What's in a Name?
Shakespeare's Strange Afterlife

By Jack Lynch

This is the text of a lecture given on 13 December 2002 at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. It was part of a program called "Acting Out with Jack Lynch" in the exhibition I helped to curate, "Making Shakespeare." My lecture was accompanied by four actors from the Insperado Theater Company, dubbed the "Rosenbach Players" for the evening.

I've made some cuts to the scenes for the sake of timing; they're indicated here with ellipses. In the actual performance we had to cut things still further, but here I can give more generous selections from the scenes.

I'd like to begin my lecture tonight with those memorable words by the immortal Bard:

Marius. What Light is that which breaks through yonder Shade?
Oh! 'tis my Love.
She seems to hang upon the cheek of Night,
Fairer than Snow upon the Raven's back,
Or a rich Jewel in an Æthiop's ear.
Were she in yonder sphere, she'd shine so bright,
That Birds would sing, and think the Day were breaking.

Lavinia. Ah me!

Marius. She speaks.
Oh! speak again, bright Angel: for thou art
As glorious to this Night, as Sun at Noon
To the admiring eyes of gazing Mortals,
When he bestrides the lazy puffing Clouds,
And fails upon the bosom of the Air.

Lavinia. O Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?
Deny thy Family, renounce thy Name:
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my Love,
And I'll no longer call Metellus Parent.

Marius. Shall I hear this, and yet keep silence?

Lavinia. No.
'Tis but thy Name that is my Enemy.
Thou would'st be still thy self, though not a Marius,
Belov'd of me, and charming as thou art.
What's in a Name? that which we call a Rose,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So . . . what the hell was that? — was someone trying to be funny? That was a scene from Caius Marius by Thomas Otway, one of the superstar playwrights at the end of the seventeenth century, and no, he wasn't trying to be funny. He was just giving his audiences Romeo & Juliet the way they wanted it, cleaned up of its many "imperfections." While that sort of rewriting seems unthinkable to us, an insult to Shakespeare's ghost, Otway's audiences were grateful. One critic, Eliza Haywood, praised Caius Marius as the "same play" as Romeo & Juliet, "only modernized and cleared of some part of its rubbish." She was convinced that, had Shakespeare seen this improvement, he "would have been highly thankful and satisfied with it." Marius, Romeo — doesn't matter. After all, what's in a name?

Most of Shakespeare's plays got similar treatment. If you look at the section of the exhibition downstairs called "Improving Shakespeare," you'll see Richard III rewritten from top to bottom, Falstaff married off, and characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream wandering into As You Like It's Forest of Arden. Tonight I'd like to look at some of the bizarre "improvements" of Shakespeare's works which, though downright heretical today, were all the rage for a century and a half. The exhibition is on Shakespeare's afterlife, his reputation during what we call the "long eighteenth century," from 1660 to around 1830 — the period when Shakespeare the guy from Stratford became Shakespeare the Bard. He hasn't always been the towering figure at the heart of our literature: it took a long time for him to reach the pinnacle of English letters. And rewriting his works was a big part of his rise to the top.

There are good reasons to start in 1660, and a short history lesson will show why. Shakespeare died in 1616, and the first collection of his plays appeared seven years later. It was a snazzy deluxe edition, suggesting the friends who put it together thought highly of him, but no one thought his plays were "literature." And as time passed his old-fashioned plays declined in popularity. Things looked really bleak in 1642, when the Puritans in Parliament closed London's immoral theatres and outlawed all public performances. But everything changed in 1660. After a long Civil War and ten years without a king, Charles II returned from his exile in France, and one of his first acts on arriving in London was to re-open the theatres. Since virtually no new plays had been written in two decades, the theatre companies had to find material in a hurry. Shakespeare's plays were available, and they soon became audience favorites. From that time until this, Shakespeare's stock value has only increased. But it's not that simple, because attitudes toward him were strangely conflicted. On the one hand, this is the age in which Shakespeare became the semi-divine genius whose works are nearly as sacred as Scripture. On the other hand, this is the age in which his plays could be hacked and slashed mercilessly — lines and scenes were shuffled like cards, characters from one play popped up in another, and tragedies were transformed into comedies. How do we explain this contradiction? — how do we reconcile the reverence with the recklessness?

One excuse was that Shakespeare's plays survived only in mangled form, and that modern editors had to undo the damage done by his early printers. There's something to that: Shakespeare apparently didn't oversee the printing of any of his plays, and the early editions are pretty bad. Think, for instance, of the most famous speech in the English language, and compare it to the way it was first printed during Shakespeare's lifetime:

To be, or not to be: aye, there's the point.
To die, to sleep — is that all? Aye, all:
No, to sleep, to dream: aye, marry, there it goes.
The first printing of Hamlet was a pirated edition, and suffered from the bad memory of actors and unscrupulous publishers. So it's easy to justify "fixing" things like that — modern editors do it all the time. They tell us they're not changing Shakespeare but giving us what he really wrote.

