I find Shakespeare fascinating. Shakespeare has been hugely popular on British stages almost non-stop since his own time, and the Regency was a high point for Shakespeare in many ways. Of course, the Regency Shakespeare wasn’t exactly like our Shakespeare….and certainly it wasn’t Shakespeare’s Shakespeare…
Here we have two pictures of the reconstructed Theatre Royal, Covent Garden — where John Philip Kemble produced and starred in many of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Kemble’s sister, Sarah Siddons, was one of the theatre’s biggest draws, and had a following so passionate it was almost religious. (After the theatre pictures, we have two pictures of Kemble, one of Siddons, and one of Kean.)
What fascinates me most are the differences in the Shakespeare plays in the different periods. When I researched my workshop “The Regency Joy of Sex (Drugs & Gaming Hells)” for this year’s Romance Writers of America national conference, I was most intrigued by the changes made to Shakespeare’s text in the period — and the changes that weren’t made. In other words, what parts of Shakespeare they found taboo (or, in Regency parlance, “indelicate”), and which were acceptable for a theatre audience comprising men, women, and children drawn from all classes.
So what was acceptable? When John Philip Kemble edited Shakespeare’s text, here are some words he left in: virgin, adultery, fornicatress, naked, damned incest, bosom, virgin-violator, bastard, deflowered maid. (However, in one passage, “virginity” was changed — implying the word “virginity” was more shocking than “virgin”, which at the time didn’t necessarily have the purely sexual meaning we attach to it.)
So what was taken out? The most common change I found was the invariable changing of the word “body” to the word “person.” It seems the Regency folk didn’t really mind sex, or talk about sex, but some words they found too gross, too vulgar, too indelicate — and “body” was one of them. (Versions of the Bible in this period also took out the word “body” and similar words.)
In one passage, “virginity” becomes “honour.” The word “lechery” becomes “wenching.” One passage from “Measure for Measure” was cut and rearranged thus:
SHAKESPEARE’S ORIGINAL: Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, for the rebellion of a codpiece to take away the life of a man!
J. P. KEMBLE’S VERSION: Why, what a ruthless thing is this in him, to take away the life of a man for–
Ah, yes, the telling “trailing off” trick. (Too true!)
Is anyone else fascinated by Regency Shakespeare? Any questions? Comments? Favorite plays? Plays you wish you could see the Regency versions of? Or any comments on the topic of bowdlerism in general? (Though the term did not yet exist, and Bowdler was only getting started in our period…)
Cara King, MY LADY GAMESTER — out now!!!
for more info on Regency theatre, see http://caraking.com/Theatre.html
for more info on Regency private life, see http://caraking.com/PrivateLife.html
My most interesting Shakespeare tidbit is that King Lear was outlawed (or something like that) because of the story of the mad king–parallels to King George III were not welcome.
My impression from what I have read is that the “sacred” character of Shakespeare has been slowly growing over time. Nowadays it is not unusal to cut the plays–especially for length–but the idea of actually re-writing them is shocking. In the 17th and 18th centuries, though, that sort of thing was common.
In MANSFIELD PARK there is a scene where Fanny and her aunt were reading Shakespeare aloud. I found this scene particularly interesting for two reasons: first, the play they were reading was Henry VIII, which is nowadays rarely performed and considered one of his weaker plays. (We saw a production in London, so I kind of know why. 🙂 And second, from the way they talk about the language, it’s clear that Bardolatry was already well advanced by the time of the Regency.
Still, I feel like it gives a bond between the present and the past, that some works of art are revered as much today as they were then. Perhaps acting styles have changed, but the love of great drama and poetry has not.
Very interesting, Cara.
I’d be curious about A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Regency (especially since my w.i.p. recasts a real political event — the Pentrich Revolution of June 9, 1817 — into a Midsummer Night’s Dream framework).
Of course contemporary productions have to pay attention to the class antagonisms in the last act (I’m thinking of the movie of a few years ago — uneven — and a Royal Shakespeare company production of more than a decade ago — sublime). But I’m sure that when Shakespeare wrote it, the artistic fumblings of the rude mechanicals were nothing more than the purest burlesque.
