Shakespeare isn’t exactly “kid stuff,” is it? Ask any high-schooler struggling with blank verse, now-obscure Elizabethan slang, or plots so complex that some student guides actually diagram the plot (and sub-plots) in an effort to make clear who’s who and who does what to whom, and when and where it happens..
Tragedies like Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet present a veritable catalog of horrors and villains too. And what are we to make of “comedies” like The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew, which often seem distinctly unfunny and potentially offensive to audiences in our time? Literature for children?
Yet, with the exception of the gristly Titus, all the plays mentioned above were included in Lamb’s classic Tales from Shakespeare, prose adaptions of the plays by Charles and Mary Lamb, intended to provide “easy reading for very young children,” as the Lambs themselves phrased it in their “Preface.” The Lambs were not the first to adapt Shakespeare for children or those without refined reading skills, nor will they be the last. Some adapters over the years have taken a more sensationalist tack, turning the plays into lurid Penny Dreadfuls for adults, sometimes featuring garishly-colored covers or illustrations, like the Shakespearean Novelette Series, discussed recently by our colleagues at the Folger Shakespeare Library in a recent blog posting.
Reading about these over-the-top, pulp-fiction adaptations, and seeing photos of their publisher’s paper wrappers decorated with chromolithographed illustrations, I couldn’t help but think of some of Cotsen Library’s “toy books” — cheap children’s reading that also feature greatly simplified texts, illustrated paper wrappers, and chromolithograph or chromoxylograph (color-printed wood blocks) illustrations — issued in the thousands by publishers like Routledge, Warne, and McLoughlin Brothers from the 1860s through the 1920s. Although “cheap,” these publications usually cost a shilling in Britain, (twelve pence in pre-decimal currency) and anywhere from a dime to a quarter in the USA, a fair amount more than the penny novelettes. Accordingly, the production values of the toy book versions seem a little higher than those of the penny novelettes.
Routledge, Warne, and McLoughlin Bros. also offered more deluxe versions of these toy book publications by combining several individual titles together and issuing them in a cloth-backed books, usually with a color-printed paper onlay on the upper cover. (The publishers termed these “picture books,” to distinguish them from the paper-wrappered toy books of individual titles.) McLoughlin’s Shakespearian (sic) Tales in Verse for Children (©1882) is a prime example, presenting sixteen-page versions of four plays — The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and A Winter’s Tale — in four-line stanzas (one rhyming and three with alternately-rhyming lines). This seems like a curious selection of plays, in terms of both subject matter, potential interest, or general suitability for children, and also as a group. What’s the common denominator? It’s possible that these four plays were just the ones that the publisher had on hand at the time this collective title was issued — perhaps they were part of a projected series of all Shakespeare plays, which never seems to have been taken further?
McLoughlin Bros. stamped an 1882 copyright notice on the foot of the cover of this edition of Shakespearian Tales, an act of real chutzpah. While McLoughlin could legally protect their work from other American publishers, they were copyrighting what was essentially a book they’d pirated from Warne, routine practice by McLoughlin with a sizeable portion of their output, pirated from English publishers, in particular Warne and Routledge. Except for the new cover design, binding, and a new title page, the material in Shakespearian Tales is taken right out of Warne’s “Tales from Shakespeare” toy book editions.)
The four plays in Shakespearian Tales are all presented in a similar design format; sixteen illustrated pages with verse and color-tinted illustrations nicely integrated into the page design. Each play begins with a large caption title, part of a large illustration occupying about 3/4 of the page and running down the left side of the page for its whole height.
