Retellings of Shakespearean Plays
Why and How
A lot of adults find Shakespearean plays intimidating, so recommeding them for children might seem strange, but just so you understand, these are retellings rather than the “No Fear Shakespeare” paraphrasing that students use, and they have some literary merit in their own right…just like some retellings of fairy tales are better than others. Also remember that what makes Shakespeare seem hard for us today…primarily the anachronistic language and wordplay…were actually intended for a general, and definitely not highbrow, audience in Elizabethan England. Overall, theatre itself was considered sketchy, so if people had concerns about theatre, it was for their morality rather than their boredom. As most of us learned in high school, boring plays were quickly removed from the stage by vehement razzing if not the flinging of rotten objects at the stage.
I don’t think there was ever a lot of suspense for even the original audiences: the plays were frequently redone, or history, or stol…borrowed…from other sources.
Also, let me point out that the idea of intellectual property was almost nonexistent in Shakespeare’s time…or at any rate, for various reasons, he ignored it, and borrowed and perhaps stole from a variety of sources (there is plenty of scholarship to support almost any point of view when it comes to Shakespeare). Between his, let’s say, integration of inspiration and sources and the cultural relevance of his work, the Shakespearean plays definitely straddle the line.So the idea behind introducing children to the plays is that there is some cultural value in their being familiar with the plot (i.e. when people make oblique references to them in life, which they do). Reading them in story version probably exposes children to more different plays than they would ever get in school, and finally, when they DO eventually study them in school, they will be much easier because they already know the plot.
For modern audiences, Shakespearean plays are like opera, they are better if you kind of know the plot because then you can enjoy the action and all of the wordplay in the originals.
Once you see even one of each of Shakespeare’s three genres, you pretty much know how the story is going to end anyway.
Tragedies and histories: everyone you care about dies at the end (except for some heroic endings in the histories). Tragedies especially are for the masochist because, by definition, the author has to make the audience care about the tragic hero, despite his/her flaws before, again by definition of “tragedy”, give you slight hope of survival and redemption before ultimate death, which is usually epic in scope on some level.
Comedies and romances: everyone gets married off at the end. Which given the attitude Shakespeare may have had toward marriage, was the same thing as tragedy to him. He was kind of a wild boy and famous for leaving his wife, who was older and he only married after knocking up, his “second best” bed in his will.
Needless to say, we should all have questions.
Either way, if you introduce them to kids early as just good stories, nothing special, imagine how impressed with you they will be when they are teenagers and skating through English class?
If nothing else, read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the witch scenes from Macbeth with them because they are a lot of fun for kids. The histories make great adventure stories too…most of them are full of battles. I’ve always liked Macbeth for the same reason.
Overview of Retellings
There are two different well-known collections of Shakespeare’s tales. The Charles and Mary Lamb collection is the better known, but Edith Nesbit, who wrote the other, is also a well known children’s author who has several other books that are well known and highly regarded to this day, including The Railway Children, Five Children and It, and The Treasure Seekers.
While both collections are appropriate for children about ages 8 to 11, Nesbit’s versions are somewhat shorter than the Lambs’. The two authors selected most of the same plays, but there are some slight differences with the Lambs choosing a few more tragedies.
These collections are also great reads for adults, especially if you are curious about some of the more rarely produced plays and don’t have the energy to sit down and read Shakespeare’s version.
But back to the books…both the Lambs’ and Nesbit’s versions are available in e-books. The links below include lovely, original illustrations and audio links for some tales. The individual links for each story can be shared.
E. Nesbit was a prolific children’s author who was considered by many to be the first to write realistic books for children rather than fantasy. She was also involved in Marxist/socialist movements in the U.K. and was an early lecturer at the London School of Economics.
The Julia Briggs biography is the best known book on E. Nesbit (as she signed her books), but there is a new one out in 2019 as well.
Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb
Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by E. Nesbit
Taking Children to See a Shakespearean Production
Now that your kids know something about the stories, don’t be afraid of taking your kids to see Shakespeare, just do a little research on the production to make sure it will be an enjoyable one.
Shakespeare was originally performed in a setting that was more like modern festival than “high theatah”. When you go out to your local Corn Fest, or Beer Fest…we have a Strawberry Festival and Harbor Fest that I’ll be missing this year (2020)…that would have been the situation. Not a bunch of pretentious fools sitting around feeling proud of themselves for sticking through it.
While the language is a bit hard to follow in 2020, both being familiar with the story and the vocal inflection and actions of the actors will make it a lot more enjoyable.
A good acting company will really understand the plays and know how to make them fun.
I had a wonderful Shakespeare professor in university, Dr. Ralph Cohen, who formed the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton Virginia. I knew that any production Dr. Cohen was behind would be enjoyable, even for kids, so I took my daughter to several productions over the years. We read the Lambs’ tale before each one so she would know what was going on, and believe me, the spectacle alone kept her entertained. We even got to sit on the stage we went to see Julius Caesar (some productions emulate Shakespearean theatre by selling seats on the stage, and if they don’t sell them, they invite audience members to sit on stage, usually giving preference to families with kids).
By all means, if you are in Virginia, head to Staunton, about 2 hours drive south of Washington D.C. (we pronounce it “Stanton”, not “Stawnton”) to see a production of the American Shakespeare Center’s in the beautiful Blackfriar’s Playhouse, a wooden interior reproduction of the indoor winter theater that Shakespeare’s company used in London (don’t worry…their is air conditioning…Virginia’s humid summers are no joke). The organization also runs master’s programs for teachers with a nearby college, so they are really good with kids. And in the U.K., the Royal Shakespeare Company is based in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon and there is also a company in the reproduction of the Globe Theatre in London.
If you are looking closer to home, I would check your regional professional repertory theaters or look for the “experimental” or “black box” productions at your local university. The smaller productions are usually more fun for kids than the more traditional “main stage” productions because they can be closer to the actors and there is more likely to be actual audience interaction. The kids can also wear their regular clothes and probably make some noise. I personally always enjoy smaller troupes who do more with less, including playing multiple roles. If nothing else, they are also much cheaper.
Charles and Mary Lamb
I think one of the reasons that Charles and Mary Lamb’s version of Tales from Shakespeare has remained so popular is because of the macabre story of the authors’ own lives.
Mary Lamb had such extreme mental issues, as we say today, that she killed her own mother with a knife while her mother was preparing dinner.
Her brother, Charles Lamb, was only 21 at the time, and he had to make sure that Mary was taken care of for the rest of her life, and he struggled with alcoholism and mental instability himself.
Meanwhile, both of the Lambs were friends with all of the big names in the Romantic Literary movement, such as Coleridge and Wordsworth.
The Lambs story is unique in that it offers a glimpse of a range of social strata from the times.
The article below from The Independent recaps the story told in Sarah Burton’s biography.
A Double Life: A biography of Charles and Mary Lamb, by Sarah Burton (Note: The Independent allows non-subscribers one free article a month.)
You Tell Us
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About the Cover Photo
I know this image is a little over the top, but I think it’s so awesome, I decided I don’t care…if nothing else, it shows exactly how much the world (i.e. “the stage”) thinks of Shakespeare and why children might as well get to know his stories.
Can you imagine what William Shakespeare would say if he saw this?