Shakespeare’s King Lear Banned in the Regency

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.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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25 Responses to Shakespeare’s King Lear Banned in the Regency

  1. Fascinating, but makes perfect sense. I really can’t recall anything particularly smutty in Lear, though I confess I don’t know it especially well, not at least when compared to Hamlet’s ‘country matters’ or the innuendo in twelfth night.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think Coleridge, who wrote a lot of dreamy, romantic poetry, took umbrage with a number of scenes in Shakespeare’s plays which included the lower classes. Shakespeare wrote the folk of the lower classes of his time pretty much as they were. And there was very little “nice” about them. My take is that Coleridge was much more offended by that than he was by the odd sexual innuendo here and there. Which was probably the same thing with Bowdler. He wanted everything to be nice and polite and plain vanilla. (Blech!)

      In Tate’s happy King Lear, there was a scene where Edmund attempts to seize Cordelia with plans to rape her. He is thwarted, of course, but some folks may have objected to that. All I can say is that it is a good thing that Coleridge, or Bowdler, will never see any episode of most modern television programs. They might die of shock!!!

      =^..^=

  2. Very interesting, indeed. Thank you, Kathryn.
    I wonder if radical or anti-royal groups performed the play, maybe in “the meanest taverns”? Could one have a scene where such a group gets caught and even prosecuted?

    • … and the hero is there because he came to see a prize fight, not the play, and escapes arrest and needs the beautiful but impoverished vicar’s daughter to give him an alibi, so he doesn’t lose his standing in the ton

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I can imagine a group of amateur, or even professional, actors who love Shakespeare’s plays and have set themselves the goal of performing all his plays over the course of some period, including King Lear. If they found some rural location where they could set up some kind of theatre, they would probably have gotten away with it. The main problem would be drawing an audience for such high-brow entertainment outside a major city. Such a group could probably get away with a performance like that, since it is unlikely the authorities would be paying attention. The only scenario that I can imagine where there might be legal ramifications would be if someone who knew the play had been banned happened to be in the area and demanded that the authorities act. Even so, the local authorities might still refuse to act, since it is not certain that the ban on Lear was known outside the major cities and towns of Britain. Though it might be quite a farce to have some uppity gentleman trying to get a local judge or magistrate to prosecute his enemy, who has staged the play, when they are unaware of the fact that the play was supposed to be banned.

      From what I can tell, only the patent or legitimate theatres in each major city or town were actually monitored by the authorities. So-called “legitimate” theatres held a patent from the Crown which authorized them to mount performances of serious dramatic plays, such as those of Shakespeare, as well as plays by current playwrights, once their scripts had been approved by the government. The two patent theatres in London were Covent Garden and Drury Lane. If one of these theatres offered a performance of King Lear during the Regency, they would have been shutdown immediately and would have lost their patent. Not to mention many of their patrons, who would have been outraged at such disrespect towards a beloved monarch. No legitimate theatre would take the chance.

      The non-patent holding theatres in London, and other cities, were only allowed to mount performances of patomimes, musical revues and the like, but no serious plays. If they tried to stage King Lear, or any serious play, the theatre owner(s) would have faced serious charges.

      Most people in England loved and respected George III and would not have considered staging a performance of King Lear. They would never think of insulting him in that way. However, the play is very dramatic, and I can see someone who truly loved Shakespeare’s work wanting to see it performed, in private. But there were not authorities combing the theatres of Great Britain clapping actors in irons if they performed in Lear.

      Hope that helps to explain.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. juliaergane says:

    I understand the politics and all of that — however, OH, NOS!!!!!! The greatest play in the English language going through such bastardization is a tragedy all on its own. (BTW, I am very familiar with the Restoration playwrights and their works as I did my honors work in History/English on this period.)

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite right! I think there is more than one tragedy when it comes to King Lear. There is the actual tragedy portrayed in the play, but even worse are the many ways that play has been butchered over the years to make it happier, cleaner, or just shorter. Even today, scholars are still arguing over which is the definitive text, since the version published in 1608 is different from that published in the First Folio in 1623. Either Will is rolling in his grave over the butchery or he is laughing at all the fuss and furor there has been over that play through the centuries!

      I love the Restoration plays, especially the comedies! I keep hoping someone like Kenneth Branagh will make a movie or three of some of them! OH, yum!

      Thanks for stopping by, and I apologize if it has ruined your day to know about the other tragedy of poor King Lear!

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Julia Tagan says:

    This is terrific – what great research you’ve done on the subject. My next romance is about a group of traveling actors in 1808 England. They refer to past (regional) productions of Lear that were performed in courtyards or squares. Sounds like I just squeaked in under the wire on that one! Really appreciate your post.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I think you are safe with how you have set up your story. Based on my research, Lear was not performed from 1788 to about 1790 in London, because of the King’s mental illness. There is some suggestion that it was performed a few times after that until the official ban in 1810. And I suspect it was performed in the provinces between 1790 and 1810 as well. So you are good.

      Thanks for letting me know you found the article useful for your new romance. In case you do not know, I have a standing offer to any author who has used any of the information from any article here to post a comment to that article when their book is released, with a link to their book so visitors here can easily find it. You are welcome to do the same here, if you wish.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. Hurrah, I added a mention of Lear – a girl who has been educated by a vicar mentions he has no books in English save the Bible and Shakespeare, including his 1623 folio with Lear, leading to a discussion about why the king dislikes having it performed. throwaway, but so pleased to be able to use it!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      What a nice historical touch to your story!

      Please do post a link to it here when it is published.

      =^..^=

      • Thank you! I shall do… I’m also planning on getting in the abcdaria at some point too… currently on edit one, and transcribing, and adding weather now I have the weather month by month and at times day by day, and in different counties, from 1800 to 1810…

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  8. I just found a performance of Lear in London in 1801! The Morning Chronicle of 1st Jan says ‘Saturday, King Lear’ at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. I presume that was the upbeat version?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It must have been. As far as I can tell, Shakespeare’s original version was not performed until after the death of King George III in 1821. Even so, this definitely casts some doubt on my sources, which stated that the play was not performed on any legitimate stage after 1788, since the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane was pretty much the most legitimate stage in the country. However, George III was considered to be in his right mind in 1801, so the authorities would have had no real reason to prohibit the performance, and that play was not banned outright until his final descent into madness in 1810.

      Thanks for sharing your discovery.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Oddly enough, the same paper – the Morning Chronicle – mentioned that the King was unwell. And I did wonder if he was upset by it…
        I was rooting around for a friend who wanted to know what had been performed when to add a theatre visit to her WIP. I thought you’d be fascinated! I’ll be looking out for it. The other Shakespeare plays in the period, mostly at Covent Garden, from January to March 1801 were Othello, Hamlet, Richard III, Cymbeline, Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. Lear is logged as a tragedy.
        Lear was also performed on 7th Feb of the same year.

  9. they seem to have alternated two plays for a week at a time at Covent Garden, playing alternate days

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      From what I have read, demanding plays, like Shakespeare’s, were not performed on successive days. They were alternated in order to give the actors a chance to properly rest between performances.

      =^..^=

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