Nahum Tate Essay - Critical Essays

Tate, Nahum


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 more refined taste of the late seventeenth century, and clarified the motivations for characters' actions. One of the most significant omissions in Tate's version is the character of the Fool, who brings an element of levity to Shakespeare's play. The changes Tate made in his version of Lear were intended to bring the play closer to seventeenth century tastes in tragedy. Although the work has been maligned by critics through the ages, it has also been the most successful Shakespearean adaptation of all time. For 150 years, well into the eighteenth century, audiences preferred it to the original; as Johnson noted, “In the present case, the publick has decided.” In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, theaters returned to Shakespeare's originals, and there was considerable resentment against the many Restoration writers who had attempted to improve on the Bard's works. The word “Tatefication” was coined to describe such revisions. However, Tate's Lear continued to play a such major part in the performance history of Shakespeare's play that elements of his version are retained in stagings to this day.

King Richard II, Tate's second Shakespeare adaptation, did not enjoy the same success. Tate's Richard II is a far more sympathetic character than Shakespeare's, as he tries to spare his subjects from civil war. Plays about usurpation were never popular with the crown, however, and the timing of Tate's Richard II was particularly bad—the play appeared during the Exclusion Crisis, when political parties were divided over whether to exclude the duke of York from the royal succession. The play was banned after two performances, but Tate reissued the play after changing the names of the characters, moving the location to Sicily, and retitling it The Sicilian Usurper and The Tyrant of Sicily. However, the changes made were not significant enough, and the authorities reimposed the ban. The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth, Tate's version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, is a melodramatic work of political intrigue. The central character represents the duke of York, and the play is an apology for Tory political ideas. Although the authorities did not ban the work, it failed to become a popular success.

Tate's original dramatic works, Brutus of Alba, a reworking of the story of Dido and Aeneas, and The Loyal General, about a weak king opposed by his adulterous queen, were not popular during their own time and are of scant interest today. Tate's libretto for the opera Dido and Aeneas, a collaboration with composer Henry Purcell, has achieved some measure of critical success. The work was adapted from part of Virgil's Aeneid. Dido and Aeneas, was the first true English opera and is generally considered a masterpiece. Although the significance of Tate's contribution to the work is considered minimal by many, some critics have argued that he deserves credit for writing one of the great librettos in English. Tate's other adaptations of dramatic tragedies were failures, but his comic farce A Duke and No Duke (1684), adapted from Trappolin Supposed a Prince by Aston Cokain, was well liked by audiences. Tate's “Preface Concerning Farce”—the introduction to the 1693 edition of A Duke and No Duke—was one of the first attempts in English to explain and defend the genre.

Critical Reception

Despite his status as poet laureate and the enormous popularity of The History of King Lear, critics have generally considered Tate a poor writer. Alexander Pope attacked his poetry in the Dunciad, and Sir Walter Scott said of him: “He is one of those second-rate bards who, by dint of pleonasm and expletive, can find smooth lines if any one will supply ideas.” There has been general critical agreement that Tate was not an original writer or thinker, and that his strongest efforts were produced in collaboration with those who supplied the creative ideas. The first full-length study of Tate's life and career, by Christopher Spencer, appeared in 1972, and acknowledged the inferior quality of the laureate's writing. The vast majority of critical studies on Tate have centered on his adaptations of Shakespeare, particularly his King Lear. The interest in the work is less a testament to Tate's abilities as a playwright than an abiding interest in Shakespeare. Critics have noted that Tate's adaptation has had a significant impact on the reading and staging of Shakespeare's work. It is argued by some critics that the interiority of King Lear as he is presented by most actors is not so much a product of Shakespeare's script as audiences' and actors' familiarity with the character as he is presented in Tate's version. The “heath” on which so much of the important action in stagings of Shakespeare's play takes place is also a construct credited to Tate. Some critics have maintained that Tate's adaptation is better than it is often assumed to be. They claim that the play must be read as an individual work, not merely in relation to Shakespeare's original. Tate is also praised by several scholars for his talent as a librettist. They argue that while the verse dialogue in Dido and Aeneas is not particularly interesting if read as poetry, Tate's words are appropriate for a musical drama. In general, critics regard Tate as a mediocre writer, but continue to take interest in his works because of the light they shed on those he imitated and collaborated with.

