Tales from Shakespeare

“I hope it will have no worse effect upon you”

It’s clearly stated in the introduction that the Tales were written specifically with “young ladies” in mind, “because boys are generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are”, therefore they would have read Shakespeares’ plays in full already. So hopefully after the young ladies read this book, they’ll be able to understand the original text better when their brothers read it out loud for them.

The introduction could be a fascinating study of its own and the authors, Mary and Charles Lamb, are equally fascinating. But I won’t digress here. This is exactly what I needed this book to do for me: as someone who never read the original plays and was intimidated, I wanted to get the bird’s eye view of the storylines before diving into the drama and meeting the millions of dukes and princes, lovers, twins, and women in disguise.

The authors very humbly called their retellings “imperfect abridgements”, “small and valueless coins”, “faint and imperfect stamps”. “If [these imperfect abridgements] be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of you, my young readers, I hope will have no worse effect upon you, than to make you wish yourselves a little older, that you maybe allowed to read the Plays at full length”. It would be too harsh to say they have bad effect on my interest in reading the full plays, but they certainly didn’t warm me to them. The effect on me was more one of shock and confusion: the storylines seemed to be over-simplified and over-dramatised; every comedy sounded so similar to each other they all ended up merging into one.

Page after page I read. More and more I thought that must be the disadvantage of retelling comedies. The soul of a comedy is in the quick and clever uses of the language, especially as this is Shakespeare, the language genius, we’re talking about. The glory got lost in process of the retellings.

So in the end reading this book did do me good – I couldn’t believe Shakespeare could be so formulated and tasteless I decided to go back and read the original text themselves. I’m now in the middle of the Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare’s first comedy. I can much better appreciate the wit and humour of it. And I can now also understand why the passages read to young ladies need to be carefully selected for “what is proper for a young sister’s ear”!

“For teaching virtues for children, his pages are full”

I’m dead curious if the moral lessons sprinkled throughout the plays are an addition by the Lambs. For example, when Hamlet confronted his mother for killing the king and marrying his brother, the paragraph seamlessly continues:

“And though the faults of parents are to be tenderly treated by their children, yet in the case of great crimes the son may have leave to speak even to his own mother with some harshness, so as that harshness is meant for her good, and to turn her from her wicked ways, and not done for the purpose of upbraiding.”

And the prince carried on whatever he was doing. Was that in the original text?

Lastly, having the recent case of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston in mind, I wonder if Shakespeare is going to face the same fate at some point in the future for his ‘incorrect view’ on women and other races?

Categories FICTION, READINGTags , , ,

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