Tate’s adaptation of King Lear

Nahum Tate (1652–1715) was an Irish poet and (from 1692) poet laureate of England. In 1681, after Shakespeare’s King Lear had been performed without much success, Tate produced (and published) an adaptation of the work to make it more palatable for theatre audiences.

While King Lear is now commonly regarded as one of the greatest examples of Shakespeare’s genius and a seminal work both on page and stage, the play has a mixed and anxious critical reception history due to its disturbing exploration of themes of unnaturalness and disorder, and its onstage presentation of successive and unrelenting acts of cruelty.

Tate made major revisions including introducing a love story between Edgar and Cordelia, having Cordelia remain in England throughout, cutting the character of the Fool entirely, and resolving the play with a happy ending. Tate’s Lear lives, naming Cordelia queen and betrothing her to Edgar.

Tate’s sentimental version received censure from many literary critics over the years, but was very popular with theatre audiences who were perhaps unwilling to subject themselves to the tragedy and horror of Shakespeare’s play. Tate’s adaptation remained the basis of most productions of King Lear for over 150 years and it was only in 1838 that Shakespeare’s text returned to the stage.

Garrick’s notes

The fragile copy digitised here was published in 1756. It was owned by the famous British actor and playwright David Garrick (1717–1779), who used it as the promptbook for his 1756 production of King Lear. Responding to a small number of public figures who called for a return to Shakespeare’s text, Garrick advertised the production as including ‘restorations from Shakespeare’. In fact only a few lines were reinserted, although Garrick did delete a large number of Nahum Tate’s additions. This copy is filled with extensive annotations in Garrick’s hand.