- “But It’s the Story We Like”—King Lear for Children:From Drama to Narrative
Locked inside the plays are some of the most exciting stories ever told: some romantic, some tragic, some comic, but all full of interesting people. . . . One of the best ways to learn about these wonderful plays is to get someone to tell you the stories hidden away inside them, the framework or skeletons that the poetry and the people who speak it are fastened to.—Bernard Miles, Favorite Tales from Shakespeare 8
In truth it was not easy to arrange the story simply. Even with the recollection of Lamb’s tales to help me I found it hard to tell the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in words that these little ones could understand. But presently I began the tale, and then the words came fast enough. When the story was ended, Iris drew a long breath.
“It is a lovely story,” she said; “but it doesn’t look at all like that in the book.”
“It is only put differently,” I answered. “You will understand when you grow up that the stories are the least part of Shakespeare.”
“But it’s the stories we like,” said Rosamund.—Edith Nesbit, Preface to The Best of Shakespeare 8–9
These quotations from two adaptors of Shakespeare for children, Bernard Miles and Edith Nesbit, highlight the inescapable fact that the history of adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays for young audiences is very much a tale of drama turned into narrative, with the same story abridged, distilled, or expanded into the different plot of each adaptation (see Marchitello). In Nesbit’s preface, we find the author besieged by children who are as baffled by Shakespeare’s language as they are enchanted by his plots, while Miles sees the plots hidden in the plays, ready to be “uncovered” for the children’s sake.
The process of transposing a mimetic mode into a diegetic mode has a powerful impact on time-place coordinates, character, and setting presentation as well as perspective. An omniscient narrator is introduced, who generally simplifies complex issues and intrudes with comments and interpretations. With children’s adaptations (I am using this term in the sense described by Linda Hutcheon, as “both a product [End Page 246] and a process of creation and reception” [xiv]), added explanations and attempts at ideological reorientations of the plays in educational terms are all the more significant, as in most cases the adaptation is accessed before the source is read or experienced at the theater. This may be interpreted as a challenge to the notion of the priority or authority of the “original” (Hutcheon xiii), although, of course, adaptations of such canonical works as King Lear can rely on a general (albeit vague) cultural awareness of the text by the general public, though probably experienced more by adults than by children. However, while adaptations do not always need to be compared to source texts in order to be enjoyed, especially where there is no parodic intent—as in televised versions of Victorian novels, for example—since the nineteenth century, authors of Shakespeare adaptations have been concerned with the universality of the Bard’s “values” and art, and the cultural capital that children can accumulate for their future education as they are introduced to his work.
An early interest in Shakespeare’s “stories” is testified to in eighteenth-century chapbooks (see Ziegler), which may have been inspired by the ballads which preceded them (Richmond 9–10); reading selected passages and scenes and the use of toy theaters were other ways in which Shakespeare’s plays were disseminated among the young. In the second half of the nineteenth century, knowledge of these plays became a subject for examination (first in 1855, for the Indian Civil Service), and then part of the curriculum when schooling became compulsory in 1870. This is probably the reason why, after the many reprints of the Lambs’ Tales, most collections of prose tales taken from Shakespeare are concentrated in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Finding entertaining ways to introduce children to the plays evidently became paramount in those years, as most of these collections were given...