Since Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” was written in 1592 (Royal Shakespeare Company), there have been many adaptations of his works created in “an overwhelming variety of ways,” (Fischlin & Fortier 1). Through critical theory, academics have become increasingly interested in the interpretation, authorship, and originality of Shakespeare’s works and why adaptations of it are produced. Two such plays that have had a diversity of adaptation are King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew, which will be the focus of this exploration into how historical and cultural contexts inform adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.
They will demonstrate the uncertainty surrounding the origins of texts and the evolution of plays with respect to their cultural atmosphere of the original Lear and Shrew.
The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world comes in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet written on his deathbed: “There is an upstart crow – is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
” (Spencer, Bevington & Brown). For Greene, it was incredibly frustrating that someone from humble origins, coming from Stratford-Upon-Avon, had risen to such a highly respected standard of authorship. An explanation for this frustration could be that Shakespeare was “not original but an impostor “beautified with our feathers,'” (McCrum). It has been widely contested that Shakespeare himself was not the original mind behind the ideas he wrote in his plays, hence being named an “imposter”, that his work was derivative of older texts – wherein Shakespeare’s works could be argued to be adaptations themselves.
It was said that Shakespeare built upon older stories that already existed, the first writings about the story of “Lear” are included in the History of the Kings of Britain, written by Geoffrey Monmouth in 1135, indicating Shakespeare’s Lear was not the first instance of this story. However, Shakespeare’s borrowings were “typical of Renaissance compositional practice ” based on a mastery of imitation,” (Fischlin & Fortier 9) where many of the plays written in a similar time period to Shakespeare’s also employed this technique.
Wollheim asserts the idea of the “type-token thesis,” (Kidnie 18) where an instance of the idea of the original text is known as a “token,” so variations of the text that are produced later are not assimilated with the original play, for example, Nahum Tate’s King Lear. Shakespeare’s original Lear ends with a somewhat apocalyptic tone, where the audience is left without expectation of Lear’s kingdom recovering from its hardships, the final line stating, “The oldest have borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long,” (Iopollo 115). Shakespeare’s conclusion is wholly conflicting to the redemption of Tate’s, where Shakespeare creates a catastrophic ending, and Tate gives the audience a restoration, ending with the resolution of Lear and Cordelia’s conflict. Historically, Tate’s Lear is said to have displaced the original for over a century and a half, until 1838, (Thom, 2018) with its more pleasant ending, “Our drooping Country now erects her Head ” That Truth and Vertue shall at last succeed,” (Fischlin & Fortier 96). This adaptation was extremely popular with its audience in 1681, written in the 20 years after the restoration of the monarchy. The years prior to the restoration of Charles the 2nd were particularly turbulent politically and ended with Charles’ predecessor being executed by the government, contextualizing Tate’s reasoning as to why he opted for his Lear not to conclude with political disaster but instead in restoration. Hazelton Spencer was amongst the first to argue that rather than attempting to improve Shakespeare, the revision of his plays to the Restoration stage was “primarily a political activity,” (Wikander 340) emphasized through Tate’s adaptation of Lear, where he effectively subdues the atmosphere of political dissension in Shakespeare’s original.
“Tatification” (Wikander 351) is recognized as the term used for altering Shakespeare’s texts, derived from Tate’s adaptation of Lear. Tate’s adaptation stood apart from other contemporary plays due to its focus upon the happiness of its ending, one of restoration instead of “the horrors that other plays concentrate upon,” (Wikander 353). Most notably, Tate altered King Lear so that Cordelia would live, which was particularly popular with the Restoration audience. It was written by one critic that he was “so shocked by Cordelia’s death [in the original Lear] that I know not whether I ever endured reading again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor,” (Johnson, 1765). Before adapting King Lear, Tate also adapted Richard II, which the government suppressed for its depiction of the deposition of the king twice in December 1680 (Thom, 2018), as to not incite political disruption. This suppression of Tate’s work that embodied more violent themes, like Shakespeare’s original King Lear, offers some explanation as to why Tate adapted Lear to end in restoration, without the deaths of any royals. Against a background of fierce monarchical loyalty, Tate’s restorative theme is made explicit in Edgar’s line, “with himself, revealed the King’s blest Restauration,” (Tate 56). A “blest” restoration of the king would have been received particularly positively by the audience to which Tate’s adaptation was performed in 1681, deep into Charles the 2nd’s reign. Tate’s revision removes the most violent aspects of the original Lear that could hark back to England’s civil war, which had the potential to once again incite political unrest in the country for those supporters of the Cromwellian rule which remained. The cultural atmosphere of political unrest in which Tate’s Lear was produced provides ample explanation for the adaptations he made to the original, where he subdued the catastrophic loss Shakespeare created to fit the political climate of his own era.
