“Shakespeare Fresh Chiseled”: Adapting Classics for Children

Pictorial Title Page of Shakespere Fresh Chiselled on Stone (Dean & Son, 1859)  – Cotsen 17106

How do you get children interested in the “classics” — landmark publications that been read by millions of readers, withstood the test of time, and become so well-known that we instantly recognize characters, plots, and quotations?  Who hasn’t heard of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, and who hasn’t heard phrases such as “To be, or not to be…” or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”?   We don’t have to know the title of the work or the context of a quotation to have a flash of recognition. But this awareness doesn’t happen by magic; it’s learned in various ways.

The question of how to interest young readers in literary landmarks is not a new question — it’s one that that teachers, librarians, and publishers have thought about for centuries.  Publishers have come up with various approaches: graphic novelizations, amusing parodies, greatly abridged versions, books with simplified language (sometimes rendered entirely in words of one syllable), and highly-illustrated adaptations — often brightly colored — where illustration can be more prominent than text.

Shakespere [sic] Fresh Chiseled on Stone, Dean and Son’s 1859 slim publication with just fourteen leaves, is an unusual — and I think unusually clever — variation on the theme of print spin-offs of Shakespeare’s plays. The tone is perfectly set by J. V. Barret’s illustrated title page and facing frontispiece.

Here is a change indeed!  Title page and facing frontispiece.

He depicts a bill-poster who is pasting a broadside bill to a wooden fence, the bill displaying the books’ title and imprint.  He is almost, but not quite done with his work, and a small part of the bill he’s busy papering over is still visible, with the word “read,” this visually rendering the title as Read Shakespere… Or perhaps it’s an injunction: “Read Shakespeare!”?  (We don’t see many people posting bills on wooden fences these days, or many posted advertising bills at all, but they were a staple of cheap nineteenth-century advertising, and something that a reader at the time would instantly recognize as familiar.)  Take a look at some of the other bills on the fence: “No more pills…” “Corns…” — the sort of patent medicine touting that was once prevalent everywhere, including in advertisements at the back of early children’s books.  (John Newbery, the trailblazing children’s book publisher, also sold patent medicines; so the connection between children’s books and patent medicine isn’t as odd as it may seem to us now. These ads were presumably targeted at book-buying adults.)

Here is a change indeed!

Barret’s frontispiece encapsulates the book’s the spirit of lighthearted parody.  A somewhat disheveled sculptor — presumably Barret’s surrogate for himself — is shown chiseling away on a statue of Shakespeare (setting him in stone, you might say) and rendering him as a nineteenth-century gent — and a portly one at that!  The sculptor is shown in color but the unfinished stature isn’t.  Take a look at where Shakespeare hand is.  On the sculptor’s head!  Is the statue coming to life?  Barret’s caption sums up what follows in the book too: “Here is a change indeed”!    (The actual line, from Othello, is spoken by Desdemona, commenting on the change in Othello from affectionate husband to jealous accuser.)

Throughout this little book, Barret continues this pattern of juxtaposing “serious” quotations from Shakespeare’s plays with his own comically-rendered scenes, which refract the lines in a completely different way, and perhaps suggest the ambiguity of language and the malleability of meaning.  Context can change anything.

A line from Romeo & Juliet — “What say you to my suit” — provides a perfect caption for an illustration of a preening dandy in his new suit of clothes as he fishes for compliments.  No matter that the original “suit” was a lover’s marriage suit (made to Juliet’s father by Paris, Romeo’s competition).

What say you to my suit?

Fighting words uttered by one of Juliet’s kinsmen — “A dog of the house of Montague moves me” — take on a totally different meaning when set underneath a picture of young swain being chased away from the “Montague House for Young Ladies” by a yapping lapdog, while the presumed object of his affections peers out from the formidable gate, left ajar.

A dog of the house of Montague moves me!