Of course, that logic takes you only so far. Maybe some lines from Hamlet got mangled in the print-shop, but no one could argue that Shakespeare really wrote "Wherefore art thou Marius" and the publisher somehow goofed by inserting "Romeo" several hundred times. But I'd argue that, even in the most radical rewritings, eighteenth-century audiences thought they weren't revising Shakespeare but restoring him. That involves a little intellectual sleight of hand. Most people agreed that, although Shakespeare was a genius, his age was backward — the favorite word at the time was "barbarous." The great critic Samuel Johnson, for instance, argued that "The English nation, in the time of Shakespeare, was yet struggling to emerge from barbarity." They still had medieval superstitions, they preferred flash to substance, they had a childish sense of humor. Shakespeare himself wasn't barbarous, of course — he was a prodigy who somehow transcended his primitive age. And so everything that struck eighteenth-century audiences as a blemish was blamed on his times. Shakespeare's "Beauties," wrote the critic John Dennis, "were entirely his own, and owing to the Force of his own Nature; whereas his Faults were owing to . . . the Age that he liv'd in." Likewise George Sewell: "Yet, you great Judges, sometimes wink at Crimes,/ Most were not his, but Errors of the Times."

To do service to his genius, then, it only made sense to get rid of these "Errors of the Times," because they weren't really Shakespeare's. His inappropriate jokes in the middle of tragedies, his obscenity, his indiscriminate violence, his superstition, his puns (the eighteenth century hated puns) — these were all supposed to be concessions to "the taste of the times," his way of pleasing the ignorant crowd. He didn't really like them himself. Take, for instance, one of the goriest scenes in all of world literature, the part in King Lear where Gloucester's eyes are squeezed out to the phrase, "Out, vile jelly." It turned eighteenth-century stomachs. But how did they explain the fact that a genius wrote it? Samuel Johnson gives us the standard answer: "Our authour well knew what would please the audience for which he wrote." In other words, he didn't really want to do it; a gruesome scene of eyeball-squishing was simply giving the crowd what they wanted. And it only makes sense to get rid of the undesirable passages, since that brings us back to what Shakespeare himself would have wanted. So out they went. And if he never got around to writing a scene that appeals to modern audiences, we're just giving him a little boost by providing it.

In the rest of this hour I'd like to look at some of these improvements and, with the help of some first-rate actors, show scenes from a few of these works. This is a rare opportunity: these versions once dominated the stage, but they're almost never seen by anyone anymore. That's a pity, because although most people dismiss them as an epidemic outbreak of stupidity and bad taste in the eighteenth century, they show us what Shakespeare meant to the first age that adored him. You can't really know what Shakespeare is all about without knowing something about this strange chapter in his history.

The most notorious alteration of all is Nahum Tate's infamous King Lear. Everyone agreed Shakespeare's play was a masterpiece: Thomas Davies said it was "universally esteemed to be one of Shakspeare's noblest productions," and Percy Bysshe Shelley called it "the most perfect specimen of the dramatic art existing in the world." But they also had some trouble with it. So let's see how Shakespeare's Lear plays on stage. Here's the conclusion:

Cordelia. We are not the first
Who, with best meaning, have incurred the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune's frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?

Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Edmund. Take them away.

Lear. Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense. Have I caught thee?
He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven,
And fire us hence like foxes. Wipe thine eyes;
The good-years shall devour them, flesh and fell,
Ere they shall make us weep: we'll see 'em starve first. Come.

Exeunt King Lear and Cordelia, guarded
[. . .]
Re-enter King Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms;
Edgar, and others following

Lear. Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

Kent. Is this the promised end? . . .

Lear. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is 't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.

Captain. 'Tis true, my lords, he did.

Lear. Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip: I am old now,
And these same crosses spoil me. Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o' the best: I'll tell you straight.

Kent. If fortune brag of two she loved and hated,
One of them we behold.

Lear. This is a dull sight. Are you not Kent?

Kent. The same, Your servant Kent. . . .

Lear. You are welcome hither.

Kent. Nor no man else: all's cheerless, dark, and deadly.
Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves,
And desperately are dead.

Lear. Aye, so I think.

Albany. He knows not what he says: and vain it is
That we present us to him. . . .
You lords and noble friends, know our intent.
What comfort to this great decay may come
Shall be applied: for us we will resign,
During the life of this old majesty,
To him our absolute power: [To Edgar and Kent] you, to your rights:
With boot, and such addition as your honors
Have more than merited. All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings. O, see, see!

