A popular anecdote used to introduce students and spectators to King Lear tells how, for 150
years, the stage was dominated by Nahum Tate’s adaptation, in which Lear and Cordelia are
happily reconciled, and Cordelia is married off to Edgar. Here is what N.H. Hudson had to say
This shameless, this execrable piece of demendation. Tate improve
Lear? Set a tailor at work, rather, to improve Niagara! Withered be the
hand, palsied be the arm, that ever dares to touch one of Shakespeare’s
plays again. (quoted in Massai 247)
Of course, such sophisticated and erudite commentators as are assembled here today will be
quick to point out a couple of ironies about Hudson’s condemnation of Shakespeare adaptation.
First, Shakespeare himself was an adaptor. Most if not all of his plays are adapted from
extant plays, renaissance romance novels, or even, as in the case I will be discussing today, old
Norse sagas. King Lear was adapted from an earlier play, which was itself based on Holinshed’s
Second, popular adaptations by Tate and Colley Cibber, among others, by making
Shakespeare accessible and tasteful to Restoration and Enlightenment audiences, played no small
part in establishing Shakespeare at the centre of the literary canon (Massai 247). And as an
afterthought, it might be worth noting that Tate’s adaptation does not so much ruin the original
King Lear as restore it – Tate’s happy ending is more “faithful” than Shakespeare to
Shakespeare’s sources, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Holinshed’s Chronicles.
I mention this by way of introducing Michael O’Brien’s Mad Boy Chronic...
... middle of paper ...
Massai, Sonia. "Stage Over Study: Charles Marowitz, Edward Bond, and Recent Materialist
Approaches to Shakespeare." New Theatre Quarterly 15, no. 3  (1999): 247-55.
Morrow, Martin. “A Viking Free for All.” Rpt. in O'Brien, Michael. Mad Boy Chronicle : From
Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, c. 1200 A.D. and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by
William Shakespeare, c. 1600 A.D. 1st ed. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1996. Pp.
O'Brien, Michael. Mad Boy Chronicle : From Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, c. 1200
A.D. and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare, c. 1600 A.D. 1st ed. Toronto:
Playwrights Canada Press, 1996.
Shaner, Madeleine. Rev. of Mad Boy Chronicle, by Michael O'Brien. 2001. Backstage West 28
Sept. 2003. http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca/
Stam, Robert. Film Theory : An Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000.
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