Background to Restoration Shakespeare
When the English civil war began in 1642, London playhouses were shut down. A temporary parliamentary edict issued on 2 September declared that ‘publike Sports doe not well agree with publike Calamities’, with the ban becoming permanent in 1647. Notwithstanding some unauthorised performances during the Interregnum, the theatres did not officially reopen until 1660, when the monarchy was restored and Charles II returned to London—even though theatrical activity had resumed in late 1659 when the Royalist victory began to look inevitable.
After he was restored to the throne, Charles II granted exclusive licences—known as ‘patents’—to just two theatre companies: the King’s Men led by Thomas Killigrew, and the Duke’s Men led by Sir William Davenant. These two companies continued until 1682, when they were merged. Because theatrical activity had been prohibited for nearly twenty years, very few new plays were immediately available, and the theatres therefore turned to the old pre-1642 classics of Fletcher and Beaumont, Jonson, and Shakespeare.
Since the King’s Men consisted largely of veteran actors who had been active before the start of the Civil War, they managed to secure the rights to most of the plays performed by the pre-1642 King’s Men—which was, of course, the company for which Shakespeare had been a sharer, playwright and actor. The King’s Men’s performances of Shakespeare were mostly traditional. The Duke’s Men, on the other hand, were made up of younger actors – including Thomas Betterton, who was to become the foremost actor of his time. Partly out of necessity—the Duke’s Men had not been granted the rights to the more obviously popular plays by Shakespeare—they started reforming the old works. Under Davenant’s imaginative leadership, they rapidly gained a reputation for creatively adapting plays and for pioneering theatrical innovations.
Portrait of Sir William Davenant by Willim Faithorne (1672). British Museum. Catalogue of engraved British portraits, Vol. II, p. 14
Initially, the theatres staged Shakespeare’s plays mostly unaltered; and while Othello, 1 Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Hamlet were successful, problems with other plays soon became apparent. Samuel Pepys noted in March 1662 that Romeo and Juliet was ‘the play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life’. He was even more scathing in his review of an unrevised A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he called ‘the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life’. Twelfth Night, meanwhile, was to Pepys ‘a silly play and not related at all to the name or day’. Pepys soon got his wish for an improved version of Shakespeare: Davenant’s first adaptation—The Law against Lovers, a hybrid of Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing—was performed in 1662.
Samuel Pepys was, of course, just a single spectator. But his negative appraisals of ‘untouched’ Shakespearean drama tell us something important about changing expectations on the part of Restoration playgoers. It was a moment to revive Shakespeare, yes; but also to reinvent Shakespeare. In the Restoration, his plays needed to be substantially rewritten—not just in the light of the new political situation, but also because of new tastes and expectations that demanded clearer and more intelligible language, tragicomic plots, increased sentimentalism, and poetic justice. As Michael Dobson writes in his book The Making of the National Poet, ‘[i]n the 1660s, Shakespeare’s plays belonged to the theatre more significantly than they belonged to Shakespeare’.
From early on, major differences between Restoration and Elizabethan theatre were thus apparent. Not surprisingly in the context of the restored monarchy, the dominant genre was the tragicomedy; and even a play like Richard III was reframed as a tragicomic story about a failed (Commonwealth) tyrant. Indeed, most of Shakespeare’s history plays and Roman tragedies were converted into more or less conspicuous political commentaries. Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s works, for example in The Tempest, the threats of usurpation and rebellion were often attenuated or defused.
Perhaps the most seminal change brought about by the Restoration theatre was the introduction of female actors: women now played women’s parts, and this was routinely exploited for sexual titillation. When revising The Tempest, for example, Davenant and Dryden added numerous female roles, including Caliban’s sister Sycorax, Miranda’s sister Dorinda, and Ariel’s female companion Milcha. Whereas Shakespeare used boy actors for female roles, actresses were now sometimes recruited even to perform male parts; these were the so-called ’breeches parts’ designed to display an actress’s legs, which would be covered by a dress or gown when playing a female role.
