The ironic thing about the deification of Shakespeare is that those who first lauded him to the skies as a genius hated to see his work as he wrote it. Samuel Johnson may have praised him, but he said of the ending to King Lear, ‘ The public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate [1681], 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.’ So he accepted the tradition, which began after the Restoration and lasted until the nineteenth century, of presenting King Lear and Romeo and Juliet with happy endings.

In 1660, Sir William Davenant, Shakespeare’s godson and the son of the mayor of Oxford, obtained the monopoly right to put on many of Shakespeare’s plays, giving him the right to make all necessary changes. Some were to make the plays shorter, some were to add more dances, songs and music to show off the orchestras theatres now had, and some were to fit in new effects, such as explosions, wave machines and thunder, but the general aim was to make Shakespeare’s writing more classical. Out went vulgar comic juxtapositions, such as the porter at the gate in Macbeth or the Fool in Lear, and in came ‘regularised’ dialogue. Each metaphor and simile was chosen to signal clearly how Macbeth was doomed by his ambition in his unnatural plan to steal the kingship, as were new scenes for the Macduffs discussing the ethics of removing a tyrant.  A version of The Tempest  by Dryden added a new character: Hippolito, man who had never seen a woman, to complement Miranda. 

These versions were soon forgotten, but happy endings and new scenes were longer-lasting: until the nineteenth century actors as a routing added new scenes and changed the endings. The reason?  Partly to give their characters dramatic soliloquies, partly because, simply, actors and audiences could not cope with the despair of Lear’s ending. In 1812 one writer wondered if it, ‘as originally penned by Shakespeare, could be borne by a modern audience.’ For them, it was unnatural to see goodness go unrewarded on stage: that was poetic justice, nothing else made sense of life.

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