Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"Nothing Can Come of Nothing": Systems of Exchange in Tate's King Lear

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

"Nothing Can Come of Nothing": Systems of Exchange in Tate's King Lear

Article excerpt

In the dedication to his King Lear (1681), Nahum Tate recalls his first impression of William Shakespeare's original (1606): "a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht, yet so dazling in their Disorder" (Dedication 295). Although some of Tate's language is appreciative, his resistance to Shakespearean "Disorder" reveals his editorial role. It was common practice for Restoration playwrights to bowdlerize and modernize Shakespeare to suit contemporary tastes. James Howard's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (performed after 1662) rewrites Shakespeare's ending and allows the two lovers to survive. John Dryden and William Davenant s revision of The Tempest (1667) expands the cast list, enabling a slew of romantic pairings, with even a fairy lover for Ariel. In his King Lear, arguably the most successful of these adaptations, Tate fashions a romance between Cordelia and Edgar and permits Lear and Cordelia to live and reign at the end of the play. Not merely clarifications or additions, these radical plot alterations allow Tate to reveal and revise two latent systems of exchange, which originate in Shakespeare's text. These systems of exchange, motivated by Cordelia's refusal to participate in the linguistic contest and, in Tate's play, her refusal to be given away in an arranged marriage, will be the focus of this article, as they are traced to their counterparts in Restoration cultural norms.

In 1681, Tate was just at the beginning of a fruitful literary career, though his talent for adaptation already had been established. Shortly before he wrote his King Lear, Tate had staged an ill-timed revision of Shakespeare's Richard I, entitled The Sicilian Usurper (1680). The play survived for only two performances due to its politically sensitive subject matterHenry Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne- and its presentation during the Exclusion Crisis, the contestation of James Us impending succession.1 Along with King Lear, Tate's later Ingratitude of a Commonwealth (1682), an adaptation of Coriolanus, was staged to counter Tory criticism and affirm his royalist leanings.2 Tate's adaptations were not limited to Shakespeare. His Cuckolds-Haven (1685) was based on the Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston drama Eastward Ho!, and he later adapted John Webster's White Devil as Injur'd Love (1707). King Lear remains his best-known adaptation, and he is still celebrated for his libretto to Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689) and his New Version of the Psalms of David (from 1694).

Despite his literary successes, which culminated in his appointment as poet laureate in 1692, Tate was treated with derision by many of his contemporaries, including Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. Swift's Tale of a Tub (1704) ridicules Tate in the dedicatory section: "There is another call'd Nahum Tate, who is ready to make Oath that he has caused many Rheams of Verse to be published, whereof both himself and his Bookseller (if lawfully required) can still produce authentick Copies, and therefore wonders why the World is pleased to make such a Secret of it" (23). Swift's contention, that Tate's "Rheams of Verse" are never publicly discussed, implies that Tate's writings are unpopular and impermanent.3 Longer and more incisive than Swift's, Pope's criticism of Tate appears in his "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" (1735):

The bard whom pilfered pastorals renown,

Who turns a Persian tale for half a crown,

Just writes to make his barrenness appear,

And strains from hard-bound brains, eight lines a year;

He, who still wanting, though he lives on theft,

Steals much, spends little, yet has nothing left:

And he, who now to sense, now nonsense leaning,

Means not, but blunders round about a meaning:

And he, whose fustian's so sublimely bad,

It is not poetry, but prose run mad:

All these, my modest satire bad translate,

And owned that nine such poets made a Tate. (Pope 179-90)

Pope initially criticizes Tate's fame for revision, which, in his opinion, stems from Tate's lack of originality: "he lives on theft" since he can only write "eight lines a year. …

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