What is Restoration Shakespeare?

RICHARD SCHOCH: Restoration Shakespeare refers
to the period from 1660, when the theaters reopened, to about 1710. It’s a period of about 40, 50 years when quite
radical adaptations, or rewritings, of Shakespeare, were performed, and very popular, on the London
stage. AMANDA EUBANKS WINKLER: The theater in the
early part of the Restoration was a reaction against the Puritanism that had come before. SCHOCH: Theaters had been shut for eighteen
years, so there were no new plays. So, what did they do? They went back to the plays from Shakespeare’s
time. They went back to the three most popular playwrights. Beaumont and Fletcher. Ben Jonson. And Shakespeare. The interesting thing is that the plays by
Shakespeare were the plays that nobody wanted. They wanted Beaumont and Fletcher, because
they thought that those were the most crowd-pleasing. Shakespeare, they just kind of went, “Well,
you take these plays and you take these play, and it won’t really make any difference. They’re not very popular. What Amanda and I have found fascinating about
Restoration Shakespeare, and really, why we’re doing this project with the Folger at all,
is that the first generation to do Shakespeare—after Shakespeare—changed everything. Women played women’s parts, finally. The theaters moved totally indoors to a proscenium
arch stage. There was massive scenery on a scale that
Shakespeare didn’t know, and much more use of integrated music and dancing to tell the
story. WINKLER: It’s not to say that those things
hadn’t existed in the pre-Restoration theater. They had. But they were amplified. You had this long dry patch, where the Puritans
had clamped down, and it’s like, “Let’s have fun, let’s party, let’s have these glitzy
entertainments.” One of the things that’s really interesting
is the amount of space, in some productions, that they accord to music and dance. It was a way of making the aural world of
the theater align with the splendor of the scenic effect and the sets that they were
using. So it was all of apiece. SCHOCH: Could we just hear that marvelous
stage direction from Dryden-Davenant-Shadwell version of “The Tempest?” WINKLER: So, the beginning of the Restoration
“Tempest” has this amazing opening stage direction. “The front of the stage is opened and a band
of 24 violins with the harpsicalls and theorbos which accompany the voices are placed between
the pit and the stage. While the overture is playing, the curtain
rises and discovers a new frontispiece joined to the great pilasters on each side of the
stage.” And then it goes into this really long description
of all of the intricate things that are on stage. And it ends with this really evocative description
of stage action: “This tempest, supposed to be raised by magic, has many dreadful objects
in it, as several spirits and horrid shapes flying down amongst the sailors, then rising
and crossing in the air. And when the ship is sinking, the whole house
is darkened, and a shower of fire falls upon ’em. This is accompanied with lightning, and several
claps of thunder to the end of the storm.” SCHOCH: That is such a fantastic stage direction,
because it summarizes all of the things that made Restoration Shakespeare so wonderful. WINKLER: So, obviously they had some real
resources at the Dorset Garden Theater in 1674 to pull this off. SCHOCH: It really gives us a sense of what
was so memorable and irresistible for the audience about this kind of play. WINKLER: There would certainly be a disconnect
between a spectator coming from the Globe and then going into a Restoration Theater. They would have been thinking, “Where’s Shakespeare?” Because a lot of these revisions, the story
is approximately the same, but sometimes, there are added characters. Sometimes a lot of Shakespeare is gone. And in part, that’s because they wanted to
regularize Shakespeare. They wanted to make it appeal and bring it
up to date with the way people were speaking. Shakespeare seemed antiquated and old fashioned. SCHOCH: So, what happened, beginning in the Restoration, to make Shakespeare the playwright on the verge of extinction. . . but a hundred years later, he was the
only one of his era that survived? He was the great Shakespeare, the representative
of Britain’s dramatic genius. This is why the Restoration period is so fascinating
to us. Something profound and lasting about Shakespeare’s
reputation started in the Restoration. WINKLER: So, it doesn’t matter if it’s now
or if it’s the Restoration of if it’s Shakespeare’s time, there’s something about these characters
that we recognize. We recognize their humanity, we recognize
their struggles, we recognize what they’re going through. There’s something about these characters that
speaks to us. SCHOCH: Over time, Restoration versions of
Shakespeare fell out of favor, as Shakespeare’s personal brand, if you will,
rose and rose and rose throughout the 18th century. But this may be the moment to look back and
recapture some of the freedom that Restoration Shakespeare gives us to think that we have
something to say to Shakespeare too, not just that he has something to say to us.

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