When I was a boy of seven or eight, my father brought home a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare—retellings of several of the Bard’s plays for children. The prose was a bit beyond me at the time, though I did find the illustrations enchanting: Who was this Nick Bottom, with an ass’s head firmly affixed to his own? Soon, I grew into its prose, and the book became a favorite (replacing D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which had had no less an influence on my imagination). These days, it is to the colossal tragedies—Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra—that I return time and again, but back then, A Midsummer Night’s Dream seemed more beguiling. Or The Tempest. Or Cymbeline. Those magical stories provided great pleasure and set me happily upon hours of daydreaming—shouldn’t every children’s book do just that? There was, however, one drawback to my enthusiasms. When word got out among my peers, the ridicule and taunting were unceasing. Children can be cruel, especially to thin, bespectacled boys who purport to read Shakespeare. But no matter. I was undeterred.
What I now find compelling about Tales from Shakespeare is the sophistication of the stories—at no time do the Lambs (Charles taking the tragedies, Mary the comedies and romances) condescend to their young readers. It is all there—pain, heartbreak, human longing, disaster. But more than that, the Lambs make a point of retaining much of Shakespeare’s language. When I encountered the actual plays for the first time, it wasn’t only the plots that seemed vaguely familiar. And because I had encountered that terrain before, my entry into Shakespeare’s rarefied world was not nearly as jarring as it might have been. This is the beauty of the Lambs’ labor of love. They manage to convey the essence of the Bard in tales that are entirely their own.
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