I’m fascinated by not just the changes, but also the plays that were written that took a different point of view than Shakespeare’s such as Nahum Tate’s King Lear or Dryden’s All for Love. I remember reading somewhere that Garrick changed the ending of Romeo & Juliet so that the two lovers were reunited. Also found it interesting that Mrs. Robinson was playing Perdita when she met the Prince of Wales.
Great post, Cara! I love Shakespeare, and find the history of performance of his plays so fascinating. Every era has their own Shakespeare, right? 🙂
Pam — is the DREAM movie you’re referring to the one with Michelle Pfeiffer, et al? I thought it had some strong points — really loved Kevin Kline as Bottom — but I thought some of the movie actors couldn’t handle the language very well (no surprise.)
I have (out from the library) the Kemble versions of many Shakespeare productions, but I don’t see DREAM there. Hmmm…here’s a Kemble timeline….I don’t actually see Dream listed anywhere. I wonder if it was unpopular during the period? Or perhaps just with Kemble…
Good point, Elizabeth! It disturbs me a bit that in novels such as Austen’s, the characters read Shakespeare’s history plays partly to learn history — ack! Talk about gross inaccuracies! 🙂 But if they did that, how did they react to something like All for Love? (I admit I’m not familiar with the Tate play!) Did they get annoyed, and say “It wasn’t LIKE that” (much the way certain Austen fanatics now complain about a certain movie)…? 🙂
Kemble is my hero because he was much much better than Garrick. Garrick’s Shakespeare versions were ghastly — so short, and so rewritten, that he then went and put his name on them (for plays such as “Catherine and Petruchio” and “Florizel and Perdita” — grrr.) Kemble was much better, and really respected Shakespeare’s origins — so our Regency folk had it much better than their parents (or grandparents, depending on exactly when we’re talking about.) 😉 I suppose Kemble was part of — and probably helped promote — the whole “bardology” thing Todd refers to… 🙂
Yes, Cara, it was the Michelle Pfeiffer one, with Pfeiffer and Callista Flockhart in particular trying so earnestly to get their mouths around the words and looking so perfect in their roles that one almost forgave them for the sense of the words evanescing as they spoke them.
I thought all the rude mechanicals were wonderful, though, and David Strathairn was quite interesting (looking forward — ot — to seeing him as Edward R. Murrow).
In some ways it’s my favorite Shakespeare, for how it swerves and flips and careens between classes, generations, and orders of reality. Shakespeare as written by Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith.
Pam, do you mean the brilliant RSC/Peter Hall production with the trapezes and the white-silver stage? Much more than a decade ago now I think of it…I went to the last night of that, and it was one of the few times I’ve seen a standing ovation in a British theater.
The Folger Library here in DC, http://www.folger.edu is a great source for Shakespeare stuff. I know they have many promptbooks (actors’ copies) from the period, and those would give good clues on staging/cuts/rewrites. Also you can email them and ask specific questions.
Yes, Pam, I thought both blondes were a bit at sea… 🙂 Come to think of it, I really liked Stanley Tucci as Puck!
I went and looked at the imdb listing to remind myself who was in it… I normally love Christian Bale, but thought he wasn’t better than just okay here…
I liked Dominic West and particularly Anna Friel, IIRC… You know, I’m pretty sure I reviewed it at the time it came out, so I should just go look and see what I said then! 🙂
I’m a bit of a Shakespeare buff, and like many a such, by this point I’ve seen Dream too many times, and it’s no longer that high in my favorites list… Maybe I think Titania should defeat Oberon for a change!
I don’t think I saw the famous trapeze one, Janet, though I wish I had. This one was within the last decade, it came to San Francisco, the actors went through very spare, abstract doors and windows to transition between “real” and “magical” realities. I thought it worked beautifully, but what we loved most of all was how beautifully and naturally everyone spoke the lines.
I also really liked Anna Friel and Stanley Tucci, Cara — especially Tucci in the last scene, which he played with very Italian body language, I thought, to go with the Tuscan setting. Again, a dream fading into “reality.” But I’m easy that way — never really recovered from the endings of Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
I’d love to see your review, because I’m really living the play right now as I finish my w.i.p. — fingers crossed, it’s due 12/15.