No one who lived in Great Britain during the Regency would have been able to attend a performance of the play considered by many to be William Shakespeare’s finest tragedy, King Lear. Curiously, even if they had been able to enjoy a performance of that play during the Regency, they would not have seen a tragedy, for as it had for over a century, the play would have had a happy ending. Perhaps adding insult to injury, those who read the version of the play in Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare, would have found it stripped of many of the words and phrases which were considered inappropriate by its editors.
Why very few in Regency England knew King Lear as Shakespeare wrote it . . .
Most Shakespearean scholars believe that the script of King Lear was written by William Shakespeare sometime between 1603 and its first recorded performance in December of 1606. It was credited to him when it was published in a volume of plays in 1608, titled simply, King Lear. However, when the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays was published in 1623, it contained a much more theatrical version of the play, which was then titled The Tragedy of King Lear. After that time, the folio version was the one most often performed in English theatres.
For the next twenty years, The Tragedy of King Lear was performed, as a tragedy, on the English stage. It was not performed at all during the period of the Commonwealth, when the Puritanical government of Oliver Cromwell closed down all the theatres in England in 1642. It was performed again when King Charles II was restored to the throne of England. But after the Restoration, the new court and the play-going public wanted no sad stories. Therefore, probably in 1680, an Irish playwright, Nahum Tate, re-wrote Shakespeare’s play to appeal to the tastes of play-goers of his time. He removed a few characters, added others and gave the play a happy ending. The new, non-tragic version, was published in 1681 as The History of King Lear. That version of the play would be the only one performed in the legitimate theatres of England, with one noted exception, for the next century and a half.
If you know the plot of either The Tragedy of King Lear or The History of King Lear, you may have already surmised why the play was seldom performed in England after 1788 and banned outright during the Regency. Scholars believe that Shakespeare based his play on the ancient tale, Leir of Britain, written by the Medieval Welsh cleric and writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth. King Lear, the title character in the play, is an aging British king who gradually descends into the depths of madness as the play progresses. Even in Tate’s "happy" version of the play, King Lear is quite mad for some time before he eventually regains his senses. George III, King of England from 1760 to 1820, frequently expressed his dislike for this play. In 1788, George III had his first prolonged bout with madness. Had Lear been the king of some far off, foreign land, the play might have continued to be performed. But the parallels in this case were just too close for anyone’s comfort. Lear, like George, was an English king, and even in Tate’s happy version of the play, the king was portrayed on stage in terribly violent and extreme throes of madness. Therefore, out of deference to their ailing monarch, King Lear was not performed on the legitimate London stage after 1788. When King George made his final descent into madness in 1810, the authorities deemed any version of King Lear unfit to be performed on stage and the play was banned outright. No version of the play was performed again on the stage of an English theatre until late in 1820, many months after the death of George III, when the ban was finally lifted.
In addition, during the Regency, there were some who thought that even published versions of the play should be prohibited as being much too coarse and crude. Of King Lear, we know not which version, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, in 1815, "Shakespeare’s words are too indecent to be translated . . . His gentlefolk’s talk is full of coarse allusions such as nowadays you could hear only in the meanest taverns." And Coleridge was known to be an ardent admirer of Shakespeare! Charles Lamb, a friend of Coleridge and also a devotee of the bard, had a different view of King Lear in performance. In 1807, William Godwin published Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb for his Children’s Library. Mary dealt with the comedies and Charles handled the tragedies. In 1811, Charles wrote his essay, "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, Considered with Reference to their Fitness for Stage Representation." It was his opinion that King Lear is "essentially impossible to be represented on the stage." Charles Lamb believed that the play could only be properly experienced in private study of the text. When the play was performed, people would be forced "to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters on a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting. We want to take him into a shelter and relieve him." However, when the text is read, he was of the opinion that "The greatness of Lear is not in corporal dimension, but in intellectual . . . On the stage we see nothing but corporal infirmities and weakness, . . . while we read it, we see not Lear but we are Lear, — we are in his mind, we are sustained by a grandeur which baffles the malice of daughters and storms; in the aberrations of his reason, we discover a mighty irregular power of reasoning . . . "
In 1818, Thomas Bowdler published the second edition of his very popular The Family Shakespeare, in ten volumes. Bowdler expunged from his version of King Lear, " . . . those words and expressions which cannot with propriety be read aloud in the family." Bowdler expurgated Tate’s happy-ending version of King Lear, so he did not have to re-write the ending of the play. However, Bowdler went even further, excising any words or phrases which he considered in the least bit off-color, such as "every inch a king." By the time Bowdler was finished, there was not much left of Shakespeare’s original play. But that was the text which was most readily available to readers of Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, during the Regency.
A few months after the death of King George III, on 29 January 1820, the ban on the performance of King Lear was lifted and there were major performances of the play mounted in both of the legitimate London theatres before the year was out. Both of those performance were of the Tate version, with the happy ending. The great actor, Edmund Kean, who made his London stage debut in 1814 as Shylock, wanted to play King Lear as Shakespeare had written it. In 1823, Kean performed the lead role in The Tragedy of King Lear, using Shakespeare’s original text. Unfortunately for Kean, the public roundly rejected this version and after only three performances, the theatre reverted to the Tate version for the rest of the run of the play. After that, the Tate version of the play was the only one staged in London for the next fifteen years. It was not until 1838 that the great actor, William MacCready, finally performed The Tragedy of King Lear at Covent Garden, without Tate’s many changes. However, MacCready did cut a few minor characters to reduce the length of the play and put greater emphasis on the star. Similar cuts and edits would be made to Shakespeare’s text throughout the nineteenth century to make room for increasingly elaborate special effects.
So, Dear Regency Authors, now you know that if you are planning to send any of your characters off to an evening at the theatre in Regency London, they will not be able to attend a performance of King Lear, because the play had been banned since 1810. Should one of your characters be a serious Shakespearean scholar, they will have a hard time finding an original text of the play as Shakespeare wrote it. And should it be known they are reading it in the original, particularly if the character is a woman, quite a number of people might be quite shocked. The only versions of King Lear which most people read during the Regency was that from the Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare when they were children, or the version published in Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare. Even though one of Shakespeare’s plays is considered a safe choice for a play attended by upper-class characters in a Regency novel, King Lear is the one exception to that rule.