Some strange things happen to King Lear in Shakespeare’s tragedy about the proud king of ancient Britain who gives away his crown, loses all — including his wits — and finds himself in tatters on a heath in a raging storm, accompanied only by his (perhaps witless) court fool and a truly noble, young nobleman pretending to be a madman (Edgar). At one point, the three of them crowd together inside a hovel to seek nighttime protection from a raging storm — a mad king, a fool, and a nobleman feigning madness, all huddled together: strange bedfellows, indeed!
But even this amazing juxtaposition might not seem stranger than finding a (greatly shortened) version of King Lear cheek-by-jowl with “The Natural History of Ants,” which outlines the behavior of ants and uses it to model virtuous conduct for children. Yet, that’s just what I came across recently while cataloging a newly-acquired Cotsen Library book: The Junior Class-Book, or, Reading Lessons for Every Day of the Year, by William Frederick Mylius (London: M.J. Godwin, 1813).
How did such seemingly disparate items as Lear and ants come to be yoked together? Credit a literary miscellany for children, a genre featuring abbreviated excerpts (fiction, prose, poetry, religion) from a wide variety of authors on an intentionally wide variety of subjects and topics. Like the once-popular literary miscellanies for adults, those for children were samplers of sorts, but they were also meant to subserve an underlying didactic purpose as well. The sheer variety in the selection of materials in children’s literary miscellanies was intended to make them both more engaging and more readily-digestible to young minds, as per Enlightenment thinking on education. It was also meant to provide a wide array of information on all sorts of topics that educators of the time thought children should know about: morality, history, geography, natural science, and classical mythology, among them.
Religion, once the exclusive foundation of early childhood learning (“A is for Adam”) was no longer the sole basis for childhood reading by the time of this book’s 1813 publication. In a Preface, Mylius, the book’s compiling editior, is quite explicit about the role he intends the miscellany to play and how this differs from prior practice:
It is now a maxim sufficiently established in schools that children of both sexes are to be practiced and perfected in the art of reading by a miscellaneous collection. Fifty years ago, the Bible was the only book used for English reading… a miscellany has great advantage… a stepping stone and ladder to all knowledge…
The variety of a miscellany for children is thus the point, as well as one of its key means to achieving its pedagogical ends. The unusual range of material in The Junior Class-Book certainly got my attention!
But to be accurate, I should also stress how stress that Mylius imposes considerable didactic order on his selections — this is definitely not free-form, study-what-you-will learning! The eclectic overall work is carefully divided into weekly reading selections — to be commenced on the week “after the Christmas Holiday” — and each week’s reading is further subdivided into six passages, one for each day of the week. (“Six days a week,” you ask? Sunday, while a day of rest, was presumably not a day without reading and study in Mylius’s eyes, but one still revolving around the Bible, not assignments from his book.)
The first “Contents” page listing of readings should, I hope, give you with some idea of the variety of the content and format, as well as how the clearly didactic orientation is leavened by literature and variety: “Industry & Idleness,” “On Lying,” and “The Folly of Ambition” (almost sermon-like in their moral titles) are accompanied by “Of Bird’s Nests.” (Yes indeed, this passage discusses how birds’ nests are actually made, but it also stresses what humans can learn from observing how birds themselves learn how to build nests: learning from others’ learning — quite a sophisticated, psychologically-oriented approach, when you think about it.)
“Florizel and Perdita” provides a more distinctly “literary” reading selection for the opening weeks, although a title perhaps not as immediately familiar to a modern reader as it would have been at the time of the Junior Class-Book‘s publication. A retelling of an episode from Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale, “Florizel and Perdita” is abridged from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, first published in 1807 to huge critical acclaim and general popularity and never since out of print. Intended as an introduction to the then utterly-canonical (more unquestionably so then than today, believe it or not) plays of Shakespeare, the Tales were abridged narrative versions of twenty plays, intended as “easy reading for young children,” as the Lambs wrote in their own Preface. But the selections are also quite didactic in their import, as the Lambs made clear at the end of the Preface, where they refer to their Tales as:
strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honorable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity… examples teaching these virtues…
Encouraging virtue and providing lessons for both thought and conduct: classic goals of didactic literature.
Reading the Tales now, their didacticism is striking and unambiguous — as you might expect in a version of Shakespeare from this time aimed at “young children.” And this is is even more explicit in Mylius’s abridgement of Lamb in his Junior Class-Book. The innocent virtue of Perdita — described as a “poor deserted baby” — is explicitly rewarded with happiness, marriage, and celebration, all traditional hallmarks of comic dramatic structure. King Leontes, her father, repents the jealousy and wrath that led him to banish his daughter (his actual intent being her death). Yet Mylius manages to distill Lamb’s twelve-page rendition of Winter’s Tale into a four-page anecdote of climactic discovery and reconciliation that captures the essence of the longer version to a remarkable extent, at least in my opinion — and one that does reasonable justice to the original play too.