The dynamic between text and illustration provides some gentle social commentary in other cases.  Ophelia’s line about Hamlet’s strange behavior towards her — “He took me by the wrist and held me hard… and falls to such perusal of my face” — becomes the caption for a scowling eyed beadle accosting a poor waif.  Text and illustration fit perfectly.

He took me by the wrist and held me hard…

Perhaps my favorite illustration is one captioned by a line from Julius Caesar referring to Caesar’s staged public refusal of a king’s crown: “Why, there was a crown offered him : and being offered him, he put it by with the back of his hand, thus.”  A haughty coachman is showing the back of his hand to a crown offered by a mother with a scad of luggage and three children in tow. The play on words is s bit lost on us now, but children at the time would certainly have known meaning of the term — and its old currency value.

A crown offered him … he put it by with the back of his hand.

The scenes are amusing in and of themselves, much in the vein of English satire of the time.  But appreciation of the full irony created by the juxtaposition of illustrations and quotes requires quite a familiarity with Shakespeare’s plays.  (And many of these quotes used are not the most famous of lines either!)  Would children have actually had such a familiarity in the nineteenth century?  In other words, is this book really a “children’s book”?  It’s hard to know for certain.  But Dean was a prolific London publisher of illustrated children’s books in this era.  And Shakespeare was a foundation of both schooling and popular entertainment then in a way it can be hard for us to appreciate now.  Lines were memorized and repeated in school classes. Street theater and cheap chapbook adaptation abounded.  References to the plays and quotations from them abounded not only in “literature” but also in popular reading and commentary as well. And perhaps the idea was to use the brightly-colored, topical illustrations as a means of interesting young readers in Shakespeare’s plays?  Or perhaps the background context might have been provided by a parent, in much the same way that we typically explain the text in picture books to children who are just becoming interested in books.  Children look, they get interested, and they ask questions…  That’s certainly an important part of the key role that illustrated children’s books have traditionally played in presenting “the classics” and stories of all kind.

Bookseller’s ticket (Stassin & Xavier, Paris) on front pastedown of Cotsen’s copy of Shakespere Fresh Chiselled

The illustrations in this little book all seem distinctively “English” in the people and activities presented, as well as in the style of illustration. That’s one of the aspects that holds such interest for us now — they present a window onto nineteenth-century English town life.  But Cotsen’s book has a copy-specific aspect that gave me some pause in thinking about this: a bookseller’s ticket on the front pastedown for a Paris bookseller: Stassin & Xavier.

Why was a book featuring such  “English” illustrations for sale in Paris?  Perhaps a gently satiric picture of English life was seen as potentially appealing to a French audience?  (“Look at those funny Englishmen and women!”)  Some quick online searching for books connected with Stassin & Xavier suggested another reason why they might have stocked a book like Shakespere Fresh Chiselled.  The firm sold or published a number of English language books, including an 1842 edition of Macbeth (a copy of which lives in the Folger Library now).  As their bookseller’s ticket specifies, Stassin & Xavier featured books in a variety of languages, including English, as many “international” bookstores in Europe still do today.   A number of these books appear to have been English-language international travel guides or traveler’s phrase books that Stassin & Xavier co-published with English publishers.  So a book like Shakespere Fresh Chiselled might have been a natural for such an international-language bookstore, a book that would appeal to international travelers looking for light reading for their children (or themselves, while traveling on a bouncing carriage or train) and a book that visually showcased English life to both Europeans interested in England and nostalgic English travelers wanting a slice of home while on the Continent.  As so often is the case with old books, a small copy-specific aspect like a bookseller’s ticket can suggest additional facets to the story a book can tell us, which can, in turn, guide us towards finding out more about the circulation and readership of books.