Principal Works

Poems (poetry) 1677; revised and enlarged as Poems Written on Several Occasions, 1684

Brutus of Alba; or, The Enchanted Lovers (play) 1678

The Loyal General (play) 1679

*Ovid's Epistles, Translated by Several Hands [co-translator] (poetry) 1680

The History of King Lear [adaptor; from King Lear by William Shakespeare] (play) 1681

The History of King Richard II [adaptor; from Richard II by William Shakespeare] (play) 1681

The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth [adaptor; from Coriolanus by William Shakespeare] (play) 1681


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Wiltshire Stanton Austin and John Ralph (essay date 1853)

SOURCE: Austin, Wiltshire Stanton, and John Ralph. “Nahum Tate.” In The Lives of the Poets-Laureate: With an Introductory Essay on the Title and Office, pp. 196-222. London: Richard Bentley, 1853.

[In the following essay, Austin and Ralph offer an overview of Tate's life and literary career, suggesting that while his literary merit is limited, he has been misrepresented and deserves more respect than he has received.]

It is amusing, if not edifying, to observe the manner in which all works of general reference, save a very few, repeat in regular succession the idlest inventions, and the clumsiest distortions of fact. In literary history this is especially the case,...

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Hazelton Spencer (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Spencer, Hazelton. “Tate's Adaptations.” In Shakespeare Improved: The Restoration Versions in Quarto and on the Stage, pp. 241-73. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927.

[In the following excerpt, Spencer presents an analysis of Tate's adaptations of Shakespeare, detailing how his versions of King Lear, Richard II, and Coriolanus differ from the originals.]


For half a century after the death of Sir William D'Avenant, every one of the poets laureate took a hand in improving Shakespeare. … The name of [Nahum Tate] lives in the hymnals. His treatment of Shakespeare's lines is even worse...

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H. F. Scott-Thomas (essay date December 1934)

SOURCE: Scott-Thomas, H. F. “Nahum Tate and the Seventeenth Century.” ELH 1, no. 3 (December 1934): 250-75.

[In the following essay, Scott-Thomas argues that Tate's work clung to the Elizabethan past, that he struggled unsuccessfully to explore in his writings newer ideas and modes, and that his psychological and intellectual preoccupation with the past resulted in a superficial quality in his writing.]

The Restoration contains an appreciable quantity of literary expressions irreducible to the dominant forces at work in the epoch. … The Restoration is unable to forget the Renaissance. Not only does it preserve in its innermost self this...

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Christopher Spencer (essay date winter 1963)

SOURCE: Spencer, Christopher. “A Word for Tate's King Lear.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 3, no. 1 (winter 1963): 241-51.

[In the following essay, Spencer claims that Tate's King Lear should not be dismissed as hackery and a mutilation of Shakespeare's version, arguing that the play is coherent, entertaining, and has its own plan.]

In 1959 Kenneth Muir remarked of Tate's King Lear, “The beautiful scene in which the King of France receives the despised and rejected Cordelia is cut, presumably because there was no room for a rival to her affections. … [And Tate] provides a scene with Lear and Cordelia in prison, lest we should be...

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James Black (essay date summer 1967)

SOURCE: Black, James. “The Influence of Hobbes on Nahum Tate's King Lear.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 7, no. 3 (summer 1967): 377-85.

[In the following essay, Black examines the influence of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes on Tate as he was writing his King Lear, maintaining that Hobbesian ideas are seen most clearly in the character of Edmund.]

Nahum Tate's famous adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear has recently been the object of renewed critical attention.1 Up to now, however, no one has commented upon the decided influence which the writings of Thomas Hobbes appear to have had upon Tate at the time2 when...

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Peter L. Sharkey (essay date December 1968)

SOURCE: Sharkey, Peter L. “Performing Nahum Tate's King Lear: Coming Hither by Going Hence.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 54, no. 4 (December 1968): 398-403.

[In the following essay, Sharkey examines a 1967 staging of Tate's King Lear, revealing the influence of stage history on modern versions of Shakespeare's Lear.]

Producing Nahum Tate's seventeenth-century adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear illustrates how much past stage history affects our modern view of Lear. Over the years popular tragedians of the English and American stages developed a declamatory acting style that was born of Tate's modifications, and their success...

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Lawrence D. Green (essay date spring 1972)

SOURCE: Green, Lawrence D. “‘Where's My Fool?’—Some Consequences of the Omission of the Fool in Tate's Lear.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 12, no. 2 (spring 1972): 259-74.

[In the following essay, Green argues that the omission of the Fool in Tate's King Lear resulted in more focus on the internal workings of Lear's mind, an element that has been retained in productions of Shakespeare's play.]

The major differences between Shakespeare's King Lear and Nahum Tate's redaction of it in 1681 are often viewed with either amusement or horror, and then dismissed as long-gone aberrations of little consequence. Tate's substitution of a...

