Shakespeare's plays were not always the inviolable texts they are almost universally considered to be today. The Restoration and eighteenth century committed what many critics view as one of the most subversive acts in literary history -- the rewriting and restructuring of Shakespeare's plays.
Many of us are familiar with Nahum Tate's "audacious" adaptation of King Lear with its resoundingly happy ending, but Tate was only one of a score of playwrights who adapted Shakespeare's plays. Between 1660 and 1777, more than fifty adaptations appeared in print and on the stage, works in which playwrights augmented, substantially cut, or completely rewrote the original plays. The plays were staged with new characters, new scenes, new endings, and, underlying all this novelty, new words.
Why did this happen? And why, in the later eighteenth century, did it stop? These questions have serious implications regarding both the aesthetics of the literary text and its treatment, for the adaptations manifest the period's perceptions of Shakespeare. As such, they demonstrate an important evolution in the definition of poetic language, and in the idea of what constitutes a literary work.
InThe Re-Imagined Text, Jean I. Marsden examines both the adaptations and the network of literary theory that surrounds them, thereby exploring the problems of textual sanctity and of the author's relationship to the text. As she demonstrates, Shakespeare's works, and English literature in general, came to be defined by their words rather than by the plots and morality on which the older aesthetic theory focused -- a clear step toward our modern concern for the word and its varying levels of signification.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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