Lear. And my poor fool is hanged! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there! [Dies]

Edgar. He faints! My lord, my lord!

Kent. Break, heart; I prithee, break!

Edgar. Look up, my lord.

Kent. Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.

Edgar. He is gone, indeed.

Kent. The wonder is, he hath endured so long:
He but usurped his life.

Albany. Bear them from hence. Our present business
Is general woe.
Well, sure, that's great 'n' all, but . . . I mean, it's kind of a bummer, isn't it? Who wants to be thinking of "general woe" when you leave the theatre? Besides, Cordelia is the good daughter, and she doesn't deserve to die, and the play's lack of a love interest meant a big chance was missed. Shakespeare needed help to be as good as he could be.

So with a little nip here and a tuck there, let's see what might be done with King Lear. This is from the version that Nahum Tate put on the stage in 1681, about eighty years after the play's first performance. Pay close attention, and see whether you can spot any differences from the original version:

SCENE, A Prison. Lear asleep, with his Head on Cordelia's Lap.

Cordelia. What Toils, thou wretched King, hast Thou endured
To make thee draw, in Chains, a Sleep so sound?
Thy better Angel charm thy ravished Mind
With fancied Freedom; Peace is used to lodge
On Cottage Straw, Thou hast the Beggar's Bed,
Therefore shouldst have the Beggar's careless Thought.
And now, my Edgar, I remember Thee,
What Fate has seized Thee in this general Wreck
I know not, but I know thou must be wretched
Because Cordelia holds Thee Dear.
O Gods! a sudden Gloom o'er-whelms me, and the Image
Of Death o'er-spreads the Place. — ha! who are These?

Enter Captain and Officers with Cords.

Captain. Now, Sirs, dispatch, already you are paid
In part, the best of your Reward's to come.

Lear [raving madly]. Charge, charge upon their Flank, their last Wing halts!
Push, push the Battle, and the Day's our own.
Their Ranks are broke, down, down with Albany.
Who holds my Hands? — O thou deceiving Sleep,
I was this very Minute on the Chase;
And now a Prisoner here — What mean the Slaves?
You will not Murder me?

Cordelia. Help, Earth and Heaven!
For your Soul's sakes, dear Sirs, and for the Gods.

Officer. No Tears, good Lady, no pleading against Gold and Preferment;
Come, Sirs, make ready your Cords.

Cordelia. You, Sir, I'll seize,
You have a humane Form, and if no Prayers
Can touch your Soul to spare a poor King's Life,
If there be any Thing that you hold dear,
By That I beg you to dispatch me First.

Captain. Comply with her Request, dispatch her First.

Lear. Off Hell-hounds, by the Gods I charge you spare her;
'Tis my Cordelia, my true pious Daughter:
No Pity? — Nay then take an old Man's Vengeance.

Snatches a Partizan, and strikes down two of them; the rest quit
Cordelia, and turn upon him. Enter Edgar and Albany.

Edgar. Death! Hell! Ye Vultures hold your impious Hands,
Or take a speedier Death than you would give. . . .

Cordelia. My Edgar, Oh!

Edgar. My dear Cordelia, Lucky was the Minute
Of our Approach, the Gods have weighed our Sufferings;
We're past the Fire, and now must shine to Ages. . . .

Enter Albany

Albany. Take off their Chains — Thou injured Majesty,
The Wheel of Fortune now has made her Circle,
And Blessings yet stand 'twixt thy Grave and Thee.

Lear. Com'st thou, inhumane Lord, to sooth us back
To a Fool's Paradise of Hope, to make
Our Doom more wretched? go too, we are too well
Acquainted with Misfortune to be gulled
With Lying Hope; No, we will hope no more.

Albany. I have a Tale t' unfold so full of Wonder
As cannot meet an easy Faith;
But by that Royal injured Head 'tis True. . . .
Know the noble Edgar
Impeached Lord Edmund since the Fight, of Treason,
And dared him for the Proof to single Combat,
In which the Gods confirmed his Charge by Conquest;
I left even now the Traitor wounded Mortally.

Lear. And whither tends this Story?

Albany. E'er they fought
Lord Edgar gave into my Hands this Paper,
A blacker Scroll of Treason, and of Lust
Than can be found in the Records of Hell;
There, Sacred Sir, behold the Character
Of Gonerill the worst of Daughters, but
More Vicious Wife.

Cordelia. Could there be yet Addition to their Guilt?
What will not they that wrong a Father do?

Albany. Since then my Injuries, Lear, fall in with Thine:
I have resolved the same Redress for Both. . . .