The complex psychological and moral story of King Lear is similarly pared down by Mylius into just eight pages — compared with about fifteen pages in Lamb’s retelling of Shakespeare; his version also endeavors to tell more of the original story of Lear, not just focus on the final episode, as his “Florizel and Perdita” did. Mylius outlines the context of the original story — Lear compelling his three daughters to compete in extolling how much they each love him — although he refers to Cordelia’s “plainness of speech” in refusing to “flatter” Lear, rather than her “appearance of ingratitude,” as Lamb phrases it. Similarly, Mylius describes Lear as “incensed,” “full of wrath,” and “so little guided by reason and so much by passion,” in lieu of Lamb’s “dotage to old age…clouded reason…[inability] to discern truth from flattery…[and] fury of resentment.” Likewise, near the end of his narrative, Mylius (rightly) labels Goneril and Regan as “wicked women” but not “monsters of ingratitude,” as Lamb terms them. In all three cases, Mylius seems to be deliberately simplifying not just the language, but also the emotions, psychology, and motivation of the characters to make them more self-evident and comprehensible to younger readers. Ingratitude, dotage, and flattery’s deceptiveness are, after all, pretty complex ideas for a child to grasp — and hard to do justice to in eight pages, either! (Sub-plots and some characters are also eliminated, including Edgar, in both retellings of Lear for children, I should add, changing the cast of Shakespeare’s “strange bedfellows” referred to above.)
Much of the horror of Shakespeare’s play is mitigated — or left out altogether — in the retellings of both Mylius and Lamb — but both include the death of Lear, an “unhappy and misguided old man,” as Mylius terms him, at the end of his “tragical and instructive narration.” (Some eighteenth-century versions of the play for adults changed Shakespeare ending to create a happy reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia, more akin to comedy or romance than tragedy.) Lear’s life thus provides a cautionary tale, his fate something to be avoided by avoiding such character flaws and behavior.To an adult reader today, King Lear might not seem like the best source of a story for children: a father behaving badly and driven mad by old age and pitiless remorse; resentful, spiteful children who lie to him and plot revenge; and a certain level of violence ending in suffering and death. But Shakespeare was seen as a “special” writer in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (again, even more so than now), an unmatched user of language and a perfect portrayer of human nature and activity. And children can better appreciate complex character and motivations — even evil — and some level of violence in a story better than many of us once thought. Just look at the popularity of the Harry Potter stories with children, some quite young; seldom have child readers (or movie-goers) found them too frightening or too violent to be compelling. Or perhaps that’s actually part of their appeal? Some parts can verge on being too scary or too extreme, but there are lines that don’t get crossed.
Mylius’s adaptation of King Lear is not unique among his selections in dealing with complex or potentially-disturbing stories either. He also includes one titled “Regulus, the Roman Patriot” (adapted from Baldwin’s History of Rome) a history-based account of a Roman general captured by the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars, imprisoned for six long years, then sent back to Rome to urge peace terms favorable to the Carthaginians but not in Rome’s best interests. Refusing to do so once back in Rome, Regulus returns to Carthage under the terms of his release, only to be subject to “excruciating torments” by the “cruel” Carthaginians for his refusal to place his own life before Rome’s interests. This is hardly “kid stuff” and would probably not find its way into most books for children today. But it is a compiling story — as anyone who has seen J.M.W. Turner’s stunning painting Regulus can attest — and it tells a story of stoical courage, patriotism, and “nobility” of character that was not so unusual in British children’s stories of the time, especially those for boys.
As such, “Regulus” presents an important facet of the sort of reading material that educators thought children should read in 1813 — and which they no doubt did actually read. Turner must have gotten the original germ of an idea for his 1828 painting from somewhere and the dates are suggestive!
But what about the ants? After all, I did mention them in the title of this blog posting. And the “Natural History of Ants” does help us better understand Mylius’s overall miscellany, in particular because it’s the selection immediately preceding “Regulus”! Reading for a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (“Regulus” is a two-day reading selection, as is “Florizel and Perdita” — “King Lear” is a unique five-day reading epic in The Junior Class-Book, a testament to both the complexity of the plot and its perceived importance as a piece of literature.)
Worker ants are presented as models of cooperation and diligence; they work together and they work hard; they “work continually … not sharing in the pleasures of the other parts of their community” (i.e. their “idler” children, who get to remain snug in the ant-hill!). Ants also plan and defend their mound in concert, again working in “community” and even caring for the wounded and dead, according to the passage. This rendition of “natural history” may seem a little poetic and anthropomorphized to a reader today, and Mylius’s selection is based on a work originally authored by poet Oliver Goldsmith (who also displayed his interest in children’s educational materials in works published by John Newbery). Nevertheless, Mylius presents ants as models of social virtue, general benevolence towards their ‘associates,” and even patriotic virtues. And he includes some of Goldsmith’s points of distinction between English and other European ants to make even clearer another at least implied meaning of the passage. Rule Britannia!
So, we’ve seen how Mylius shapes material taken from Shakespeare and about Roman history, bird’s nests, and ants into the larger didactic whole of his miscellany. Personally, I’m convinced that he does a masterful job of this. But his didactic motivation is not without a sense of humor. He includes William Cowper’s playful poem, “Dispute Between Nose and Eyes,” in which Nose and Eyes contend for ownership of the spectacles, using Tongue to argue and Baron Ear to hear the case (get it?).
And the verdict?
… whenever Nose puts his spectacles on,
Either by daylight or candle-light, Eyes should be shut.
I’ll let you puzzle out the full import of that poem for yourself — some works defy literary exegesis!