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Shakespeare & Beyond

William Charles Macready and the restoration of William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’


King Lear playbill with William Charles Macready as Lear
Playbill for 1839 production of King Lear with William Charles Macready in the title role. Bill Vol. G2 C85 1838-1839. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Imagine a King Lear that cut the character of the Fool, created a romance between Edgar and Cordelia, and featured a happy ending in which Lear and Cordelia both live. That was Nahum Tate’s 1681 adaptation, the most popular version of Shakespeare’s play for more than 150 years, until William Charles Macready’s landmark production in 1838.

Theatre historians traditionally credit Macready as the actor responsible for restoring King Lear to the story Shakespeare’s original audiences would have recognized and the one that endures on our stages today. This restoration, however, was not just the work of a single production, but a process three decades in the making.

Nahum Tate's King Lear
Nahum Tate. The history of King Lear : a tragedy : acted at the King’s Theatre ; reviv’d with alterations. 1736. Folger Shakespeare Library.

How had the “happy ending” King Lear become so entrenched in the first place? When Tate wrote his adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. post-Restoration audiences embraced it as major actors like Thomas Betterton, David Garrick, and John Philip Kemble took on the title role, and it quickly became the version of King Lear that everyone knew and loved. Tate would later become poet laureate of England.

Fast-forward to the nineteenth century. In 1810, all versions of the play were outlawed from the stage in deference to King George III’s mental illness; following his death in 1820, there was a surge to stage the play once more—but still using Tate’s version.

When Drury Lane announced that celebrity actor Edmund Kean would play Lear in 1820, rival theater Covent Garden rushed to stage the play first. During this time, Macready was engaged at Covent Garden, and was told to prepare himself to play Lear. Biographer J.C. Trewin notes that Macready refused, citing that it would be impossible to prepare for such a momentous role at such short notice. To compromise, he would appear instead as Edmund to Junius Brutus Booth’s Lear in a production that retained Tate’s text. The production would go on to have only three performances, and was considered a failure. Macready wouldn’t play Lear until more than a decade later, but even then, his hesitancy towards the role would continue.

William Charles Macready
William Charles Macready. Folger Shakespeare Library.

While thinking over the role in August 1833, Macready wrote in his diary of anxiety towards it: “Must give more attention still, and with it all, I fear, I never can produce a finished performance,” and by October that same year, he was still plagued with doubt that he could ever do the role justice:

“In reflecting on Lear I begin to apprehend that I cannot make an effective character of it. I am oppressed with the magnitude of the thoughts he has to utter, and shrink before the pictures of the character which my imagination presents to me.”

The next year, Macready experimented with the text, spending hours each day annotating and editing his prompt book. He attempted a partial restoration of Shakespeare’s text by incorporating the original tragic ending, but adhering to Tate’s choice of cutting the Fool. This 1834 production did not gain any kind of notoriety with the press, and ultimately faded to the background. Macready’s omission of the Fool haunted him as a major regret, and consequently he refused to acknowledge the production’s significance.

But Macready would not make the mistake of omitting the Fool again. Four years later, as the manager of Covent Garden theater he was determined to mount a full restoration of the play. This pursuit was difficult, as Macready was disappointed with the male actor originally cast as the Fool. He nearly gave up on having the Fool at all, until his stage manager suggested that a woman should play the role. After this, Macready cast Priscilla Horton, and the production was met with immense acclaim. Newspapers clamored over the restoration of Shakespeare’s tragedy to the stage. The Theatrical Examiner wrote, “We never saw any tragedy, in so far as we could judge, affect an audience more deeply than the manner of the whole management of this tragedy of Lear. It was indeed a triumph for the stage”. The newspaper declared Horton’s performance of the Fool as “exquisite a performance as the stage has ever boasted.”

William Charles Macready as King Lear holding Cordelia
Mr. Macready as King Lear: O, thou wilt come no more, never, never, never, never, act 5, scene 3. London, mid-19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

For Macready, his personal evaluation of his performance of Lear by this point had grown from anxiety to approval, as most of his diary entries that discuss his performances from this production simply state “Acted King Lear pretty well” before discussing something else.

Following the successful 1838 production, Macready kept the role of Lear in his repertoire for the rest of his theatrical career. In 1851, he seemed to have finally recognized his accomplishments with the play. He wrote in his diary of his farewell performance as Lear: “Acted King Lear, certainly in a superior style to what I ever did before […] I have attained the loftiest position in the art to which my destiny directed me.” By this point, Macready had been working on King Lear for thirty-one years.

While other roles may have been Macready’s favorites, the role of Lear is perhaps the one of which he was most proud. Macready’s series of King Lear productions from 1820 to 1851 saw the restoration of Shakespeare’s original for the Victorian era and beyond, expelled Tate’s adaptation from the stage, and forever tied him to the play’s legacy.