Cordelia. Speak, for methought I heard
The charming Voice of a descending God.

Albany. The Troops by Edmund raised, I have disbanded;
Those that remain are under my Command.
What Comfort may be brought to cheer your Age
And heal your savage Wrongs, shall be applied;
For to your Majesty we do Resign
Your Kingdom. . . .

Cordelia. Then there are Gods, and Virtue is their Care.

Lear. Is 't possible?
Let the spheres stop their course, the sun make halt,
The winds be hushed, the seas and fountains rest;
All Nature pause, and listen to the change.
Where is my Kent, my Caius?

Kent. Here, my Liege.

Lear. Why I have news that will recall thy youth;
Ha! Didst thou hear 't, or did th' inspiring Gods
Whisper to me alone? Old Lear shall be
A king again.

Kent. The Prince, that like a God has power, has said it.

Lear. Cordelia then shall be a queen, mark that:
Cordelia shall be queen; winds catch the sound
And bear it on your rosy wings to Heaven.
Cordelia is a queen.

Re-enter Edgar with Gloster.

Albany. Look, Sir, where pious Edgar comes
Leading his eyeless father: O my Liege!
His wondrous story will deserve your leisure:
What he has done and suffered for your sake,
What for the fair Cordelia's.

Gloster. Where is my Liege? Conduct me to his Knees to hail
His second Birth of Empire; my dear Edgar
Has, with himself, revealed the King's blest Restoration.

Lear. My poor dark Gloster!

Gloster. O let me kiss that once more sceptered Hand!

Lear. Hold, Thou mistak'st the Majesty, kneel here;
Cordelia has our Power, Cordelia's Queen.
Speak, is not that the noble Suffering Edgar? . . .
Thou serv'dst distressed Cordelia; take her Crowned:
Th' imperial Grace fresh Blooming on her Brow;
Nay, Gloster, Thou hast here a Father's Right;
Thy helping Hand t' heap Blessings on their Head. . . .

Edgar. The Gods and You too largely recompense
What I have done; the Gift strikes Merit Dumb.

Cordelia. Nor do I blush to own my Self o'er-paid
For all my Sufferings past.

Gloster. Now, gentle Gods, give Gloster his Discharge.

Lear. No, Gloster, Thou hast Business yet for Life;
Thou, Kent and I, retired to some cool Cell
Will gently pass our short reserves of Time
In calm Reflections on our Fortunes past,
Cheered with relation of the prosperous Reign
Of this celestial Pair; Thus our Remains
Shall in an even Course of Thought be past,
Enjoy the present Hour, nor fear the Last.

Edgar. Our drooping Country now erects her Head,
Peace spreads her balmy Wings, and Plenty Blooms.
Divine Cordelia, all the Gods can witness
How much thy Love to Empire I prefer!
Thy bright Example shall convince the World
(Whatever Storms of Fortune are decreed)
That Truth and Virtue shall at last succeed.
Hard to tell the two apart, isn't it? Well, no. Tate gave the play a thorough going-over, removing the Fool and the King of France, adding a love interest between Edgar and Cordelia, and most notoriously trading in Shakespeare's downer ending for this more upbeat one. And if you went to see The Tragedy of King Lear anywhere in the English-speaking world between 1681 and 1823 — almost a century and a half — that's the ending you saw. Almost everyone thought it was better than the original. To rewrite the play was to save Shakespeare from himself, or at least from his debased age.

Similar things happened to many of the plays, and for similar reasons. One company did Romeo & Juliet with the tragic conclusion and with a new happy ending every other night, William Davenant turned Macbeth into propaganda for Charles II, and Aaron Hill removed the love interest from Henry V because he thought the real king, George I, was spending too much time with his mistresses. And sometimes whole scenes were just made up out of whole cloth. Shakespeare's Tempest, for instance, is just the starting point for The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island by Davenant and John Dryden in 1670. Shakespeare's story is set on an island, where the magician Prospero has lived with his daughter Miranda since her infancy. When Miranda sees Ferdinand, a shipwrecked sailor — the first man she's ever seen other than her father — she falls immediately in love.

Davenant and Dryden thought this idea had promise, but that Shakespeare didn't go far enough. So they went to work improving the old play. For starters, they gave Miranda a sister, Dorinda. They also decided to make the plot more symmetrical by giving us a man, Hippolito, who grew up on the other side of island, and who had never seen a woman. Hippolito finally meets Dorinda, and they fall in love. But the načve Hippolito hasn't learned society's rules. In this scene, Hippolito has now spotted Miranda, the sister of his beloved, and decides he wants her too, and then has a run-in with Miranda's lover Ferdinand. Here he is announcing to Dorinda the good news that he's found another lover:

Hippolito. But why are you so sad?

