Shakespeare, Updated

There has been a lot of reaction, good and bad, to the news that the Hogarth Press, an imprint of Random House, plans to commission bestselling authors to write novels based on and updating Shakespeare’s plays. The project has a noble purpose – to honor the upcoming 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 1616 – but many Shakespeare fans are appalled that their beloved poet is being sullied.

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King Lear, Benjamin West, c. 1788

They needn’t be. It has been ever thus. Case in point: King Lear, which scholars believe Shakespeare adapted from an existing play (The anonymous 1605 King Leir, which was itself an adaptation of the story as it appeared in Holinshed’s Chronicles) and then himself adapted during his life time – there are two distinct versions, one appearing in 1608 and the other in the 1623 Folio, and textual analysis seems to point to the differences in the two versions being attempts by the author to improve the play and also to remove material that had become offensive to the authorities in the politically turbulent decade between 1606 (when it was written) and 1616. Shakespeare also cribbed the Gloucester plot from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), thereby adapting a history and a novel into his stage play.

King Lear is an excellent example of Shakespeare’s “updating” of an old story – the legend of King Lyr takes place in prehistoric Celtic Briton, and itself echoes the ancient fairytale motif of the rejected daughter, known variously as “Cap O’ Rushes” and “As Meat Loves Salt.” Shakespeare gave the ancient tale “modern” flourishes, such as naming Lear’s sons-in-law the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany – titles that certainly didn’t exist in Briton 23 centuries before the play’s date. However, these titles were occupied at the time of the play’s first premiere by King James’s sons, Henry and Charles. There are many references to modern courtly manners and political scandals, and even a jab at Jacobean court ladies whose new fashion for low-plunging gowns bared half their torso:

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Frances Howard, by William Larkin, 1615

Thou art a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st
Which scarcely keeps thee warm.

And then the next generation of playmakers further adapted King Lear to their own tastes. The London theaters, shut down by the Puritan Parliament in 1642, reopened with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and Shakespeare was a mainstay of the new stage while re-employed playwrights scurried to pen their own plays. One of these playwrights, Nahum Tate, took it upon himself to “improve” Shakespeare, giving Lear a happy ending in which Cordelia marries Edgar and restores Lear to the throne. ImageThis version was so much preferred by English audiences to Shakespeare’s grim, tragic version, that it was the only version performed until the early 1800s, when the Romantic poets and literary scholars began seeking to “restore” the “original” Shakespeare. Tate was far from the only writer to adapt Shakespeare in Shakespeare’s own century – John Dryden also “improved” several Shakespeare plays to fit the neoclassic unities – Antony and Cleopatra became All for Love, and The Tempest became The Enchanted Island.

King Lear and its tragic vision have survived these “updates” and will continue to – it’s one of the most-filmed of Shakespeare’s plays, and has been adapted by a global cast of great filmmakers. One of the earliest, Re Lear, a 1910 silent Italian film, drops the Gloucester subplot. Grigory Kosintzev’s Korol Lir (1971) added a bleak existential look to the tale, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) set the story in feudal Japan. Jane Smiley famously adapted the tale in her 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, turning Lear into the dictatorial wealthy farmowner who sets his three adult daughters against one another, and the play was also adapted into a 2002 made-for-TV version, King of Texas.

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Yet the “original” King Lear (whatever that is – any stage director or editor must decide whether to present the 1608 quarto, the 1623 folio, or the more common “conflated” version) lives on. There are powerful “traditional” versions available on DVD – Peter Brooke’s 1950’s version starring Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier’s empathic performance from 1985, Richard Eyre’s beautiful and bleak 2004 production (in which he often rearranges scene order to suit his storytelling), and the recent acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Ian McKellan. All are vastly different in style, set in different time periods and countries, and all have managed to keep the play alive for generations of  fans.

So I have no fear that this recent plan to “update” Shakespeare will tarnish the bard’s enduring appeal. 400 years of adaptations haven’t managed to do so yet.

Further Reading:
Grace Ioppolo, Revising Shakespeare, Harvard Univ. Press, 1992.
Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, eds., The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of King Lear, Clarendon, 1983.
Steven Urkowitz, Shakespeare’s Revision of King Lear, Princeton Univ. Press, 1980.