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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Nahum Tate c. 1652-1715

(Born Nahum Teate; also known as Nathaniel or Nat Tate; wrote as N. Tate) Irish playwright, poet, essayist, and librettist.

Tate's History of King Lear (1681) is widely considered the best-known, most successful, and most maligned adaptation of a Shakespeare work. For 150 years after its first production, Tate's adaptation dominated the stage, and contemporary audiences preferred it to the original. Nevertheless, the term “Tatefication,” coined in the nineteenth century, describes the practice of attempting to improve upon, but actually harming, Shakespeare's texts. Modern critics have shown interest in Tate's work mainly because of the insight it offers on the stage history of King Lear—much contemporary staging of Shakespeare's Lear is indebted to Tate's version. While Tate produced an enormous body of work in many genres, only his adaptations of Shakespeare have garnered critical attention—Tate's adaptations of Shakespeare provide insights into seventeenth-century tastes and the stage history of Shakespeare's plays.

Biographical Information

Tate was born in Dublin in 1652, the son of Faithful Teate, a clergyman, and Katherine Kenetie Teate. Faithful Teate was rector of Castleterra, Ballyhaise, until the Catholic rebellion of 1641; when Teate informed on a group of rebels, they responded by plundering the Teates' home, resulting in the deaths of three of their children. Tate probably spent his early childhood in both England and Ireland, although details of his life before 1672 are uncertain. He likely entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1668, and in 1672 moved to London to become a writer. It was at this time that he changed his name to Tate. He began publishing poems in 1676, issuing a volume of collected verse in 1677. The following year, his first play, Brutus of Alba; or, The Enchanted Lovers was produced. It was by all accounts a critical and commercial failure. After the failure of his second dramatic effort, The Loyal General (1679), Tate turned from composing original dramatic works to adapting Renaissance texts. In 1681 his adaptations of Shakespeare's King Lear, Richard II, and Coriolanus were produced for the stage. Tate's Lear was a success, but his Richard II was banned after two performances and his version of Coriolanus failed to attract audiences. Tate continued to compose and adapt plays, but apart from the modest popularity of the farce A Duke and No Duke (1684), they failed to achieve popular success. In 1692 Tate was appointed poet laureate, and spent much of the rest of his career writing poetry to commemorate birthdays and other occasions for noble personages. He also collaborated with his mentor John Dryden, among others, on translations of Latin classics, edited various collections of poetry, and wrote literary criticism. He produced two important works during this period, A New Version of the Psalms of David (1696) in collaboration with the clergyman Nicholas Brady, and the mock-heroic A Poem Upon Tea (1700). Despite his appointment as laureate, Tate was plagued with financial problems during his last years. In 1713 he founded a poetry journal, The Monitor, but it published only a few issues. Tate died at the Mint, the area of London where debtors could stay without fear of arrest, on July 30, 1715.

Major Works

Tate produced an enormous body of work, but little of it is thoroughly studied by modern critics. The work for which he is best known is The History of King Lear. In his preface to the play, Tate describes Shakespeare's text as “a Heap of Jewels, unstrung and unpolisht; yet so dazling in their Disorder, that I soon perceiv’d that I had seiz’d a Treasure,” and explains the principles underlying his changes, which he would later apply to his other adaptations of Renaissance texts. Tate rejects Shakespeare's disregard for poetic justice, and thus provides the play with a happy ending: Cordelia and Edgar marry, and Lear leaves his kingdom to them. Tate also adapted Shakespeare's language for...

(The entire section is 1,515 words.)