Dorinda. But why are you so joyful?

Hippolito. I have within me all, all the various Music of
The Woods. Since last I saw you I have heard brave news!
I'll tell you, and make you joyful for me.

Dorinda. Sir, when I saw you first, I through my eyes drew
Something in, I know not what it is;
But still it entertains me with such thoughts
As makes me doubtful whether joy becomes me.

Hippolito. Pray believe me;
As I'm a man, I'll tell you blessed news.
I have heard there are more Women in the World,
As fair as you are too.

Dorinda. Is this your news? you see it moves not me.

Hippolito. And I'll have 'em all.

Dorinda. What will become of me then?

Hippolito. I'll have you too.
But are not you acquainted with these Women?

Dorinda. I never saw but one.

Hippolito. Is there but one here?
This is a base poor world, I'll go to th' other;
I've heard men have abundance of 'em there.
But pray where is that one Woman?

Dorinda. Who, my Sister?

Hippolito. Is she your Sister? I'm glad o' that: you shall help me to her, and I'll love you for 't.

[Offers to take her hand.

Dorinda. Away! I will not have you touch my hand.
My Father's counsel which enjoined reservedness, [Aside.
Was not in vain I see.

Hippolito. What makes you shun me?

Dorinda. You need not care, you'll have my Sisters hand.

Hippolito. Why, must not he who touches hers touch yours?

Dorinda. You mean to love her too.

Hippolito. Do not you love her?
Then why should not I do so?

Dorinda. She is my Sister, and therefore I must love her:
But you cannot love both of us.

Hippolito. I warrant you I can:
Oh that you had more Sisters!

Dorinda. You may love her, but then I'll not love you.

Hippolito. O but you must;
One is enough for you, but not for me.

Dorinda. My Sister told me she had seen another;
A man like you, and she liked only him;
Therefore if one must be enough for her,
He is that one, and then you cannot have her.

Hippolito. If she like him, she may like both of us.

Dorinda. But how if I should change and like that man?
Would you be willing to permit that change?

Hippolito. No, for you liked me first.

Dorinda. So you did me.

Hippolito. But I would never have you see that man;
I cannot bear it.

Dorinda. I'll see neither of you.

Hippolito. Yes, me you may, for we are now acquainted;
But he's the man of whom your Father warned you:
O! he's a terrible, huge, monstrous creature,
I am but a Woman to him.

Dorinda. I will see him,
Except you'll promise not to see my Sister.

Hippolito. Yes for your sake I needs must see your Sister.

Dorinda. But she's a terrible, huge Creature too; if I were not
Her Sister she would eat me; therefore take heed.

Hippolito. I heard that she was fair, and like you.

Dorinda. No, indeed, she's like my Father, with a great Beard,
'Twould fright you to look on her,
Therefore that man and she may go together,
They are fit for no body but one another.

Hippolito looking in

Yonder he comes with glaring eyes, fly! fly! before he sees you.

Dorinda. Must we part so soon?

Hippolito. Y'are a lost Woman if you see him.

Dorinda. I would not willingly be lost, for fear you
Should not find me. I'll avoid him. [Exit Dorinda.

Hippolito. She fain would have deceived me, but I know her
Sister must be fair, for she's a Woman;
All of a Kind that I have seen are like to one
Another: all the Creatures of the Rivers and
The Woods are so.

Enter Ferdinand.

Ferdinand. O! well encountered, you are the happy man!
Y' have got the hearts of both the beauteous Women.

Hippolito. How! Sir? pray, are you sure on 't?

Ferdinand. One of 'em charged me to love you for her sake.

Hippolito. Then I must have her.

Ferdinand. No, not till I am dead.

Hippolito. How dead? what's that? but whatsoe'er it be I long to have her.

Ferdinand. Time and my grief may make me die.

Hippolito. But for a friend you should make haste; I ne'er asked
Any thing of you before.

Ferdinand. I see your ignorance;
And therefore will instruct you in my meaning.
The Woman, whom I love, saw you and loved you.
Now, Sir, if you love her you'll cause my death.

Hippolito. Be sure I'll do 't then.

Ferdinand. But I am your friend;
And I request you that you would not love her.

Hippolito. When friends request unreasonable things,
Sure th' are to be denied: you say she's fair,
And I must love all who are fair; for, to tell
You a secret, Sir, which I have lately found
Within my self; they all are made for me.

Ferdinand. That's but a fond conceit: you are made for one, and one for you.

Hippolito. You cannot tell me, Sir,
I know I'm made for twenty hundred Women.
(I mean if there so many be i' th' World)
So that if once I see her I shall love her.

Ferdinand. Then do not see her.

