Roald Dahl, King Lear, and sentimental editors
all reasonable beings naturally love justice
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Roald Dahl, King Lear, and sentimental editors
I have nothing to say about the brouhaha around the rather lacklustre edits to Dahl’s work that others haven’t said, other than that it reminded me of the way people used to rewrite Shakespeare. This wasn’t a question of changing some of the words. They wholesale changed the plots and characters. The Nahum Tate version of King Lear is one of the books I hate most. He gave Lear a happy ending! And this was the version that was played for a hundred and fifty years. Let that sink in. From 1681 to 1838, we used the Tate version of Lear, a sentimental re-write that rode roughshod over the great Bard.
Tate had no understanding that Lear is “the natural fool of fortune” and that the play is about what Northrop Frye called, “the essential sanity of Lear’s madness.” Here is the crucial passage from Frye:
Perhaps Lear’s madness is what our sanity would be if it weren’t under such heavy sedation all the time, if our sense or nerves or whatever didn’t keep filtering out experiences or emotions that would threaten our stability.
I agree with Tate on the basic point: the death of Cordelia is the worst thing Shakespeare ever did—even on the page it is unbearable—the shattering coincidence, the suddenness, the fact that she was so, so good. It’s easy to understand why he changed the play. And they do it all the time. My Fair Lady has a damnable ending, as Shaw put it. Great Expectations was botched by the public clamouring for a hopeless romance. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, as T.S.E. once said.
So we reach an impasse. On the one hand it is obvious that only a twit would turn this play into a tragicomedy with a happy ending. We cannot even excuse him that he didn’t have the benefit of reading Northrop Frye. On the other hand, I too find Cordelia’s death too much to bear. I have not read it for many years. The last time I remember reading it, there was warm spring weather outside, and I was shattered by the howling darkness of the play. Familiar though I was with the script, it shocked me horribly.
Still, we ought to side with the author, no? Well, you know who approved of Tate’s egregious adaptation? Samuel Johnson. He said this:
Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if my sensations could add anything to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia’s death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor.
Johnson was a sentimentalist, too, in a funny way. He said this, to justify his support of Tate’s revisions:
A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.
Who should we agree with? Shakespeare or the audience? Is not this a blog for the common reader? Usually Johnson held “just representation of the common events of human life” to be a high standard for literature to achieve. But he was so concerned with incentivising the correct morals that he would lapse into these judgements sometimes. I wouldn’t change the script. But who am I to say that Sam and nearly two centuries of theatre goers are wrong? Isn’t it true that all reasonable beings naturally love justice?
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