Shakespeare had a little Lamb

I haven’t really read Shakespeare since I was in high school. I read very quickly in a bit of a weird way – I tend to just breeze through sentences by sort of “getting a feeling” of what they say – which can be a problem if something unexpected pops up. I don’t know if there’s a name for my style of reading, but as I’ve gotten older I tend to get a bit bored when I have to put in even a tiny bit more than the barest minimum of effort in order to extract plot, dialogue, character, etc. So while I had a lot of fun reading the Bard in my teenagerhood, I find my adult self glazing over and finding off-page distractions due to the extra effort that goes into following the rhyming meter and the “enter“s and “exeunt“s.

See, I used to read for enjoyment. I’d have a few hours to myself, and I’d use them to get every last bit of substance out of whatever was in front of me. But now with two loud, boisterous, insane, interrupting young children, and a job, and lots of things to do, I end up reading in that half hour window between my face hitting the pillow and my eyes closing. What I’m saying here is that lately prose is my thing. It’s a lot easier to fall asleep to a nice, flowing narrative than something requiring that tiny bit of extra work. This is why my big fat heavy copy of the Complete Shakespeare, a gift from my mom for my 18th birthday, has been gathering a bit of dust.

Oh I’ve tried adaptations, but I don’t handle audiobooks well, (zzzzz) and many of the Shakespeare films & plays I’ve seen are poncy & overwrought. Having said that, I generally enjoy live performances, and I’d really love to go to the Globe next time I get to London. (Maybe I could catch an “Original Pronunciation” performance! And I love that these guys  agree with my “poncy & overwrought” bit.) But lately I’ve been finding myself diving into some of the more obscure bits in Austen – many of which involve references to Shakesperian works – so I got that itch to read him again. Only it didn’t itch badly enough for me to pull that big heavy book of my shelf. So I decided to think like a Regencian(?) and take the easy way out. Enter:

Tales From Shakespeare

(1807) by Charles and Mary Lamb

Charles and Mary Lamb were interesting characters. Charles was born in the same year as Jane Austen (1775) and later became close friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose main claim to fame is, I believe, being mentioned in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency1. Their family was not overly poor during their childhood, but as the children grew older the Lambs fell on hard economic times. But through Charles Lamb’s attendance at a boarding school for low-income children (which he unfortunately attended during the reign of a brutally violent headmaster) he was able to earn an education that would eventually allow him a mostly middle-class lifestyle.

His sister Mary was a voracious reader and, being 11 years Charles’ senior, treasured her father’s stories of meeting Samuel Johnson and a childhood memory of spotting Oliver Goldsmith in the street. As a woman she was unable to escape to a school or work outside the home, so she worked as a seamstress while simultaneously caring for three incapacitated family members. Unfortunately, though she was highly intelligent and rational, Mary suffered from a mental illness which rendered her occasionally violently unstable. She had a breakdown in 1796 during which she stabbed her mother to death. She was ruled as suffering from “lunacy,” and was institutionalized on and off during the rest of her life.

Mary’s life stabilized quite a bit after her brother became financially secure enough to take her in. They lived together as bachelor siblings, each offering the support that neither had found in anyone else. Their social circle expanded to include the Wordsworths, William Godwin, and William Hazlitt. (If you’re not familiar with these names, that’s okay – it just means you’re not as gigantic of a nerd as I am.) Mary, having been encouraged by a friend to write fictions aimed at young people, began a project with her brother to adapt Shakespeare’s works for young readers. And thus, Tales from Shakespeare was born.

As I mentioned above, I have a great fondness for prose. This made Tales from Shakespeare a quick and enjoyable read for me, and I highly suggest it to anyone wanting a fast and simple refresher on the more popular plays. But, dear reader, you may notice things about the Lambs’ adaptation which may tickle a funny bone or two.

In true chivalrous style, Charles adapted the tragedies and left Mary the comedies. The true comedy, however, begins in the preface: (pardon me for the huge quote, but this whole bit is hilarious.)

