- Shakespeare as Children's Literature: Edwardian Retellings in Words and Pictures
Velma Bourgeois Richmond follows her Chaucer as Children's Literature: Retellings from the Victorian and Edwardian Eras (McFarland, 2004) with this study of retellings of Shakespeare for children of the same periods. Richmond devotes her early chapters to Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare (1807). She explains that the popularity of Lamb's Tales came in part because they were beautifully written alternatives to the moral tales that had dominated children's literature in the eighteenth century (11). Richmond traces the many republications of Lamb throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, with additions or deletions of Shakespeare tales by various writers and editors and new illustrations accompanying fresh editions. Richmond's analysis of illustrations is insightful, and the inclusion of many charming, full-page, black and white illustrations of children's versions of Shakespeare by such luminaries as Arthur Rackham and Walter Crane is one of her book's chief delights. Richmond connects the illustrations of fairies from Shakespeare to the broader interest in fairies shared by many Victorian artists; she also notes that Rackham's depictions of trees in Shakespeare tales influence the way woods are drawn in Disney's Snow White and in the Tolkien films (39). In addition, Richmond reveals how retellings of Shakespeare played a role in the making of the British Empire; for example, Lamb's Tales were an examination subject for the Civil Service in India starting in 1855, as well as for entrance to Calcutta University (14).
The success of Lamb's Tales prompted other writers to rework adult classics for children, including Charles Lamb's friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who published a book of children's tales from Chaucer in 1833 (13). Such reworkings had to face the challenge of simplifying the original's complex language and adult content to fit the mores of the time. For example, Bowdler's Family Shakespeare (1807) was particularly popular among evangelicals, who read it aloud to their families (15). During the Victorian period, children's tales from Shakespeare were sometimes combined with tales from the works of other famous writers (110).
The second most popular retelling of stories from Shakespeare, after Lamb's, is Edith Nesbit's The Children's Shakespeare (1897); before she became famous as a children's author, Nesbit retold twelve of the twenty plays the Lambs had covered but in simpler language (155–56). Richmond comments enthusiastically about the "memorable illustrations" and "long [End Page 84] quotations" from Shakespeare found in Mrs. Andrew (Leonora) Lang's The Gateway to Shakespeare (1908), a gorgeously printed prize book (98).
Richmond devotes a chapter to late-Victorian Edwardian literary and historical schoolbooks that include illustrated stories from Shakespeare. These respond to new educational standards and often attempt to improve the teaching of literary history by going beyond names and dates (148). Richmond observes that in the early twentieth century, teaching children the English classics rather than ancient ones from Greece and Rome was still controversial; British patriotism emerging due to World War I helped strengthen the argument that English literature should be taught across classes as a way to make the national heritage meaningful (20–22). In keeping with this, history schoolbooks by such authors as the novelist Charlotte M. Yonge include material from Shakespeare's history plays to foster children's interest in the Middle Ages, with Henry V presented as a model king (265, 267).
The final chapter of Richmond's study discusses home libraries, such as the multivolume, illustrated collection of adult classics retold for children that I inherited from my father and remember enjoying as a child, My Book House (1920–21), edited by Olive Beaupre Miller (289). Retellings of Shakespeare's plays did not appear in My Book House until the expanded editions of the 1930s: A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play most often retold in books for children during the 1800s and early 1900s, was then added, along with three other comedies (291). As is generally the case in...