King Lear by Shakespeare, like his other plays, is a truly timeless work. The tragedy with which the play ends, together with the growth and pain experienced by the characters throughout the play continues to evoke pity even today. This, according to Grothe, is not the case with Nahum Tate's work, which ends without any of the main characters dying. One of the reasons for this is the fact that Tate attempted to adapt Shakespeare's work to a specific audience, whereas the original is truly timeless.
The beginning of both plays are fairly parallel, with Lear asking his daughters one by one how much they love him. While Goneril and Regan give their answers in poetic terms, Cordelia, the youngest worries about what she would say. When her turn comes, she hopes that the simplicity of her statement will convince her father of her love. This is true in both plays. The King's reaction to Cordelia's simple declaration of love is also the same in both plays -- he rejects her.
Nonetheless, another parallel in both plays is that Kent defends her, whereas the King will not hear any of it and banishes her. The King of France however accepts Cordelia as his bride after she is rejected by Burgundy. In Tate's play however, she is defended by Kent, after which she is accepted as dowryless bride by Edgar. In this play there is no marital rejection. Cordelia is defended and then accepted as wife. Her father however does not change his attitude in either of the plays, and Cordelia receives nothing as dowry or inheritance from him. His other two daughters for their wordy eloquence, receive his kingdom.
According to Grothe, Tate adapted the work after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, which resulted in a restoration theme in his work. This is not the case in Shakespeare's original, making the tragedy all the more poignant. Tate's play, with everybody receiving their just end and the survival of the just, reads more like one of Shakespeare's comedies than a tragedy. Still, it appears that the play was quite popular even a hundred years after the Restoration, and continued to play on London stages for more or less a century.
Tate's ideal was to adapt Shakespeare to suit the taste of 18th century theatergoers. Thus, Lear no longer dies, and Cordelia marries Edgar. The monarchy is restored and order once again reigns. The Fool is also omitted from Tate's play. Tate's intention is however also different than was Shakespeare's when creating his comedic endings. Tate meant for the audience to embrace the complete redemption, whereas Shakespeare meant his happy endings to be questionable (Grothe).
All these changes alters the meaning of the text from Shakespeare's original intention to something else entirely. Lear's suffering denotes the nature of humanity and the tragedy and misunderstanding that often accompany human life. This is completely lost in Tate's rewritten version, especially in terms of the end. What makes Shakespeare's play so effective is the fact that it ends tragically, despite the resolution of all misunderstanding and despite the King's realization that his youngest daughter in her simplicity loved him most. The tragedy is that she is killed anyway, and that the King dies, unable to withstand the emotional pain.
The language used by Tate and by Shakespeare also differ significantly. Whereas Shakespeare believes in the reductive power of language in its simplest form, Tate's philosophy leans more towards the elevated forms of language. Hence the greater effect of Cordelia's simple statement in the Shakespeare play. She loves her father according to her bond with him, and lacks the language to say anything more. The effect of her words on both the reader and those who defend her is profound. Her father in his vanity however believes that he had been insulted.
In fact, so profound was this effect that those endorsing Nahum Tate's version found elements such as the King's madness, Gloucester's suffering and the tragedy at the end too intense to bear. These are then the fundamental differences between the plays. It is as if Tate decided to create a "brighter" version of the play in order to soothe sensitive audiences. In Shakespeare's play, King Lear's madness appears to begin with his refusal to accept his youngest daughter's love. He is further driven to distraction by his other two daughters, who treat him badly when he visits them.
Goneril for example conspires to drive her father out of her house, offends him and dismisses 50 of his knights. When his daughter treats him this badly, Lear begins to realize the virtues of his youngest daughter. He does not however ask her forgiveness at this stage and instead decides to test his welcome at Regan's home. In Act II the audience learns that Regan and Goneril are in conflict, and that Regan also disrespects her father's name. This finally brings Lear to the decision not to stay with either daughter. This realization is also paralleled in Tate's version, where Learn comes to the conclusion that neither Regan nor Goneril has honored their promises of eternal and beautiful love for him.
Other significant differences between the two versions include the roles of the specific characters. Edgar, for example, takes the role of Cordelia's suitor from the beginning of Tate's play, whereas in Shakespeare he never pursues the girl, but does become king at the end of the tragedy. His role in both Shakespeare's and Tate's plays is to restore justice, but in different ways. In Shakespeare's play, his role is tragic. Because of the betrayal by his brother, Edmund, who attempted to dishonor him in his father's eyes, Edgar is obliged to disguise himself. He thus pretends to be a demonic madman in order to escape his father's men. As such he also serves as a parallel for King Lear's madness, and gives him somebody to identify with during this difficulty. Edgar thus has a redemptive function here. In Tate's play, his redemptive function is mainly focused upon Cordelia and eventually the kingdom.
Edgar's other redemptive function in Shakespeare's play is focused upon his father, Gloucester, who had been tortured and blinded. Edgar leads him to the cliff and saves him from suicide. In Tate's play, Gloucester is never blinded, as this is too brutal an act for a the light-hearted play that Tate had in mind.
Another important omission in Tate's play is the Fool. The Fool's function in Shakespeare's play is to bring the reader's attention to important truths that are missed by the characters, and particularly King Lear. He thus serves as one of the voices against Cordelia's banishment, and ridicules the king for his complete relinquishment of power in favor of his evil daughters. When the king becomes insane, however, the role of the Fool is to contrast with this insanity, and also to support the king. He supports the mock trial of Lear's evil daughters, for example, and plays along with the King. In this way his function is to provide a contrast for the King's madness, and at the same time to act as a support system for Lear. Thus the King's madness is all the more shocking and poignant, whereas the Fool's sanity appears intense. This is ironic, as it is the Fool who is supposed to act insanely while providing the court with entertainment. King Lear is however far from the point of entertainment at the time of his madness.
The most significant contrast between the two plays is the endings. Shakespeare's play of course ends with the deaths of all the major characters. The tragic irony in this is that Lear finally realizes his mistake, and is ready to repent, but it is too late. Further atonements are made when Edgar reveals his true identity to his father, who dies from a conflict of grief and joy. Goneril kills first her sister and then herself, and Albany is left to restore order. Cordelia is hanged and her father dies from grief. This is the ultimate tragedy. Thus, order is restored, but at a terrible price. Edgar is then left to become King.
In Tate's version, Edgar and Cordelia become King and Queen, whereas King Lear retires together with Gloucester and Kent. One is almost tempted to say they lived happily ever after. Thus, by removing the most shocking elements from the play, but keeping the basic story, Nahum Tate has created a somewhat diminished version of the story.
The parallels of the story basically include Cordelia's difficulty with her father, her father's later realization that she was not in the wrong, the conflict between the sisters, and their disrespectful attitude towards their father. These elements drive the basic structure of both Shakespeare's and Tate's plays.
The contrasts between the stories are however more significant than the parallels. Shakespeare's tragedies are particularly focused on demonstrating to the audience the sorrow that human life can entail. Thus, his tragedies are far more poignant than his comedies.…