Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

As I followed along with Allie’s Shakespeare Month in January, I was impressed that so many of the plays that other readers discussed sounded familiar, even though I knew I had not read them or seen them performed. I knew I had never seen or read A Merchant in Venice, for example, but the plot seemed so familiar to me.

I recalled I’d read summaries of Shakespeare in eighth grade English class, so I determined to find the volume that we’d read. I discovered Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, originally published in 1807, and I’m almost certain that was my eighth grade exposure. It was time to read the volume in full. While I’m glad I rediscovered this classic, I’m hesitant to recommend it for children today.

It’s not to say that there isn’t a place for play summaries for children. Obviously, reading summaries of the plays gave me a background for Shakespeare that I recall nearly two decades later. However, the summaries by the Lamb’s are difficult to get through. Most of the text is exposition rather than Shakespeare’s clever dialogue, and let’s face it, clever as they are, Shakespeare’s plots are quite confusing and detailed. For the plays with which I was not familiar, I found it hard to follow the developing stories. For the plays with which I am intimately familiar (Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew), it was rather disappointing to read a surface-level treatment of what I consider genius of plot and language. Besides, much as the authors intended to keep their summaries unbiased, they did give their opinions in subtle ways (such as Mary Lamb’s interpretation of the end of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I think is rather ironic rather than misogynistic).

The Lambs recognized the limitations to their task. One of them wrote in the introduction the following:

It has been wished to make these Tales easy reading for very young children. To the utmost of their ability the writers have constantly kept this in mind; but the subjects of most of them made this a very difficult task.

The introduction further explains that they intended the summaries to also be for “young ladies” who are not able to be schooled as their brothers may be. The Lambs suggest that boys simply read the original Shakespeare instead of these summaries:

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 from one of these imperfect abridgments; which if they be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of the young readers, it is hoped that no worse effect will result than to make them wish themselves a little older, that they may be allowed to read the Plays at full length (such a wish will be neither peevish nor irrational).

Ignoring the comments about what girls can take or not (and keeping in mind that girls did not recieve a comparative education), I wonder why, then, anyone who can read the original Shakespeare needs to read Lamb’s summary. As I mentioned, there is a place for it, I suppose, and I may even find myself using the Lambs’ summaries with my son in our homeschooling when the time comes for it. Summaries do provide cultural context for young readers.

And yet, I can’t help but feel that we should try to find a way to expose our kids to the original whenever possible. Shakespeare’s writing, not just his plots, are what make his plays magnificent.