Escapees from an Exhibition: Some Curious “Alice in Wonderland” Items…

Alice once fell asleep and she was dreaming. / When she awoke, she started screaming... "Jabberwocky: Novelty Fox Trot Song," [©1921]. (Cotsen SM 1965)

Alice once fell asleep and she was dreaming. /
When she awoke, she started screaming… “Jabberwocky: Novelty Fox Trot Song,” [©1921]. (Cotsen SM 1965)

Exhibitions of illustrated books, manuscripts, ephemera and other “curiosities” are great ways of highlighting certain aspects of “rare” collections that usually don’t otherwise see the light of day. This is certainly true for items relating to Alice in Wonderland, due to the book’s ongoing popularity and all the “variations on the original theme” by later illustrators, pop-up book designers, and manufacturers of collateral marketing paraphernalia. Imagine seeing a Through the Looking Glass biscuit tin once owned by Lewis Carroll’s sister! Or depictions of Alice as a 1920s flapper girl or as grown-up woman waking from a nightmare dream in a musical score. Or a number of later illustrators’ reinterpretations of John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice.

One problem, though, is that an exhibition (particularly a “live” one) can never accommodate everything. There are usually just too many books and items to display them all! Selecting from among all these items was one of the (fun) challenges in curating Cotsen’s “Alice after Alice” exhibition, which will soon be ending its run (extended from its original July 15 end-date). With that in mind, I thought it might be amusing to feature here some of the “also-rans” and items that we just didn’t have room for in the display cases.

First up, is perhaps Cotsen Library’s smallest version of Alice, measuring just 7 cm (2 ¾ inches) in height: a 1998 Russian edition, Alisa v strane chudes. The pictorial paper dust-jacket shows a smiling Alice with a somewhat modern, but essentially timeless look — fitting perhaps with the timeless beginning of Alice: “All in the golden afternoon…”

Minaiture Book version of Alice

Cover of Russian miniature edition of “Alice” — Alisa v strane chudes — with a penny for size comparison (Cotsen 153255)


Alice as imagined by illustrator Ekaterina Shishlova

But things really get interesting when we open the book and see Ekaterina Shishlova’s language-transcending, process-printed color illustrations, which accompany the Russian text. In one, Alice herself is shown as a doe-eyed, brown-haired girl, full of perplexity, when trying to decide what to make of the key after she tumbles down into Wonderland. An interesting ‘take” on a character depicted many different ways by various illustrators in the 150 years since the first edition (a number of which were featured in the “Alice after Alice” exhibition)..

But I think Shishlova’s real genius manifests itself in her depictions of Alice tumbling down into Wonderland and a too-large Alice peeking through the tiny door.

timblign alice

Alice tumbles down into Wonderland

In the first, Alice seems to be tumbling down into a well-cum-malestrom, along with a framed picture (the river-bank scene where her sister had been reading to her?) and some leaves from tree Alice was sitting under; you can almost feel the downward motion! Note the tiny circle of sunny sky at the top of the well. And how about Alice’s hand, foregrounded so it looks like the disembodied hand of some giant? Brilliant!


“Big” Alice peering though the tiny door…

I also particularly like Shishlova’s depiction of Alice peering through the door she’s too big to go through before swigging from the “Drink Me” bottle. The garden seems full of mysterious plants, befitting an enchanted place; and note the hint of red from the Queen of Hearts garden to come.  And how about Alice’s huge eye peering through the door? While great in and of itself, this illustration seems especially perfect for a miniature book!  A big eye peering into a brave new miniature world…

"I'm late, I'm late..."

I’m late, I’m late…

Other wonderful depictions of Wonderland characters in this book include the White Rabbit, wearing what looks like a red-and-blue livery of some sort with a giant floppy hat, mouth agape, and holding his packet-watch, which looms large in the foreground and features a cameo portrait of a harridan-like woman. Is it the Queen of Hearts?

Queen of Hearts

Shishlova’s Queen of Hearts

Speaking of the Queen, take a look at Shishlova’s reimagining of her — a comically scary figure, recalling the proverbial evil step-mother of fairy tales, here with a fawning courtier draped over her. Definitely recognizable as the Queen of Hearts, but also quite distinctive, in the best tradition of illustrators’ reimaginings of Tenniel’s originals!