Another adaptation of Shakespeare’s work is that of The Woman’s Prize by John Fletcher, a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and created in 1611, a year before he began collaborating with Shakespeare himself in 1612 (Fischlin & Fortier 23). The sequel form of the play can be seen to be, rather than an adaptation that changes the original, an extension of Shakespeare’s original work that acts as a continuation of the story. This version was seemingly produced because it was critical of the abuse and inequalities are written in the original. Fletcher’s adaptation seems “to teach both Sexes due to equality And as they stand bound, to love mutually,” as written in its epilogue (Fischlin & Fortier 63). The original writing of The Shrew was strewn with the dehumanization of its female characters, Bianca and Katherina. One such example is the line where Petruchio describes Katherina as “my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything,” (Callaghan 49) reducing Katherina to an animal to be used for his satisfaction. Fletcher’s sequel reverses the injustices Petruchio inflicts on Katherina after her death through his new wife, Maria, who uses a series of tricks to humiliate and undermine him. This increased radical portrayal of gender can be seen to justify the reaction of Henry Herbert, the Master of Revels who oversaw royal festivities, in 1633 when he blocked a performance scheduled (Smith, 1995). Fletcher, from the critical attitudes to his adaptation, demonstrates the culture of having submissive women during the Renaissance and how his adaptation served as something that was quite different from what was expected at the time of its performance. It was detailed by one contemporary critic that there was “considerable instability in the gender system,” (Howard 425) which is embraced in Fletcher’s adaptation of The Shrew.
It can be seen that Fletcher progresses further than just opposing the original themes Shakespeare included, but actively challenges his predecessor’s treatment of inequality in his play. Fletcher differentiates between his male and female audience, his prologue beginning with, “Ladies, to you” (Fischlin & Fortier 25), a direct contrast to Shakespeare’s, which begins with the character of Sly being awarded a wife, underlining the idea that Shakespeare’s Shrew is one of the uses of women for male benefit. Garner argues that The Shrew is “performed for the male characters in the Induction,” (115) reiterating the play’s cultural atmosphere of women being seen as subordinate to men, to the extent that female characters were performed by young male actors. A quote from critic Allardyce outlines that “Shakespeare’s women were the creation of a teeming imagination ” and its only limitation was the number of competent, well-trained boys available at the given time,” (Allardyce 324) revealing again, how Fletcher’s cultural context of female subordination informed his decision to reverse the roles of Petruchio and Katherina in his adaptation, that women were so unequal to their male counterparts at this time that they weren’t accepted to play female roles despite their matching gender.
In conclusion, the “inconstancies” that Tate refers to in the given extract are such that they underline adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. Each alteration, or inconsistency from the original, made to both King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew was created with the adaptor’s contemporary audience in mind, where they try to “recontextualize Shakespeare politically,” (Fischlin & Fortier 5). Historical and cultural contexts inform adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays to the highest extent, where each play-write needs to ensure his play will be well received or thought-provoking for the audience it is first performed to. Tate and Fletcher’s adaptations are just two versions of hundreds, but both demonstrate that the changes made in their adaptations were to engage their contemporary viewers. As written by critics Fischlin and Fortier, “there is no end to the ongoing adaptation of Shakespeare;” (19) that his plays will continuously be adapted to the needs of different audiences.
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