- Shakespeare and Childhood
Of the many oft-cited quotes from Shakespeare's plays, few, if any, are about children. Yet a new collection of essays reminds us that Shakespeare's plays portrayed issues relevant to childhood, and children were ready participants on the early modern stage. Rather than simply looking at the way the plays represent children from the perspective of adults, the essays in this collection seek to rediscover the children themselves, from Shakespeare's day to today. This collection will be a useful resource not just to Shakespearean scholars, but also to scholars of childhood and children's literature more broadly as it illuminates the "historical origins and contexts of Shakespearean childhoods and their continuing history of cultural reinvention" (6).
Divided into two parts, the volume looks at children first in the context of Shakespeare's day and then from the eighteenth century onward. The first part addresses "the questions of what being a child might have meant, both to children, and to adult others, and of how these meanings were reflected, constructed and negotiated by children both as the subjects and the agents of fictional, theatrical and poetic representation" (6). The second part of the book "addresses the cultural history of the relationship between Shakespeare(s) and childhood(s) from a period spanning the eighteenth century to the present" (7).
As the first part of the volume promises to remember that children were (and are) not simply smaller versions of adults, we find various approaches to recovering examples of actual children represented on the early modern stage. Catherine Belsey looks at how the young princes of Richard III, whose voices still echo in the pages of literature and history books as they do in the halls of the Tower of London, are shown to exercise some measure of agency and independence, despite their early death at the hands of their uncle. Two essays examine relationships between parents and children in Shakespeare: Hattie Fletcher and Marianne Novy's essay looks at father-child identification, especially that between fathers and daughters, while Patricia Phillippy concentrates on "child-loss" in the Sonnets, focusing on "competing claims to the possession and importance of sons and daughters" in Shakespeare's poems (97).
Rounding out the first part of the volume, A. J. Piesse and Lucy Munro both seek to understand how children in Shakespeare's plays work through issues of developing masculine [End Page 86] identity. For Piesse, the child on Shakespeare's stage is a transitional figure, bearing the signs on his (and we might remember that there were no girls, just as there were no women, on the early modern stage) body of the man he would become; thus, the "Shakespearean child figure is a carrier of culture between the generations" (77). Munro's essay similarly considers how boy actors (and child characters in plays) in Coriolanus figured in liminal ways and illustrated how childhood and adulthood are both performative and how these children were "impersonating" a kind of "hypermasculinity" (92).
The second part of the volume moves forward in time, with essays that consider Shakespeare's children (and the children who read the plays and saw them performed on the stage) from the eighteenth century and Victorian era to today's 'tween culture. As Suzanne Greenhalgh's introduction to the second part explains, Shakespeare's plays influenced shifting cultural definitions of "proper" childhood, as Shakespeare has been inherited from one generation to the next as the cultural epitome of "good" literature to which adults and children alike should aspire (120). The essays in the second part of the volume, therefore, "do not merely seek to document the relationship between Shakespeare and childhood but to acknowledge and explore the many ways in which Shakespeare has existed within changing cultures of childhood" (120–21).
The essays in the second part of the volume address how children understood and used Shakespeare's plays, increasingly so after the early modern period came to a close. Naomi Miller, like Kate Chedgzoy, considers how children used Shakespeare's plays in subversive ways...