William Shakespeare

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The Restoration

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, stage plays made a limited comeback. Charles II licensed just two theaters in London (compared with the sixteen that had operated from 1576 to 1614). One holder of a license was Sir William Davenant, who was given Shakespeare’s plays to “reform and make fit” for performance by the actors under his management. Davenant typified an attitude to Shakespeare that was born in the Restoration and survived into the nineteenth century—that Shakespeare was a genius who had the misfortune to live in a barbaric age and therefore lacked decorum. He portrayed unpleasant situations and placed rough language in the mouths of royalty. Accordingly, Davenant’s version of Macbeth does not contain the death of Lady Macduff, and Macbeth’s unkind words to a servant “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!/Where gott’st thou that goose look?” became, “Now, Friend, what means thy change of Countenance?”

In another Restoration version of Measure for Measure, Angelo turns out to be a hero, declaring that he loved Isabella all the time and was only testing her. The poet and critic John Dryden adapted many of Shakespeare’s plays according to contemporary taste, producing such works as Truth Found too Late (1679), a version of Troilus and Cressida in which Cressida is faithful. Another notorious adapter, Nahum Tate, rewrote King Lear with a happy ending, in which Lear and Cordelia survive, Lear is restored to his throne, and Cordelia is told that she will be a queen.