The history of The History of King Lear

From 1681 to 1838, performances of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy King Lear had a happy ending.

King Lear's daughters
Museo de Arte de Ponce, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(Spoilers for King Lear follow, obviously.)

There’s a funny moment in the film Gremlins 2. A voice-over promo runs for a Turner-Classic-Movies-esque TV channel: “Tonight on the Clamp Cable Classic Movie Channel, don’t miss Casablanca, now in full colour. With a happier ending!” I think about that gag a lot.

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s peak tragedies. Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, MacbethKing Lear. The ending of King Lear is famously dark. In the source materials, the titular protagonist is restored to his lost throne by his faithful daughter Cordelia, and she goes on to be queen herself after. Shakespeare did away with that happy ending: he killed off both Cordelia and Lear.

This was a shocking twist for contemporary audiences. Possibly as a result of this departure from the plot, King Lear was not a popular play. The original version may have only been performed once in Shakespeare’s lifetime. In 1681, an Irish poet named Nahum Tate decided to do something about that. He put out his own version.

Tate’s The History of King Lear retained much of Shakespeare’s text. But he cut out the Fool (how dare he!) and he rewrote the ending. Lear lives, Cordelia lives and marries Edgar. The revised play ends with trite pablum:

Thy bright example shall convince the World
(Whatever Storms of Fortune are decreed)
That Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed.

The History of King Lear

Tate’s adaptation was immensely popular. For the next hundred and fifty years, every performance of King Lear was actually this bowdlerized version. It wasn’t until 1823 that anyone even tried the tragic version again, and it wasn’t until 1838 that anyone successfully brought back the fool and the unhappy ending.

The actor who restored Shakespeare’s beautiful tragedy to the stage was none other than William Macready – one of the instigators of the Astor Place Riot. His friend-turned-enemy Edwin Forrest followed Macready’s lead and reintroduced the original King Lear to the United States. Pretty much every performance since then has returned to the tragic ending.

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