“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.