Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Our Drooping Country Now Erects Her Head: Nahum Tate's History of King Lear

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Our Drooping Country Now Erects Her Head: Nahum Tate's History of King Lear

Article excerpt

It was once thought that 'political considerations' had 'a minimum of direct effect' on Tate's rewriting of King Lear. (1) However, for some time now critics have attended to the play's contemporary political significance, placing it squarely in the political context of its period, and particularly of the exclusion crisis in the 1680s. (2) This article seeks to extend the discussion of Tate's rewriting of Edmund, Edgar, and Albany and to consider how a contemporary audience might have read them in the light of the politics of the day; for however Shakespeare's audience would have reacted to them, even names could sometimes suggest something different by the 1680s.

Tate seems to have consulted both quarto and folio versions of Shakespeare's play. (3) Beginning with the quarto, he then turned to the folio, where the conclusion is precipitated not by invasion but by civil war, which was more to his purpose, and developed that somewhat (IV.2.100). In his King Lear a political crisis involving banishment, exclusion, and the overturning of legitimacy (especially in the Gloster plot, which now stands more prominently at the beginning of the play) leads to the abuse of freedom and eventually to internecine conflict. Despite its justification, an uprising to restore rather than depose monarchy and traditional order fails. It is a potent warning of the consequences of the wilful disturbance of proper succession that initiated the action in the first place.

The political situation in 1680 was so tense that there was a real fear, according to Bishop Burnet, that there would be another civil war over exclusion:

This was like either to end in a rebellion, or in an abject submission of the Nation to the humours of the Court. I confess, that which I apprehended most was rebellion, tho' it turned afterwards quite the other way. But men of more experience, and who had better advantages to make a true judgement of the temper of the Nation, were mistaken as well as myself. (4)

William Lloyd, preaching before the House of Lords on 5 November 1680, gave the same warning. (5) To supporters of the legitimate succession, the banishment of Kent, Cordelia, and Edgar would have suggested the potential predicament of the Duke of York, should the exclusionists triumph. The alternative to the legitimate Duke of York was the illegitimate Duke of Monmouth. It has already been recognized that a number of similarities between Monmouth and Edmund are suggested as the play continues. The Duke was attractive, if not particularly intelligent, and was certainly considered by many contemporaries to live a libertine life. The development of that aspect of Shakespeare's Edmund by Tate would have offered obvious parallels. By his own admission Edmund disregards conscience: 'Awe thou thy dull legitimate slaves', he says, for 'I | Was born a libertine, and so keep me' (V.5.19-20). In Shakespeare, Edmund's calculated self-interest had always had a sexual aspect in his adulterous alliances with Goneril and Regan; now this is extended and more blatant. First of all he is very quick to wish to become a part of the revelling, self-indulgent life of feasting and masking at the court of Gonerill and Regan, the noise of their entertainment drowning the storm while they callously disregard those on the heath. In Tate's play Edmund receives messages from both Gonerill and Regan before the blinding of his father and is 'sick of expectation, | [panting] for the possession' (III.2.26-27). In his opening speech in Act III, Scene 2, social aspiration combines with sexual desire:

Oh for a taste of such majestic beauty,

Which none but my hot veins are fit t'engage!

Nor are my wishes desperate, for even now

During the banquet I observed their glances

Shot thick at me; and as they left the room

Each cast by stealth a kind inviting smile,

The happy earnest--

(III.2. …

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