Recycled from five years ago, I’m afraid

Here I sit on Christmas Eve, and I haven’t wrapped my presents yet, so I hope all will forgive me bringing back a post from December 2016, when I said:


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

Back to 2021: Merry Christmas everyone! And not only Merry, but peaceful, inspiring and friendly. Followed by a healthy, motivated and joyful New Year. May God bless us every one!

1 Comment
  • Judith Leader

    25th December 2021 at 8:09 pm Reply

    I think there is a difference between re-writing something and having an opinion about it. I have no sympathy for Lear, but I suppose it is because it is a play, not reality. Yet certainly there are people who want to be affirmed rather than hear an honest opinion. I know recently I had to re read a letter from a consultant, why, I because I chose to think or perhaps dwell on hope rather than reality. I on the other hand am not a famous writer, or indeed a writer so perhaps it doesn’t count.

    While Shepherds watched, is a monotonous carol except if you sing it to the tune, the name of which I do not know, the words however I do, On Ilka moot bar tat, and many other less boring tunes. However I do take your point, we all know it (well not all) even if ignoramuses like me didn’t know who wrote it.

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