Nahum Tate Critical Essays

Introduction

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.