Nahum Tate

I would like to write a few words about Nahum Tate (1652-1715).

The Wikipedia article on him provides some fascinating facts.

However, according to this, he is best known for his 1681 adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. This raises an interesting point about the meaning of fame. Adapting Shakespeare’s King Lear, and giving it a happy ending, may be associated with his name among academics, but it certainly (and I mean certainly) isn’t the most famous thing he did.

Tate was Irish, son of a Puritan preacher, but he came to London and made a career as poet and playwright. He was in fact Poet Laureate for about 23 years. Compared to Tennyson, say, you may think he was a fairly obscure holder of the post – but have you ever heard of Colley Cibber or Henry James Pye?

Anyway, he changed King Lear, apparently to the distaste of some at the time, but to the approval of Samuel Johnson. I don’t see why he should be condemned for this. He didn’t try to hide the fact, and every age adapts works in order to fit its own sensibilities.

For example, in 2016 it is not acceptable for a “hero”, even a very troubled hero, to rape his ex-girlfriend, and so when a certain scene in Poldark had to be adapted from its source material… he probably didn’t. (Though I understand there’s controversy both over whether the TV scene was rape, and whether the book version was. I haven’t read or watched either.)

And we no longer read about gollywogs in Enid Blyton’s Toyland.

We are more politically correct; that is the spirit of our age. Tate was perhaps theologically correct, in the spirit of his. And maybe in his time plays with very very dark endings, that suggest that “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport” weren’t popular, especially with the Christian fraternity.

You may say that playing fast and loose with Shakespeare is very different from changing Enid Blyton, or even Winston Graham. That’s true, but one might point out that we have had an additional three hundred years in which to be taught to regard Shakespeare as second only to the Bible in literature. If Tate wanted people to see this play, he couldn’t just tell them it would be good for their A levels, or their chances of winning University Challenge. He had to put on a commercial production that matched his time.

So Nahum Tate meddled with Shakespearian tragedy, and was Poet Laureate. (He wrote a poem about Tea, apparently.) But despite Wikipedia, that is not what he should be remembered for.

Should a poet be considered famous because his or her name lives… or because their work does? John Dryden, say, was also a Poet Laureate, and his name is still famous. But I couldn’t quote any of his lines.

I could quote some Tate. And so could you. Infinitely more famous than his adaptation of King Lear is his adaptation of St Luke chapter 2.

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night/All seated on the ground/An angel of the Lord came down/And glory shone around.”

The best-loved Scriptural paraphrase of them all. Not many Poets Laureate will be having their words sung three hundred years after their death.

Just a thought.

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS Life is getting rather busy, so this blog is going to take a holiday until 6th January 2017. Merry Christmas, all!

1 Comment
  • Jem Bloomfield

    11th December 2016 at 2:53 pm Reply

    Oh, I didn’t know that Tate was the author of that hymn! How interesting – and as you say, how striking that his words are still being sung long after his Lear was abandoned by the repertory. The Tate I most often hear is his libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas – that (like his Lear) has been critically rehabilitated in recent years, but I must admit I can’t get on with it. Used to love it as a teenager, but just can’t find the poetry in it these days. Thanks for bringing this other more famous Tate to our attention.

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