Hippolito. Yes, Sir, I must see her.
For I would fain have my heart beat again,
Just as it did when I first saw her Sister.

Ferdinand. I find I must not let you see her then.

Hippolito. How will you hinder me?

Ferdinand. By force of Arms.

Hippolito. By force of Arms?
My Arms perhaps may be as strong as yours.

Ferdinand. He's still so ignorant that I pity him, and fain
Would avoid force: pray, do not see her, she was
Mine first; you have no right to her.

Hippolito. I have not yet considered what is right, but, Sir,
I know my inclinations are to love all Women:
And I have been taught that to dissemble what I
Think is base. In honour then of truth, I must
Declare that I do love, and I will see your Woman.

Ferdinand. Would you be willing I should see and love your
Woman, and endeavor to seduce her from that
Affection which she vowed to you?

Hippolito. I would not you should do it, but if she should
Love you best, I cannot hinder her.
But, Sir, for fear she should, I will provide against
The worst, and try to get your Woman.

Ferdinand. But I pretend no claim at all to yours;
Besides you are more beautiful than I,
And fitter to allure unpracticed hearts.
Therefore I once more beg you will not see her.

Hippolito. I'm glad you let me know I have such beauty.
If that will get me Women, they shall have it
As far as ere 'twill go: I'll never want 'em.

Ferdinand. Then since you have refused this act of friendship,
Provide your self a Sword; for we must fight.

Hippolito. A Sword, what's that?

Ferdinand. Why such a thing as this.

Hippolito. What should I do with it?

Ferdinand. You must stand thus, and push against me,
While I push at you, till one of us fall dead.

Hippolito. This is brave sport,
But we have no Swords growing in our World.

Ferdinand. What shall we do then to decide our quarrel?

Hippolito. We'll take the Sword by turns, and fight with it.

Ferdinand. Strange ignorance! you must defend your life,
And so must I: but since you have no Sword
Take this; for in a corner of my Cave [Gives him his sword.
I found a rusty one, perhaps 'twas his who keeps
Me Pris'ner here: that I will fit:
When next we meet prepare your self to fight.

Hippolito. Make haste then, this shall ne'er be yours again.
I mean to fight with all the men I meet, and
When they are dead, their Women shall be mine.

Ferdinand. I see you are unskillful; I desire not to take
Your life, but if you please we'll fight on
These conditions; He who first draws blood,
Or who can take the others Weapon from him,
Shall be acknowledged as the Conqueror,
And both the Women shall be his.

Hippolito. Agreed,
And ev'ry day I'll fight for two more with you.
It's actually not a bad scene — it's funny and it moves pretty well. But it's nothing like Shakespeare, or at least nothing like our conception of Shakespeare. Davenant and Dryden have traded romantic comedy for Restoration farce. Its greatest value may be what it tells us about how Shakespeare appeared to another era. When they looked at him, they saw everything they most admired in their own age — wit, satire, social commentary. We doubtless do the same, reading into our favorite writer everything we like about ourselves.

Not all the changes were quite so radical as Tate's Lear or the Davenant-Dryden Tempest. As Shakespeare's fame grew, critics began to treat his words with more respect, and hesitated before making big changes. But audiences still had to reckon with the fact that he didn't really suit modern tastes. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, audiences were more prepared to deal with, say, puns and violations of poetic justice, but they drew the line at obscenity — and Shakespeare's plays are jam-packed with naughtiness, chock full o' sex. And so in 1807 there appeared a four-volume set of Shakespeare's plays called The Family Shakspeare: In Which Nothing Is Added to the Original Text, but Those Words and Expressions Are Omitted Which Cannot with Propriety Be Read in a Family. Most of the work was done by a woman named Henrietta Maria Bowdler, but since a proper lady shouldn't even know which scenes were the dirty ones, her name never appeared on the title page. It was published instead under the name of her brother and collaborator, Thomas Bowdler. Together the brother-and-sister team went through all of the plays and cut anything that would bring a blush to a nineteenth-century cheek.

Let's have a look at the Bowdlers in action. Here's a pretty typical scene from Shakespeare, the opening of Romeo & Juliet, where two servants are talking:

Sampson. I strike quickly, being moved.

Gregory. But thou art not quickly moved to strike.

Sampson. A dog of the house of Montague moves me. . . . I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague's.

Gregory. That shows thee a weak slave, for the weakest goes to the wall.

Sampson. 'Tis true, and therefore women being the weaker vessels are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.

Gregory. The quarrel is between our masters, and us their men.

Sampson. 'Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant; when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids — I will cut off their heads.

Gregory. The heads of the maids?

Sampson. Aye, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.

Gregory. They must take it in sense that feel it.

