Reviews 2010

Shakespeare as Children’s Literature: Edwardian Retellings in Words and Pictures

Shakespeare as Children’s Literature: Edwardian Retellings in Words and Pictures. Velma Bourgeois Richmond. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. 363 pages. $35.00 (paperback).

In their Preface to Tales From Shakespeare (1807), Charles and Mary Lamb engage in a complex dialectic with some twenty plays by Shakespeare that serve curiously as both the point of departure for their rewritings and as their ultimate destinations. The tales offer young readers “a few hints and little foretastes of the great pleasure which awaits them in their elder years, when they come to the rich treasures from which these small and valueless coins are extracted.” These “imperfect abridgments,” the Lambs hope, will have “no worse effect […] than to make them wish themselves a little older, that they may be allowed to read the Plays at full length.” The Preface concludes with a great hope: “What these Tales shall have been to the young readers, that and much more it is the writers’ wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to them in older years – enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity; for of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full” (xii-xv). It is one of the fascinating truths in the history of Shakespeare adaptations for children that the Lamb’s Tales has itself become the central text variously refracted not only in the more than 200 editions printed (in dozens of languages), but also in countless would-be rival retellings that their work inspired. Among its many virtues, Velma Bourgeois Richmond’s Shakespeare as Children’s Literature undertakes to write the life and, especially, the afterlife of Tales From Shakespeare.

In framing her study of Shakespeare as children’s literature, Richmond locates her work and her goals for it against “a general loss of quiet, thoughtful reading and a valuing of the humanities” in the digital and electronic age. She hopes “that an awareness of Edwardian Shakespeare as children’s literature […] will be a contribution to current efforts to defend English studies” (5). This seems unwarranted today: the electronic environment will not defeat the pleasures of reading literature and the adaptation of Shakespeare for children is an increasingly visible and important area of current research. But this defensiveness does perhaps signal a certain unwillingness to engage fully with the critical and theoretical questions this recent criticism foregrounds. The quiet disinclination to grapple with sometimes troubling issues is evident, for instance, in Richmond’s discussion of Anna Jameson’s Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical (1832). As evidence of pronounced Edwardian favor, Richmond quotes the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-1911) and its praise of Mrs. Jameson’s “delicacy of critical insight and fineness of literary touch. They are the work of a penetrating but essentially feminine mind, applied to the study of individuals of her own sex, detecting characteristics and defining differences not perceived by the ordinary critic and entirely overlooked by the general reader.” Richmond’s only response follows immediately – and flatly: “An advantage of Shakespeare’s stories for children is that women, whose interpretations differ from those of male critics, wrote most of them and thus made an impact” (129). Such a conclusion is the highway sign of a road not taken. But one should not fault a book – especially one as rich as the present one – for not being a different kind of book.

Richmond’s particular focus rests on Edwardian retellings of Shakespeare for young readers. She is deeply concerned with the adaptations as material objects and attends to the aesthetics of pictorial representation across a wide range of media and styles. She discusses work by some of the best-known artists and illustrators of the period, as well as a number of less-known but still engaging figures, including Arthur Rackham, A. E. Jackson, Sir John Gilbert, Edith Ewen, A. A. Dixon, Frances Brundage, Edmund Dulac, W. H. Robinson, and Walter Crane, among many others. She offers a detailed overview of particular editions of adaptations, both as art objects and as instances of a drive toward moral didacticism that typified late nineteenth and early twentieth-century literature for children, and on these terms Richmond’s book succeeds admirably.

Of special interest to Shakespeareans are Richmond’s discussions of the role that eminent Shakespearean scholars play in the history of adaptations. We learn, for instance, of F.J. Furnivall’s elaborate and expansive edition of Tales from Shakespeare (1901), a two-volume “sumptuous collector’s item with scholarly enhancement,” as well as subsequent efforts by Sidney Lee in his important Introduction to Mary Macleod’s The Shakespeare Story-Book (1902, with illustrations by Gordon Browne). “No contradiction exists,” Richmond assures her readers, “between making Shakespeare’s plays into readable stories for children and providing academic details and a cogent defense of great literature” (173). Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch can be said to have extended these efforts to supplement – or, indeed, to supersede – retlings (especially the Lamb’s) with scholarly concerns. His Historical Tales from Shakespeare (1910) supplies the lack of retellings of the history plays (carefully avoided by the Lambs), in part because he argues that “the real hero of Shakespeare’s historical plays is England; and no one can read them and be deaf to the ringing vibrating note of pride, of almost fierce joy to be an Englishman, to have inherited the liberties of so great a country and to be partaker in her glory” (201).

Such telling insights abound in Shakespeare as Children’s Literature and help sketch a virtually encyclopedic catalog, not only of Edwardian Shakespeare adaptations (either as re-articulations or extensions of the definitional work of the Lambs by such prominent writers as Mrs. Lang or Edith Nesbit), but also of those social, cultural, and political concerns that defined the era. Richmond addresses the Edwardian concern with notions of “race” and “Englishness,” for instance, or with the status of women, the role of English literature in education, and the fate of nation and empire. This book is a compelling compendium of texts, illustrations and insights related to the art of Shakespeare adaptations for children.

Works Cited

Lamb, Charles and Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. London: J.M. Dent, 1999.

Howard Marchitello
Rutgers University, USA