A happy ending for King Lear? Trauma of plague caused Shakespeare to change play’s finale

The Bard, like us, lived through a period of trauma. One expert now believes it coloured his later plays

The ravages of the plague are the true source of the dark sorrow driving Shakespeare’s later work, a leading authority on the playwright has claimed – and were even behind his decision to change the traditional ending of the King Lear story for his own play.

According to the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Greg Doran, the national trauma behind this masterpiece has always been hiding in plain sight.

After researching in Stratford-upon-Avon during lockdown, Doran is now convinced he has been guilty of ignoring the crucial impact of widespread bereavement on some of the greatest plays.

“There is a big change in tone in his later work. Academics have speculated that this was to do with political unrest and change, the wake of the gunpowder plot, but experiencing the pandemic this year has made it clearer to me what lies behind it,” said Doran. “Shakespeare just could no longer write straightforward comedies, or give a happy ending to Lear.”

The Bard casts a huge shadow on world culture, but personally he remains a mysterious figure. There is little surviving documentation, or even contemporary anecdote, to fill out the picture of the man behind the most influential poetry and theatre in the English language.

But evidence found in the archives of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, where church registers are held, is persuasive, Doran believes. He argues that Shakespeare’s experience of the plague was so powerful and immersive he had no need to name it repeatedly in his work. As a result, Shakespearean scholars and directors have often failed to spot the growing effect it had.

The Globe Theatre c1598.
The Globe in London, c 1598. Then, as now, an epidemic closed London’s theatres, leaving actors and playwrights out of work. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

“Looking in the register of baptism in Stratford for 1564, when Shakespeare was born, you can see the name of an 11-year-old weaver’s apprentice, and by a note of his death it says ‘hic incipit pestis’, Latin for ‘here begins the plague’. We know that 200 people soon died in the town, about 6% of the population then.”

Doran also cites the words of Thomas Dekker, the pamphleteer who chronicled the plague that later hit London, while Shakespeare was living there. Dekker described how “churches were pestered with coffins”.

“If you went out and you were displaying the sores, or buboes as they called them, you could actually be hanged,” said Doran. “There were warders who went around checking.”

The devastation repeatedly visited on England by the bubonic plague into the beginning of the 17th century would also have been professionally devastating for Shakespeare. Theatres then, as now, were closed down and actors and playwrights had no work. Even afterwards, touring troupes from London were regarded as potentially infected.

“I have thought a lot about the closure of theatres in 1603 for obvious reasons,” said Doran. “When it happened in 1593 and 1594, Shakespeare used the time to write the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. But when it came to writing Lear in the 1600s, after all that death again in 1603, he could not give the audiences a happy reconciliation between the king and his daughter, Cordelia.”

Plague taints the language in the plays, shaping metaphors and curses such as the “potent and infectious fevers” mentioned in Timon of Athens. It also provides an occasional plot device, as in Romeo and Juliet, where a messenger carrying the news that Juliet faked her death is quarantined and so unable to deliver it. But Doran thinks the plague is responsible for much more.

“There’s been a lot of conjecture about the unhappy ending to the King Lear Shakespeare gives us, as it seems so modern. There is certainly a point in the play where he could clearly have ended it with a battle. But this is not something he feels he can do.”

Instead, playgoers were given the most heartbreaking scene of paternal grief in the theatrical canon.

As a young actor, the playwright is thought to have appeared in the anonymous historical play King Leir. This ends on an upbeat note, yet is regarded as a key source for his own later, much bleaker, play. In the decades that followed, a happy ending was often stuck on to Shakespeare’s version to please audiences.
“The jolly ending Nahum Tate wrote played in theatres throughout the Restoration, so this is the way the great actor David Garrick would’ve played it, and the way Dr Johnson saw it. In 1823, the actor Edmund Kean tried to restore Shakespeare’s sad ending but he had to go back to the happy one when the crowds didn’t like it.”

Since the arrival in 2004 of Stephen Greenblatt’s book Will in the World, popular biography of Shakespeare has entered a golden era, with the work of James Shapiro, author of 1599 and 1606, and Emma Smith, author of last year’s This is Shakespeare, developing fresher understanding of the influences at work. Both writers are contributors to Doran’s documentary, A Plague on All Our Houses, to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 17 December.

How close the plague came to the Shakespeare family remains unknown. Doran points out that the playwright had to bury his 27-year-old younger brother, Edmund, who had followed him to London. Three other siblings had died young during outbreaks. This year, Maggie O’Farrell’s award-winning novel about the playwright’s son, Hamnet, suggested the illness might also explain the boy’s early death.

“Until this year, I had never thought how insecure you could become because of people dying around you,” said Doran.

“Experience has made that much more real.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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