Apart from the specific delights of this tiny Russian edition, it also serves as a reminder that Alice has been translated into some 174 different languages, including Afrikaans, Latin, Cornish, Welsh, and Tongan.


“26 Letters of Lewis Carroll,” fanned out for display, as per the book designer’s suggestion. The Q image is (of course!) the Queen of Hearts (Cotsen 46698)

Another “curious” item that didn’t quite make it into the exhibition is titled Twenty-Six Letters of Lewis Carroll, a 1998 limited printing of 26 letters that Carroll actually wrote to various children, including Alice Liddell (the “real” Alice) and Queen Victoria’s granddaughter. What makes this collection so interesting is the presentation. Each of the letters — one for each letter of the alphabet — is housed within an envelope with an illustration based on a Tenniel original: the whole collection of illustrations forming something of a rebus alphabet (A is for Alice, B for beeQ is for Queen…).  All the envelopes are bound together within a bright red “piano hinge binding,” designed so that the letters can be fanned out for display in a semi-circle. (The bound collection even comes with a descriptive sheet from the book designer, Linda K. Johnson, suggesting display options–no “mere” child’s toy, this!)


The list of letter recipients: from A (Alice Compton) to Z (Zoe Dodgson)

Carroll corresponded with a large number of “child friends” throughout his career and wrote special Christmas or holiday letters or messages to some, including Alice. The pictorial Table of Contents page provides some of of the scope of this correspondence.

Let’s take a look at just two of the letters: Carroll’s letter to Alice Lidell and her sisters and his letter to Princess Alice, Duchess of Altlone (aka. granddaughter of Queen Victoria, who is sometimes regarded as Tenniel’s inspiration for the Queen of Hearts).


My dear Lorena, Alice, and Edith…

The letter to the Liddells: Lorina, Alice, and Edith (addressed to them essentially in order of their ages) is housed in an envelope with an illustration of a lion (L is for Lion) and the letter itself has the lion illustration too, as you can see. It’s addressed to “My dear…” as were many of Carroll’s letters to children. He didn’t write to children as a celebrity author or a condescending adult, but rather as a friend, which is probably one reason he was so popular with them.

As you can see, the letter also contains an acrostic poem, the first letter of each line spelling out a letter in the three girls’ names — Lorina, Alice, Edith — Carroll loved all sorts of puzzles, based on words and math alike. He actually wrote the original version of this letter on the flyleaf of a book he gave the girls as a Christmas present: Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (with no lion pictured, though!). The stilted formal style of this letter, although typical of both the time and some of Carroll’s other writings, is quite unlike that in Alice — probably a good thing in terms of the lasting appeal of the book!


My dear Princess…

In another letter — P for Princess (Alice), illustrated here with a crowned regal-looking version of Wonderland’s Alice — features a letter Carroll actually wrote to Princess Alice, Victoria’s granddaughter, as well as another acrostic poem. The letter has a remarkably conversational tone (quite unlike the poems), which is doubly remarkable since Carroll was writing to a royal princess at a time when the social bounds between “commoners and royals were quite pronounced. Carroll had actually met Princess Alice previously, something he alludes to in his letter (“before you’ve forgotten me…”). After the 1865 publication of Alice, his celebrity as best-selling author allowed him an entree to social levels quite impossible for a math don (his “day job” as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), something he clearly relished.

The original letter accompanied a “Through the Looking Glass Biscuit Tin” that Carroll sent to Princess Alice, after he had licensed Barringer, Wallis & Manners to produce the tins as a purchase incentive for biscuits (“cookies” to those of us in the USA). Although Carroll complained about the firm’s commercialism in using the tins to encourage purchase of their products, this didn’t stop him from requesting several hundred freebies to give away to various people!


Whenever your brother Charlie is very naughty, just pop him in [the biscuit tin] and shut the lid!

