- Shakespeare for Young People: Productions, Versions and Adaptations by Abigail Rokison
In her introduction to Shakespeare for Young People, author Abigail Rokison writes that she aims to provide “a snapshot in time of the work that is being done to engage young people with Shakespeare and to extend their enjoyment and understanding of the plays” (12). Her book offers readers just such a snapshot, addressing a range of genres and media types through which contemporary young people from the ages of seven through eighteen may first encounter the plays of William Shakespeare. Rokison does not develop a comprehensive argument [End Page 309] regarding which means provide the most engaging introduction to Shakespeare. Instead, she considers the advantages and drawbacks of the different possibilities on a case-by-case basis, though her strong preference for live theater is evident in multiple chapters.
Although Rokison does not establish overarching criteria to assess whether the included performances, movies, storybooks, and graphic and YA novels effectively introduce young audiences to Shakespeare, she raises some factors repeatedly. She prominently considers whether works include Shakespeare’s language, reflecting her previous scholarship on verse speaking. She also stresses theatricality: Do young people gain a sense of how the play could change through production choices, engage as audience members with actors, or consider the play’s visual possibilities? Respect for young audiences is another concern for Rokison. She takes into account whether or not primary works maintain Shakespeare’s thematic complexity. Do they condescend to their intended audience, revise stories in order to moralize, or make cuts in order to avoid complicated issues? Relatability is an issue raised on all sides, from those attempting to engage young people to the target demographic itself, and Rokison takes up this issue as well, on matters ranging from Shakespeare’s relevance to teenagers to the plays’ suitability for children ages ten and under. Although she is sometimes critical of the reasons behind, and the effects of, substantial cuts to the text or narrative additions, she does not dismiss them out of hand. Rather, she considers whether in specific cases these techniques enable an engaging introduction to Shakespeare that seems likely to initiate a further exploration of his plays.
As her full title indicates, Rokison applies three general categories to the many ways young people may encounter Shakespeare. In addition to full productions of the plays, she adopts Michael D. Friedman’s terminology in considering “versions” to be works that largely use Shakespeare’s language but may cut or modernize it, and “adaptations” to be works that borrow plot and characters but use contemporary language. Rokison appears to draw upon these three categories as she organizes her book into three parts: “Shakespeare Productions for Young People”; “Short Shakespeare: Cut-Down Versions for Children and Young People”; and “Rewriting Shakespeare.” This largely straightforward organizational structure does contribute to some potential confusion. Part 1 would seem to focus, as its title says, on productions, opening with a chapter on the first three productions in the Globe Theatre’s “Playing Shakespeare” program, which targets students ages eleven to fourteen and aims to help fulfill specific curricular standards. Rokison is especially enthusiastic about exposing young people to Shakespeare through full professional productions designed to appeal to younger audiences. But chapter 2, “Shakespeare on Film,” focuses on movie versions: Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet, and Christine Edzard’s The Children’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This creates [End Page 310] some uncertainty about organization and terms. Why are these versions addressed here instead of with the other versions in part 2? The latter’s title, “Cut-Down Versions,” indicates that the extent of cutting may be an important distinguishing factor for Rokison. However, she does not clarify her use of the book’s titular categories.
As noted above, part 2 focuses on cut versions of Shakespeare in an array of genres. Chapter 3 considers storybook or narrative versions, from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare to Adam McKeown’s The Young Reader’s Shakespeare. Rokison expresses particular concern about...