…For young ladies, too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these Tales to the perusal, of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story…

(emph. mine)

The “manly” plays included for the elucidation of weak young feminine minds are as follows:

THE TEMPEST
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’s DREAM
WINTER’S TALE
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
AS YOU LIKE IT
TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
MERCHANT OF VENICE
CYMBELINE
KING LEAR
MACBETH
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
TAMING OF THE SHREW
COMEDY OF ERRORS
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
TWELFTH NIGHT; OR, WHAT YOU WILL
TIMON OF ATHENS
ROMEO AND JULIET
HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK
OTHELLO
PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE

shakespeare-little-lamb
“My dear brother, can you please explain this manly book to me?”

I find it rather entertaining to see the bawdy Bard’s best bits through the hyper-moralizing lens of the early 19th century. Though it was not nearly the wet-blanket-prim-and-perfect-party of the later Victorian age, bookshelves of the Regency era (especially in homes with ladies in them) were rife and teeming with morality.

While the Regency era was rather more “englightened” than Elizabethan times, both had their issues with female autonomy. I’ve pulled out some fun quotes from the Lambs’ “modern” interpretations of Shakespeare’s expressions of femininity, and of their general comments concerning customs of his day: (again, emphasis mine)

Cymbeline:

“…she was, with weariness and hunger, almost dying; for it is not merely putting on a man’s apparel that will enable a young lady, tenderly brought up, to bear the fatigue of wandering about lonely forests like a man…”

“…Imogen delighted them with her neat housewifery, assisting them in preparing their supper; for, though it is not the custom now for young women of high birth to understand cookery, it was then.”

As You Like It:

In those times wrestling, which is only practised now by country clowns, was a favorite sport even in the courts of princes, and before fair ladies and princesses.

Twelfth Night:

“It was a strange fancy in a young lady to put on male attire and pass for a boy; but the forlorn and unprotected state of Viola, who was young and of uncommon beauty, alone, and in a foreign land, must plead her excuse.”

(And here’s a big spoiler in the next paragraph, thanks Mary!)
“When she was dressed in her manly garb she looked so exactly like her brother that some strange errors happened by means of their being mistaken for each other, for, as will afterward appear, Sebastian was also saved.” (Dude! Not cool!)

“Orsino, forsaking the sports of the field and all manly exercises in which he used to delight, passed his hours in ignoble sloth, listening to the effeminate sounds of soft music, gentle airs, and passionate love-songs.”

 —

I wonder if the Lambs ever giggled over archaic phrasing or outdated morality when updating these plays for their contemporary audience. Having read the whole selection, I do feel that there was a concerted effort made to censor not only scenes of violence, but also scenes of sexual excitement or gender ambiguity. I can see why parents of the age would have felt more comfortable exposing their delicate daughters to such a stylized and narrow reading of a set of fiction that was such a vital part of the “Englishman’s constitution.”

“…Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.” –Henry Crawford

I also wonder if Jane Austen ever got her hands on a copy of Tales of Shakespeare. I wonder what her thoughts would have been on the quality of the adaptation. Would she have been pleased with the increased accessibility of works which even Edmund Bertram, the nerdiest of nerds, admits are rather complicated?

Or would Austen have bristled at the moralizing tone which Mary Lamb seems to have taken fully to heart in her adaptations of the comedies? Surely there are morals to be learned in Shakespeare’s plays, but I’m not entirely sure “always listen to your husband or father, and never dress like a man” are the main ones.

Anyway, I had a great deal of fun reading the Lambs’ “update” to that Daddy of Drama, that Padre of Poetry, that Cardinal of Comedy, Mr. S. It left me wanting to get back into the plays again, which is a good feeling. Between the children and the purely Austenian day job it’s been a while since I’ve felt inspired to read something for pleasure instead of as a nightcap. Even if their occasional goofy preachies got me giggling, I really appreciated how easy the Lambs’ work made it for me to remember old favorites and assimilate the plots of as-yet unread masterpieces.

Now, I just need a little help getting this giant book down off my shelf. Hmmm, should I start with the tragedies and then move on to histories & comedies? Maybe I should start with the sonnets and then read the plays chronologically? Or… maybe I’ll just play angry birds tonight and leave that big Bard book for tomorrow.

1. Quite possibly one of the best books ever written by one of the best novel writers who ever wrote. If you think I’m kidding, I once wrote an article about how Douglas Adams and Jane Austen are pretty much both the best writers ever ever. Hey, I’m a fangirl, what can I say? [And I’m only linking to the Wiki article because the entire text isn’t online. If you haven’t read this book yet, do it now.]

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