Books for children: for Shakespeare’s birthday, a bard for all ages

To be or not to be a purveyor of straight Shakespeare is a serious question: Is it nobler to introduce children to the bard through his own words in all their archaic beauty and risk making it a chore? ? or to resort to simplified narratives in the hope of increasing its accessibility and risking depriving children of the full development of its genius.

For hundreds of years, adults have struggled with this riddle. As adults we know, if we are lucky, that in the works of William Shakespeare a person can find all of life, that the mirror he holds up to nature reflects the full range of universal human attributes : nobility and depravity; abnegation and thirst for power; mercy and revenge; lofty feeling and saucy spirit. We know that behind the densely woven curtain of Shakespeare’s language in the sixteenth century lies an unparalleled richness in English prose and poetry. But here’s the catch: as adults, we’re also likely to have enough literary scaffolding to make sense of its characters, plots, and esoteric twists. Children and adolescents cannot. So what to do?

In 1806, the English man of letters William Godwin had the idea of ​​having Shakespeare’s plays transformed into stories for children by his friend, the writer Mary Lamb. Mary liked the idea and, together with her brother Charles, a distinguished poet and essayist, produced “Tales From Shakespeare” the following year.

Shakespeare’s Tales

By Charles and Mary Lamb


400 pages

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Mary wrote 14 tales and incorporated snippets of dialogue, while Charles wrote six in a relentless prose style that, to the modern reader, may seem almost as demanding as the original. Here he introduces the tragedy of “Hamlet”: “Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, widowed by the sudden death of King Hamlet, within two months after his death, married her brother Claudius, which was noted by all people at the time of a strange act of indiscretion, or callousness, or worse: for this Claudius was nothing like her late husband in qualities of person or mind, but was as contemptible in his outward appearance, that he was low and unworthy in disposition; and suspicions did not fail to arise in the minds of some, that he had done privately with his brother, the late King, for the purpose of marry his widow and ascend the Danish throne, excluding young Hamlet, the buried king’s son and legitimate successor to the throne.

Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb

By Eric G. Wilson



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As barnacle-encrusted as it may seem now, Charles Lamb’s style and Mary’s somewhat more child-friendly approach have found great favor with audiences. Eric Wilson notes in his recent biography, “Dream-Child: A Life of Charles Lamb,” that their collaboration has been translated into 40 languages ​​and has never been out of print. Indeed, there is a new edition this year, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’, an attractive volume in gilt relief which bears a mark of our time: a preliminary warning about the ‘harmful and offensive’ portrayal of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice”. ”

Shakespeare stories

By Leon Garfield

NYRB Children’s Books

576 pages

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British novelist Leon Garfield’s 1985 tales of 21 Shakespeare plays, illustrated by Michael Foreman, shine in contemporary style and were republished in 2015 as ‘Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories’. Like Mary Lamb, Garfield includes lines of dialogue; unlike Charles, he follows the structure of Shakespeare’s originals, as in “Hamlet”: “It happened in Denmark, a long time ago. Up there, on the ramparts of the castle of Elsinore, two sentinels, their cloaks flapping in the biting darkness, met at the end of their lookout: one was finishing, the other was beginning. Their faces, faintly seen in the light of a thin seedbed of stars, were white as bone. It was midnight.”

To look closer

Selections from ‘Shakespeare Stories’ by Leon Garfield, illustrated by Michael Foreman

1 out of 5

Shakespeare’s Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained




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Narratives are just a few of the menu options that writers, illustrators and publishers have dreamed up to make Shakespeare more digestible for young palates. For readers ages 12 and up, Gareth Hinds has created beautiful, verbatim graphic novel renderings of ‘King Lear’, ‘Macbeth’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (all published by Candlewick). The “No Fear Shakespeare” graphic novel series (published by SparkNotes), while cruder in design and illustrations, also retains the Bard’s language. In “The Shakespeare Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained,” a team of writers and editors break down the main themes of Shakespeare’s plays, summarize their plots, and outline the action from scene to scene. The weight of the book makes it more of a reference work for teenagers than something to read for pleasure – and the aggressive design of the book’s pages doesn’t help, with its large black type and illustrations with all the subtlety of an anarchist placard.

To look closer

Selections from ‘The Shakespeare Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained’ by DK

1 out of 5

Shakespeare: his life and works

By Leslie Dunton-Downer


480 pages

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“Shakespeare: His Life and Works”, by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, has a similar doorstop weight, covers similar ground and, given its textbook design, would also be useful to the student of the secondary. An abundance of photography, many from stage and film productions, adds navigable appeal. Meanwhile, a second series “No Fear Shakespeare” (SparkNotes) features selected Shakespearean plays in some sort of translation – from Elizabethan to modern English. Readers can compare the supposedly impenetrable original text on the left pages with John Crowther’s modern interpretation on the right.

To look closer

Selections from “Shakespeare: His Life and Works” by Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding

1 out of 5

It is tempting to despair that Shakespeare is used in this way. Have we fallen so far? Are the young people so badly educated that the rising generations cannot understand the meaning of the most gifted interpreter of the English language? When Hamlet mocks Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1, he says, “I didn’t love you.” She replies: “I was all the more mistaken. Does this exchange really require clarification? Apparently yes. “I didn’t love you,” the prince says in the “No Fear Shakespeare” version. Ophelia returns: “So I guess I was misled.”

I guess I finds it depressing to imagine that teenagers assigned to “Hamlet” at school can get this version, gravitate towards the easier text, and come away thinking they’ve read “Hamlet” when in fact they’ve read a bland simulacrum. It’s hard to suppress the worry that Shakespeare’s simplification will only increase the distance between then, when he was easily understood, and now.

But I guess that’s not the only way to look at it. It is also possible that “fearless” prose treatments, such as the various narratives and graphic novels and Shakespearean factoid collections, are not a devaluation of the work but an actualization of it. Interpreted in a generous spirit – and why not? – the search for ever more direct access to the cave full of treasures of Shakespeare’s work can be understood as a perpetual cultural reconsecration.

And isn’t it possible that by encountering the Bard in an easy guise, young readers begin to build their own inner scaffoldings of characters and ideas? If so, then eventually, when they come across a Shakespearean comedy or tragedy or a piece of history in its full and original form, they may find that its glorious and varied language can easily lodge in their minds and stay there to enrich the rest of their lives. . True hope is fast and flies with swallow’s wings. And where there is Shakespeare, there is hope.

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