450 years old and still great

Courtesy University of Florida

Courtesy University of Florida

Today I have Shakespeare for kids on my mind. Because WS’s language, with its old words and complicated syntax, is a challenge for young readers, it isn’t unusual to find versions of these tales re-penned specifically for children.

Charles Lamb (1775-1834) and Mary Lamb (1764-1847) may have been the first to do this. Their 1807 Tales from Shakespeare (2 volumes to include all 36 plays), “meant to be submitted to the young reader as an introduction to the study of Shakespeare,” sticks as closely as possible to WS’s language, trying not to use “words introduced into our language since his time.” The larger challenge, however, arises not in language but in plot. “Very young minds”, especially young girls’ minds, might find the plays too … well, suggestive. The Lambs call on these girls’ brothers to help with the difficult plots and to “read to them — carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear — some passage which has pleased them.”

To help these solicitous brothers, the Lambs redact the tales, omitting the salacious and overly violent parts. In Mary Lamb’s version of Cymbeline, for instance, the mole that Iachimo sees while taking her bracelet from the sleeping Imogen is on her neck rather than her breast, and Cloten is barely mentioned (presumably so that we don’t need to see his head sans torso).

E. Nesbit’s Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare, with its much shorter versions of only 20 plays (no histories), is for much younger readers, and even the illustrations (in the US edition, at any rate) portray the characters as children rather than adults.


First US edition

Nesbit (1858-1924), author of several YA books (the Bastable series, the Psammead series, etc.), explains in her Preface that she’d written these stories to help her own children find their way through the maze of language to the lovely stories underneath. At first she was stumped:

In truth it was not easy to arrange the story simply. Even with the recollection of Lamb’s tales to help me I found it hard to tell the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in words that these little ones could understand.

Nesbit’s Cymbeline, like the Lambs’, omits Cloten and simplifies even further, for the sake of brevity. Iachimo’s dark of night visit to Imogen’s room is brief:

So the trunk was carried into Imogen’s room, and that night she went to bed and to sleep. When she was fast asleep, the lid of the trunk opened and a man got out. It was Iachimo. The story about the jewels was as untrue as the rest of the things he had said. He had only wished to get into her room to win his wicked wager. He looked about him and noticed the furniture, and then crept to the side of the bed where Imogen was asleep and took from her arm the gold bracelet which had been the parting gift of her husband. Then he crept back to the trunk, and next morning sailed for Rome.

As I read through Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, I sometimes find myself yearning for the simplicity of the Lambs’ or Nesbit’s versions. WS’s syntax is at times so convoluted that I need a map to guide me through each sentence. Which is the subject, which the verb; what’s the referent for that pronoun? Even the experts can’t agree (my Pelican version is rife with notes that end with question marks).

But that’s the trade-off. In exchange for the hard work of careful reading, we’re rewarded not just with lovely tales, but with language full of puns, humor, irony, and beauty. Sadly, these are lost in the children’s versions. The stories are there, and perhaps knowing the stories will, as the Lambs hoped, encourage young readers to dig into the original, if only to find out what was thought too racy for their “very young minds.”

Many thanks to the University of Florida and The Gutenberg Project for making editions of these books, complete with illustrations, available online.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Shakespeare, YA Lit and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to 450 years old and still great

  1. calmgrove says:

    I never could manage the Lambs’ versions, so much so I no longer have a copy. I remember them as mostly bare plot and moralistic asides, but I may be doing them an injustice.

    I wasn’t aware that Nesbit tackled the subject, Lizzie, so thanks for drawing attention to that.


  2. calmgrove says:

    Reblogged this on calmgrove and commented:
    To parallel our act-by-act synopses with commentaries, here is Lizzie Ross’ reminder of re-tellings for younger audiences.


  3. colonialist says:

    These days the sweet young innocents are less so – I recall the hilarity from some apparently far-too-young at the line, ‘… pistol’s cock is up, and flashing fire shall follow ;;;’


  4. josna says:

    Loved this post. For all my love of E. Nesbit I’d never come across her re-tellings of Shakespeare; will look for it now. I used to use Lamb’s Tales to familiarize my son with the plot before we went to see a Shakespeare play, but although I had a lovely illustrated edition, never read much of it myself as a child.


    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks, Josna. I’ve had a copy of Nesbit’s Shakespeare on my shelf for years, but it’s an abbreviated version with only half the original “tales”. All this time I thought it was complete until I did the research.


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