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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 133-137
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Heirs to Shakespeare:
Reinventing the Bard in Young Adult Literature
Megan Lynn Isaac. Heirs to Shakespeare: Reinventing the Bard in Young Adult Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann, 2000.
What is--or should be--the place of Shakespeare within current middle-grade and high school language arts curricula? In Heirs to Shakespeare, Megan Isaac has written a book that makes a welcome--if narrowly focused--contribution to the discussions engendered by this question. While recent work by numerous critics has demonstrated the degree to which this question about culture and aesthetics is at the same time resolutely political in nature--and though she is clearly influenced by this work--Isaac's study is explicitly dedicated to what might be characterized as practical and pragmatic responses to her topic rather than to critical or theoretical ones. This virtually exclusive focus on the curricular opportunities involving Shakespeare that either are or can be made available to young students and their teachers stands, then, as both the central strength and the central limitation of Heirs to Shakespeare.
The first part of the book (chapters 1-3) takes up the matter of the history of adaptations of Shakespeare, picture book adaptations, and historical fiction for young readers as a way (virtually) to enter "Shakespeare's world." The second part (chapters 4-9) is devoted to [End Page 133] particular plays and particular adaptations or versions of them for young readers; these plays include: Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Richard III.
Isaac's brief historical account (chapter 1) quickly introduces the major figures in the history of adaptations of Shakespeare for children: Henrietta Bowdler, Mary and Charles Lamb, Mary Crowden Clark, and E. Nesbit (among others). In addition to offering a thumbnail sketch of this history and identifying some of the principle transformations that adaptations require--the shift from poetry to prose, for example, or the equally significant shift from dialogue to narrative--this chapter also makes the important argument that adaptations are necessarily interpretive in nature and that all readers should understand that "there are no truly innocent or apolitical interpretations" (6). This precept allows Isaac to emphasize the sometimes overt moralizing that adaptations frequently embrace, and readers are encouraged to undertake the comparative intertextual study of a wide range of adaptations.
Isaac's discussion of illustrated versions/adaptations of Shakespeare's plays (chapter 2) is the most successful chapter in the book, offering numerous insights into what she quite rightly argues that adaptive form that can best "bring readers closer . . . to a theatrical experience than the text-based abridgements and adaptations more frequently offered to young readers. Picture books provide a visual interpretation of the play--much in the way a theatrical performance does" (11). In addition to discussions of illustrations by Arthur Rackham that appeared in the Lambs's retellings and two "case studies" of the Ann Keay Beneduce-Gennady Spirin Tempest and Margaret Early's Romeo and Juliet, Isaac also considers picture books dedicated to illustrating the Shakespearean stage and theater, including Stewart Ross and Tony Karpinski's Shakespeare and Macbeth: The Story Behind the Play and Amanda Lewis, Tim Wynne-Jones and Bill Slavin's Rosie Backstage; as well as comic books (Ian Pollock's King Lear, for example, in the Workman Publishing series) and animated versions (from the Wishbone television series, for instance, and the HBO-Shakespeare Animated Films series).
Although it begins with a debatable assertion--"Shakespeare crafted his plays as entertainment and, perhaps, social commentary; they were never intended to mirror his society" (24)--Isaac's third chapter offers a useful survey of a range of young adult texts that in various ways and with various objectives offer interesting glimpses of the historical moment during which Shakespeare wrote. In this chapter Isaac considers texts ranging from Jill Paton Walsh's A Parcel of Patterns (especially for [End Page 134] its depiction of the impact of the plague) to...