Today we revere the works of Shakespeare and see in him all our desires mirrored. He is the true depicter of human nature. He is the one who can begin to express the inexpressible. He is the son of a glover. He is a noble. He is Catholic. He is an atheist. Whatever we want, we find in him. And yet we continue to try to find the real Shakspeare, to stage the adaptation that most closely captures his work, to compile the collection that contains the most authentic scripts, to mourn the existence of No Fear Shakepeares.
In the Restoration, however, admiration of the Bard did not translate into worship of his words or a quest to find his true intentions. Rather, authors felt free to adapt his plays, expanding, cutting, and simply rewriting them to make them more marketable or, in their eyes, just plain “better.” The results are sometimes strange, sometimes startlingly good. Below are a few plays to get you started in the world of Shakespeare on the Restoration stage.
William Davenant and John Dryden’s The Tempest; or The Enchanted Island
Davenant and Dryden’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s late romance transforms the work from an extended meditation on the role of the playwright to a Restoration rom com. Did you like Miranda? Well, let’s multiply that! Miranda now has a sister Dorinda who has also never seen a man and Prospero’s been hiding Hippolito, a man who has never seen a woman, in a cave somewhere on the island. Let the romantic hijinks ensue! If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, consider that Ariel also has a love interest and Caliban has a sister whom the marooned seaman will try to woo as they fight for control of the island. And, since it’s the Restoration, there are many musical numbers, including some singing demons.
William Davenant’s Macbeth
The introduction of actresses on the Restoration stage meant that adaptations of Shakespeare often expanded the roles available to women. Davenant’s Macbeth depicts Lady Macduff as the antithesis of Lady Macbeth, the virtuous woman who counsels her husband to abandon ambition even as Lady Macbeth urges her husband on to murder. It also gave the witches the opportunity to sing and dance.
Nahum Tate’s King Lear
Perhaps the most infamous of Restoration adaptations, Tate’s version gives King Lear a happy ending, marrying Cordelia to Edgar. Critics seem divided over the merits of the play, but it enjoyed a long stage life, suggesting that audiences, at least, enjoyed the change. Fans of the Fool, however, will be disappointed to learn that Tate cut his role entirely.