To cater to the new theatrical tastes, the staging spectacle itself also changed dramatically. Enabled by the indoor theatre culture and inspired by continental operas or semi-operas and by the pre-war court masques designed by Inigo Jones, the Duke’s Men introduced special effects including machines and movable scenery, and placed a heavy emphasis on music and dance. These changes were hugely successful and forced the rival King’s Men to follow suit. Pepys noted on 24 August 1661 that a performance of Hamlet had been ‘done with scenes very well’. If he liked Hamlet, he absolutely loved Davenant’s new Macbeth with its music and special effects, describing it as ‘a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy; which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here, and suitable’. Pepys was not alone in admiring the play. John Downes, the long-serving prompter for the Duke’s Men, noted in Roscius Anglicanus (1708) that the play, ‘alter’d by Sir William Davenant; being drest in all it’s Finery, as new Cloath’s, new Scenes, Machines […] with all the Singing and Dancing in it […] it being all Excellently perform’d, being in the nature of an Opera, it Recompenc’d double the Expence’. Of Shadwell’s operatic 1674 adaptation of Davenant and Dryden’s Tempest, Downes wrote that ‘all things [were] perform’d in it so admirably well, that not any succeeding Opera got more money’. Davenant’s Macbeth and Shadwell’s Tempest became two of the most popular plays of the period precisely because of their special effects, music, and dance. The witches in Macbeth famously flew on and off, as stage directions like ‘Ex. Flying’ and ‘Enter […] flying’ indicate (the flying required ‘machines’ with ropes and wires); and the first stage direction in Shadwell’s Tempest, which seeks to represent the tempest conjured up by Prospero, stipulates 24 violins, ‘several Cupids flying’ around, and ‘Several Spirits in horrid shapes flying down amongst the Sailors, then rising and crossing in the Air’. Machines, music, and dance were thus central to the distinct identity of Restoration theatre and helped secure its success.
Timeline of key Shakespeare adaptations (from 1660 to the merger of the two theatre companies in 1682)
1662: William Davenant’s The Law against Lovers, an amalgamation of Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing
1664: William Davenant’s Macbeth
1664: William Davenant’s The Rivals, a revision of The Noble Kinsmen
1667: William Davenant and John Dryden’s Tempest, or, The Enchanted Island
1667: John Lacy’s Sauny the Scot, based on The Taming of the Shrew
1668: William Davenant’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Thomas Betterton as Hamlet (19th century?). Folger ART Box B565 no.1
1674: Thomas Shadwell’s operatic revision of Davenant and Dryden’s Tempest, or, The Enchanted Island
Depiction of bust of Thomas Shadwell by James Cole (1742). British Museum. Catalogue of engraved British portraits
1674: Thomas Duffet’s The Mock-Tempest: or The Enchanted Castle, a parody of the Shadwell/Davenant/Dryden Tempest
1678: Thomas Shadwell’s The History of Timon of Athens, the Man-Hater
Title page of Shadwell’s Timon (1678). Folger S2846.
1678: Edward Ravenscroft’s Titus Andronicus, or, The Rape of Lavinia
1679: John Dryden’s Troilus and Cressida, or, Truth Found Too Late
1679: Thomas Otway’s The History and Fall of Caius Marius, based on Romeo and Juliet
1680: John Crowne’s The Misery of Civil War, based on parts two and three of Henry VI
1680: Nahum Tate’s The History of King Richard the Second, or, The Sicilian Usurper
1681: Nahum Tate’s The History of King Lear
1681: John Crowne’s Henry the Sixth, the First Part, a revision of the first three acts of 2 Henry VI
1681: Nahum Tate’s The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth, or, The Fall of Caius Martius Coriolanus
1682: Thomas Durfey’s The Injured Princess, or, The Fatal Wager, based on Cymbeline
Dobson, Michael. (1994) The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford.
Murray, Barbara. (2001) Restoration Shakespeare: Viewing the Voice. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Powell, Jocelyn. (1984) Restoration Theatre Production. Routledge.
Taylor, Gary. (1989) Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present. Weidenfield & Nicholson.