illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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The Backlash Against Expurgation

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The nineteenth century saw the beginning of a countermovement to expurgation. Actor-managers such as Robert W. Elliston, William Charles Macready, and Samuel Phelps staged performances with partly restored texts. In 1823 Elliston restored the tragic ending of King Lear, and in 1838 Macready reintroduced the Fool after decades of absence from the play. Elliston’s 1821 restoration of Richard III shocked some people, including a Times critic, who thought it a new arrangement, not a return to Shakespeare, and declared it dramatically inferior to the generally used Cibber version. Phelps finished the task that Elliston had begun, virtually eliminating the use of Cibber’s Richard III.

Other actor-managers were less scrupulous in their fidelity to Shakespeare’s texts, manipulating them to suit their own interpretations of roles and to protect the sensibilities of audiences. For example, in 1885 William Kendal adapted As You Like It so that the cantankerous Jacques “became more reasonable.” Henry Irving’s edition of Macbeth cuts the murder of Banquo and Fleance, and Lady Macduff’s death scene.

Another blow for authenticity was struck in 1843, when Parliament removed the monopoly that, since the Restoration, had confined the performance of plays to two London theaters. To circumvent the ban (and feed the popular mania for elaborate spectacle), non-licensed theaters had disguised Shakespeare’s plays with spurious elements—pageants, dancing, and singing. After the ban was lifted, a large number of theaters began to produce the plays “straight,” with greater sensitivity to his original texts.

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