Sampson. Me they shall feel while I am able to stand, and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.

Gregory. 'Tis well thou art not fish; if thou hadst, thou hadst been poor-John. Draw thy tool, here comes of the house of Montagues.

Sampson. My naked weapon is out.
Dear me — that will never do. You actors should be ashamed of yourselves — I mean, my mother's here, and I'm mortified to be seen with you. Certainly no nineteenth-century father could read such things to a daughter; no husband could see such a scene in the presence of his wife without blushing to the tips of his ears. So now let's see what the Bowdlers made of it:
Sampson. I strike quickly, being moved.

Gregory. But thou art not quickly moved to strike.

Sampson. A dog of the house of Montague moves me. . . . I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague's.

Gregory. That shows thee a weak slave, for the weakest goes to the wall. The quarrel is between our masters, and us their men.

Sampson. 'Tis all one. I will show myself a tyrant.

Gregory. Draw thy sword, here comes of the house of Montagues.

Sampson. My naked weapon is out.
Much better, isn't it? In a review of The Family Shakspeare, Lord Jeffrey said it is "easy to extirpate the offensive expressions of our great poet, without any injury to the context, or any visible scar or blank in the composition." He concluded that "the work generally appears more natural and harmonious without" the bawdy bits. Shakespeare, in other words, is even more Shakespearean without the filth — once again, he never really wanted it in the first place. Victorians bought the expurgated version in great numbers, and editions descended from the Bowdlers are still found in school textbooks to this day. The Bowdlers were so successful at it that they've given their name to the procedure: any work censored by having the dirty words removed is called "bowdlerized."

I'd like to look at one final scene. This one comes from that famous Shakespearean play, Vortigern & Rowena — I'm sure it's familiar to everyone here. No? You somehow missed that one? Okay, this requires a little background. The story begins with a seventeen-year-old kid named William Henry Ireland. His father, Samuel, was a Shakespeare fanatic who never thought much of his son. So when, in 1794, young William came to his father with a Shakespeare signature he had forged, Samuel showered him with love and attention.

It's not hard to figure out where this story is going. William, wouldn't you know it, "discovered" another document signed by Shakespeare, then another, then another — the supply of Shakespearean documents was as inexhaustible as the supply of fatherly affection. Then came Shakespeare's "Profession of Faith," proving he wasn't a Catholic; then a letter to his lover, Anne Hathaway; then a few short poems. Ireland's father was curious where all these relics were coming from: William's quick-witted answer was that "a gentleman" — he called him "Mr. H" to protect his anonymity — allowed him to snoop through the large chest of old papers at his house. Soon Ireland began getting bolder: he found the original manuscripts of King Lear and Hamlet. Most brazen of all was the discovery of two entire plays, lost masterpieces, Henry II and Vortigern & Rowena. Of course Ireland was forging them, but his father, convinced they were genuine, used his literary connections to put Vortigern on stage as Shakespeare's. While the play was in rehearsal, though, the whole structure began to shake and then to crumble. Critics found inconsistencies in his documents, and though the battle went back and forth for a while, it all came crashing down two days before the play opened. That's when Edmond Malone, hot-shot Shakespeare scholar, published a four-hundred-page demolition of the whole imposture. The play was a disaster; the audience, packed with Malone's supporters, heckled the actors mercilessly, and it ended after one performance. Ireland soon confessed the whole thing. In the final pathetic twist to the story, his father was so convinced he was a screw-up that he refused to believe his son's confession, thinking him too stupid to pull it off.

To a scholar like Malone, Vortigern isn't Shakespearean at all, but to be honest it's not bad. Remember, it fooled most of the literary world for months. The scene we're about to see is where everything turns against the villainous Vortigern; it's also where everything turned against Ireland. It didn't help that the actor playing Vortigern, John Philip Kemble, thought the play was a fake — when he got to the line, "And when this solemn mockery is o'er," he hammed it up. The audience exploded in laughter, and the cast limped through the rest of the play. But it has its moments. Here Vortigern has gotten bad news from his barons:

Vortigern. Why stand ye here, like fools, catching the air?
What! think ye this to be your mistress' chamber?

Baron. My gracious prince, we wait your orders here.

Vortigern. Then fight, I say.
Go, get you hence.

Baron. I'm all obedience.

Vortigern. No, no; thou must stay here: thou 'rt my sole prop.
I sicken fast, and 'gin again to flag.
Pour forth, I pray thee now, some flattering words,
For I am weary, and my lamp of life
Doth sadly linger, and would fain go out;
For, look you, my poor soul is sore diseased.

Baron. Courage, my noble sir.