Apart from the social-climbing aspect of this letter, what makes it interesting to me is Carroll’s tongue-in-cheek advice to Princess Alice: the idea that she should “pop” her annoying little brother, Charlie, into the tin and shut the lid whenever he was “very naughty”! Take a look at the highlighted text. Imagine an author passing along that sort of advice to a kid today!

Princeton has one of these original biscuit tins in our Parrish collection, ours formerly owned by Carroll’s sister, Louisa. Even though the tin is displayed in Cotsen Library’s “Alice after Alice” exhibition, I thought you might like to see it here — from several different angles, something not really feasible in the actual “static” exhibition.


Front of the “Looking Glass Biscuit Tin”: Alice & the Knights (Parrish Dodgson 967)


One side of the tin: Alice & Humpty Dumpty


Side two: Alice, the White King, and “the Messenger”


Back of the tin: Alice, Tweedledee & Tweedledum, and the Red Queen



Top of the tin: Alice goes through the looking glass

A final “escapee” from the exhibition is a Jecktor Company Alice in Wonderland movie filmstrip from 1933. As you can see, it’s an early form of a movie, printed on a translucent paper strip with two rows of images; it’s wound on a wooden spool and would probably be about 2 feet long if fully unrolled.


“Alice in Wonderland” filmstrip (#165) by Jecktor Co., 1933 (Cotsen 40848)

But when looking at the Jecktor Alice more closely for this blog posting, I noticed a curious thing: the images on the top and bottom of the filmstrip are slightly different — I’d assumed that the parallel images would be the same, creating some sort of “stereo” or three-dimensional effect when viewed while they moved in some way. (Take a look at the photos above/below and you’ll see what I mean.) So I did what most of us do these days when looking for basic information; I looked online.


“Alice in Wonderland” filmstrip: Alice tumbles down into Wonderland… (note the differences between the images on the top and bottom rows)


Jecktor projector and movie-strips (image from: http://www.icollector.com/)

I learned that Jecktor (based in New York City at 200 5th Avenue, close to the Flatiron Building — quite a toney address now) was an early manufacturer of home movie projectors and gramophone-projector combos gizmos in the 1930s — Jecktor/projector, get it? They made at least 12 filmstrips of popular children’s titles, including Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, and Tom Sawyer. These filmstrips were designed to be played back using an ingenious, but very unusual-looking, playback device (that combines aspects of a hand projector with a gramophone in some cases). It even had its own US patent: #1,929,353. Take a look at it!

The projector had two lenses and a shutter that flipped the projected image from top to bottom row, and back again, when the film was hand-cranked through the projector, thereby creating the effect of animation (not unlike a flip-book, but much more mechanically complex).


“Alice” filmstrip: sequence showing Alice shrinking and getting taller…

So that’s why the images on the top and bottom rows are different — shifting from one to another enhanced the  “moving picture” effect that the changing images in each parallel row create as the film was unrolled. (If you’d like to find out more about these filmstrips, the projector, and see an animated clip of Alice, take a look at the YouTube clip from the University of Texas’s Ransom Center, which also explains more about how it all works and describes a conservation project on their own Alice filmstrip for a recent exhibition.)

projector 2

“Talkie Jecktor” projector and gramophone unit (image from” Skinner Auctions, https://www.skinnerinc.com/)

But that’s not all. Some of these projectors also had a record-playing device on top, which enabled playing of what looks like a 78 rpm record, presumably as some sort of a musical soundtrack or perhaps even some sort of dialogue, although synchronizing the movie and filmstrip would have been very very difficult. In the 1930s, commercial movies with soundtracks were still newfangled technical marvels, so I would have guessed that the record would play music — not unlike that heard in many cartoons in the 1940s-1960s — early Mickey Mouse, for instance. (Sometimes the accompanying music was classical music too — William Tell Overture, anyone?) But the box identifies the projector-cum-gramophone as a “Talkie Jector,” so maybe the record did indeed play dialogue? But I prefer to think of Alice in Wonderland set to classical music. What a combination! What music would you select?