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Shakespeare & Beyond

How Restoration playwrights reshaped Shakespeare’s plays to fit changing political norms and theatrical tastes

When the English Civil War began in 1642, London playhouses were shut down. A temporary parliamentary edict issued on September 2 banned public plays on the basis that “Publike Sports doe not well agree with Publike Calamities, nor Publike Stage-playes with the Seasons of Humiliation, this being an Exercise of sad and pious solemnity, and the other being Spectacles of Pleasure, too commonly expressing lascivious Mirth”. By 1647, the ban had become permanent. Other than a few unauthorised public performances during the Interregnum, the theatres did not officially reopen until 1660, when the monarchy was restored and Charles II returned to London (though theatrical activity had in fact resumed in late 1659 when the Royalist victory began to look inevitable).

After he was restored to the throne, Charles II granted exclusive licences (‘patents’) to just two theatre companies: the King’s Men led by Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Men led by Sir William Davenant. These two companies continued until 1682, when they were merged. Because theatrical activity had been prohibited for nearly twenty years, very few new plays were immediately available, and the theatres therefore turned to the old pre-1642 classics of Fletcher and Beaumont, Jonson, and Shakespeare.

William Davenant

William Davenant. Print of an engraving. 1672. Folger Shakespeare Library. ART File D246.3 no.1 (size M)

Since the King’s Men consisted largely of veteran actors who had been active before the start of the Civil War, they managed to secure the rights to most of the plays performed by the pre-1642 King’s Men – which was, of course, the company for which Shakespeare had been a sharer, playwright, and actor. The Duke’s Men, on the other hand, were made up of younger actors – including Thomas Betterton, who was to become the foremost actor of his time. Partly out of necessity – the Duke’s Men had not been granted the rights to the more obviously popular plays by Shakespeare – they started reforming the old works; and under Davenant’s imaginative leadership, they rapidly gained a reputation for creatively adapting plays and for pioneering theatrical innovations.

Restoration attitudes about Shakespeare

Initially, the theatres staged Shakespeare’s plays mostly unaltered, and while Othello, Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet were successful, problems with other plays soon became apparent. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys noted in March 1662 that Romeo and Juliet was “the play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”. He was even more scathing in his review of an unrevised A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he called “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life”. Pepys soon got his wish for an ‘improved’ version of Shakespeare: Davenant’s first adaptation, The Law against Lovers, a hybrid of Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing, was performed in 1662.

Samuel Pepys was, of course, just a single spectator. But his negative appraisals of ‘untouched’ Shakespearean drama tell us something important about changing expectations on the part of Restoration playgoers. In the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays needed to be substantially rewritten – not just in the light of the new political situation, but also because of new tastes and expectations that demanded clearer and more intelligible language, tragicomic plots, increased sentimentalism, and poetic justice. As Michael Dobson writes in his book The Making of the National Poet, “[i]n the 1660s, Shakespeare’s plays belonged to the theatre more significantly than they belonged to Shakespeare”.