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Christopher Spencer (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: Spencer, Christopher. “Short Poems and Translations of Ovid and Juvenal” and “A Poem upon Tea.” In Nahum Tate, pp. 41-53; 141-45. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

[In the following essay, Spencer discusses the two editions of Tate's Poems and his translations of Latin classics, which the critic says show that Tate was not particularly creative or original but had considerable talent for collaboration. The critic then examines Tate's mock-heroic poem, A Poem upon Tea, and offers a brief assessment of the author's place in English literary history.]


Of the...

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Ruth McGugan (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: McGugan, Ruth. Introduction to Nahum Tate and the Coriolanus Tradition in English Drama, with a Critical Edition of Tate's The Ingratitude of a Common-Wealth, pp. v-cvii. New York: Garland Publishing, 1987.

[In the following excerpt, McGugan comments on Tate's life and reputation, and discusses his adaptations and scholarly responses to his works.]


Perhaps the most striking similarity between Tate and Shakespeare is the paucity of intimate biographical details that historians can provide for either man. Official documents contain some vital statistics, and their publications testify to how they spent...

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Timothy J. Viator (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Viator, Timothy J. “Nahum Tate's Richard II.Theatre Notebook 42, no. 3 (1988): 109-17.

[In the following essay, Viator presents a stage history of Tate's Richard II, which he says reveals important facts about the monarchy's attitude toward the stage and censorship practices during the Restoration.]

The stage history of Nahum Tate's The History of King Richard the Second has long been improperly understood. According to The London Stage, the King's Company produced Tate's adaptation as The Sicilian Usurper in December 1680 and, after the censors banned it, as The Tyrant of Sicily in January 1681. Robert D. Hume...

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Thomas G. Olsen (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Olsen, Thomas G. “Apolitical Shakespeare; or, The Restoration Coriolanus.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 38, no. 3 (summer 1998): 411-25.

[In the following essay, Olsen argues that Tate's Coriolanus is particularly important because it is representative of political and aesthetic tendencies on the Restoration stage.]

Several recent critical studies of Shakespeare's historical evolution into the figure Michael Dobson calls “the national poet” have considerably enriched our understanding of how Shakespearean adaptations functioned politically and culturally on the Restoration stage. Previously, and in the shadow of...

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Sonia Massai (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Massai, Sonia. “Nahum Tate's Revision of Shakespeare's King Lears.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 40, no. 3 (summer 2000): 435-50.

[In the following essay, Massai examines Tate's use of different versions of Shakespeare's King Lear in his revision of the play.]

In his 1975 edition of The History of King Lear (1681), James Black could still claim that Nahum Tate's notorious adaptation was “one of the most famous unread plays in English.”1 Since then, mainly as a result of an unprecedented interest in the afterlife of the Shakespearean text,2The History of King Lear has been studied both in...

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C. B. Hardman (essay date October 2000)

SOURCE: Hardman, C. B. “‘Our Drooping Country Now Erects Her Head’: Nahum Tate's History of King Lear.Modern Language Review 95, no. 4 (October 2000): 913-23.

[In the following essay, Hardman examines the changes made by Tate to Edmund, Edgar, and Albany in King Lear, considering how Tate's audience might have responded to the characters in light of contemporary political events.]

It was once thought that ‘political considerations’ had ‘a minimum of direct effect’ on Tate's rewriting of King Lear.1 However, for some time now critics have attended to the play's contemporary political significance, placing it squarely in...

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Deborah Payne Fisk and Jessica Munns (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Fisk, Deborah Payne, and Jessica Munns. “‘Clamorous with War and Teeming with Empire’: Purcell and Tate's Dido and Aeneas.Eighteenth-Century Life 26, no. 2 (spring 2002): 23-44.

[In the following essay, Fisk and Munns explore issues of gender and imperialism, the costs of conquest, and the emotional experience of loss in Dido and Aeneas.]

Two notorious problems have beset Dido and Aeneas: assessing its possible political allusions and possible political meanings, and assigning a date for its premiere performance. Early in the last century, W. Barclay Squire argued that the epilogue pointed to the revolution of 1688.1 Other...

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Further Reading


Adler, Doris. “The Half-Life of Tate in King Lear.Kenyon Review 7, no. 3 (summer 1985): 52-6.

Argues that many of the conventions in Tate's King Lear remain in modern stage productions of Shakespeare's version.

Black, James. “An Augustan Stage History: Nahum Tate's King Lear.Restoration and Eighteenth Century Theatre Research 6, no. 1 (May 1967): 36-54.

Comments on the eighteenth-century stage versions of Tate's King Lear.

Canfield, J. Douglas. “Royalism's Last Dramatic Stand: English Political Tragedy, 1679-89.” Studies in Philology 82, no....

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