Vortigern. Time was, alas! I needed not this spur.
But here's a secret and a stinging thorn,
That wounds my troubled nerves. O! conscience! conscience!
When thou didst cry, I strove to stop thy mouth,
By boldly thrusting on thee dire ambition:
Then did I think myself, indeed, a god!
But I was sore deceived; for as I passed,
And traversed in proud triumph the Basse-court,
There I saw death, clad in most hideous colors:
A sight it was, that did appall my soul;
Yea, curdled thick this mass of blood within me.
Full fifty breathless bodies struck my sight;
And some, with gaping mouths, did seem to mock me;
While others, smiling in cold death itself,
Scoffingly bade me look on that, which soon
Would wrench from off my brow this sacred crown,
And make me, too, a subject like themselves:
Subject! to whom? To thee, O! sovereign death!
That hast for thy domain this world immense:
Church-yards and charnel-houses are thy haunts,
And hospitals thy sumptuous palaces;
And, when thou wouldst be merry, thou dost choose
The gaudy chamber of a dying King.
O! then thou dost ope wide thy boney jaws,
And, with rude laughter and fantastic tricks,
Thou clapp'st thy rattling fingers to thy sides:
And when this solemn mockery is o'er,
With icy hand thou tak'st him by the feet,
And upward so, till thou dost reach the heart,
And wrap him in the cloak of lasting night.

Baron. Let not, my lord, your thoughts sink you thus low;
But, be advised; for, should your gallant troops
Behold you thus, they might fall sick with fear.

Enter an Officer.

Officer. My lord! my lord!

Vortigern. Wherefore dost tremble thus, paper-faced knave?
What news should make thee break thus rudely in?

Officer. Indeed, indeed, I fear to tell you, sir.

Vortigern. Speak, vassal, speak! my soul defies thy tongue.

Officer. Your newly married Queen—

Vortigern. Speak, what of her?

Officer. My lord, she hath taken poison, and is dead.

Vortigern. Nay, shrink not from me now; be not afraid:
There lie, my sword! and with it all my hopes.
Lord. Yet we may hope—

Vortigern. O! friend, let not thy tongue delude with hope:
Too long against th' Almighty have I fought.
Hope now is vain1 will hear none on 't.

Officer. Yet is the breach not made, and we are strong;
Still we may out, my lord, and beat them off.

Vortigern. Can wicked souls e'er stand before the just;
Can strength outweigh the mighty hand of God?
No, no; never, never! O! repentance,
Why dost thou linger thus to ask admittance?
Thou com'st, alas! too late; thou 'rt stale and nauseous.
Where, where is now the good, old murdered king?
In fields of bliss, where guilty souls ne'er come.

Enter another Officer.

2nd Officer. All, all is lost; the post is ta'en by storm:
The breach is made; they pour in fast upon us.

Vortigern. If it be so, then will I out and die:
Now aid, ye gods! but if ye will not hear,
E'en, then, on hell I call again for succor!
My friends have boldly stemmed this tide of war;
And shall I flinch at last, and play the woman?
Let any but Aurelius meet my arm,
And this my sword shall ope a gate so wide,
That the imprisoned soul shall take its flight,
And either seek the murdered king above,
Or down and join me in the pit below.
Okay, deathless poetry it ain't, but it's not bad for a seventeen-year-old kid. You can imagine how he felt to hear the best critics of the day calling Vortigern maybe not Shakespeare's best, but certainly from the pen of the Sweet Swan of Avon.

It's easy to see what drew Ireland to Shakespeare: by this time, he was the gigantic figure at the center of the English literary canon, and if you're going to forge something, you might as well forge the best. And I think it was the same dynamic that drew the revisers to Shakespeare. It was his very excellence that left him open to rewriting. When you decide that he's a genius — that he is genius itself — it follows that he can do no wrong. If you find something that is wrong, well, it just can't really be Shakespeare's; something must have gone awry. And so you put it right. From our point of view in the twenty-first century, it looks like horrible vanity and presumption to think that literary classics should be rewritten to suit eighteenth-century tastes. But when you think about it, we make changes perhaps just as radical today, setting Richard III in the fascist 1930s or putting bicycles in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Maybe we're just as vain and presumptuous to think that Shakespeare would have approved of our tastes. The difference is that we don't change his words — they've become our sacred Scripture, and we're not allowed to tinker with them, however much we change his settings and tone. Maybe eighteenth-century writers were just being less hypocritical than we are: we pretend we're being true to the text even when we misrepresent it, whereas they were honest when they decided to drag Shakespeare's plays out of barbarity and into the enlightened modern age. They somehow managed to convince themselves that Shakespeare would have wanted it that way. Here's the big paradox: for eighteenth-century critics and audiences, Shakespeare was most himself when most improved.