also commanded to "peruse all playes that haue ben formerly written and to expunge all Prophanesse and scurility from the same, before they be represented or Acted."(6) A similar decree for purging profanity from plays appears in a letter issued to the Cockpit players on October 13, 1660, where Master of the Revels Sir Henry Herbert reminds the troupe to "bringe or sende to me All such old Plaies As you doe Intende to Acte at the saide playhouse, that they may be reformed of Prophanes & Ribaldry, at your perill."(7) A later document from 1663 issued by the Master of the Revels clarifies the required changes before plays could be printed: "all prophanenes, oathes, ribaldry, and matters reflecting vpon piety, and the present governement may bee obliterated, before there bee any action [vpon] in a publique Theatre." The document adds that plays must be purged of "all vnsauoury words, & vnbecomming expressions, (not fitt to bee lycenced in a Christian Commonwealth). …


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