The Taming of the Shrew, the first play in the Shakespearian Tales collection, has a particularly nicely-done opening page, I think — notice how the first word “once” has been rendered as part of the illustration. But take another look at the illustration… It’s a little enigmatic, isn’t it?. What does the fierce tiger and Cupid have to do with the Shrew story of two adversaries-turned-lovers? The tiger seems to represent Kate — aka “the shrew” — and love (or perhaps Petruchio?) is depicted as Cupid, approaching the “fierce” tiger holding up his empty bow and an arrow in separate hands, as if in a gesture of peace. (Cupid seems to have no intention of shooting his arrow at the tiger, in contrast to his usual tactic with lovers!) Somehow this peaceful approach works for, as we see in the last vignette of this adaption, cupid — having “tamed a shrew” — is shown riding off on a beautiful, contented-looking cat. A metamorphosis, as well as a happy-ending love story! Visually, this suggests the triumph of gentleness or love over ferocity or willfulness, a fierce spirit calmed — a reconciliation, of sorts — not a harsh “taming” of a woman by a man, as Shakespeare’s plot presents (an aspect that has troubled audiences and probably contributed to a relative lack of productions of this play, compared with most others. Yet it’s also worth pointing out that the Lambs were quite comfortable with Shrew as an object lesson in a how a “shrewish lady” with “fiery temper” became “an obedient and duteous wife,” a starchier lesson than “love conquers all” which actually appears in background of two scenes in the toy book version.)
The verse adaption of the text in this version presents a rendition of the story that’s more closely related to the original play, but one adapted for children, and as such, without the harsh battling between Kate and Petruchio. The triumph of love is the real force here. There is an illustration of a musician and his broken lute –smashed over his head by a raging Kate — but it’s after-the-fact, and most of the other illustrations in this edition are curiously inexpressive, with an emphasis on “old” costumes and decor. Kate generally looks quite demure.
The other three Shakespeare adaptations in the picture book volume follow a similar basic pattern: greatly simplified versions of the stories with an emphasis on reconciliation and happy endings: The Winter’s Tale ends with marriage and celebration — an abandoned child is revealed as a royal princess; The Tempest with the newly-free Ariel “rejoicing” and singling as he soars off with Miranda and Ferdinand betrothed lovers sailing back to Milan; and The Merchant of Venice with Antonio (the merchant from whom Shylock sought to extract a pound of flesh), “repaid for all the love he bore his friend [with better fortune from henceforth.” The good prosper, and seem ready to live “happily ever after,” while bad repent and are forgiven.
The Merchant begins with a composite scene of Venetian tourist delights: the Realto Bridge, the Doge’s Palace, and a canal with some gondolas, as well as a couple of merchant’s ship — all things that a child of this time might associate with Venice, a fabled Grand Tour site in the late nineteenth century.
Shylock, one of the most famous of all Shakespeare’s characters, features prominently in the illustrations for this version, as we might expect. He is shown as being virtually transformed by his “wolfish hate” of Antonio and the extremity of his demands for vengeance from a dignified old man into a savage fury, knife-in-hand, in several scenes.
After Portia’s “quality of mercy” judgement on Shylock takes away all his wealth and money and denies his demand for extraction of the pound of flesh, he is described in the toy book version as being left a “poor, broken-hearted man… with heavy heart” — a monument to understatement, perhaps intended to soften the ending for children.
The version of The Tempest in Shakespearian Tales uses the same opening-page design format we’ve seen in the other two plays. But as you can see, it invents a an opening scene not found in Shakespeare’s play at all (which begins with Prospero’s conjured storm — the tempest, for which the play is names) or in the Lamb’s retelling (which begins with a fairy-tale like opening: “There was a certain island in the sea, the only inhabitants of which were an old man, whose name was Prospero, and his daughter Miranda…”). Instead, young readers were provided with a story beginning with Prospero and Miranda finding themselves in a small boat “on the foaming waters wild” long before the actual events in the play take place, with an accompanying two-color illustration.
(Contrast this visual with the “more accurate” one of Prosperso and Ariel conjuring the storm in which the ship founders, shown at the top of this posting, and taken from a cover detail.)
Perhaps the authors of both adaptations of The Tempest thought the narrated story-within-a-story history that Prospero provides to Miranda after the storm he himself conjures up was too complex for young readers? And of course, any narrative version will lack the tremendous dramatic impact of The Tempest’s opening storm on-stage.
The story of a magician and his daughter marooned on a magical island would always hold a a certain interest for your readers. But this toy book version foregrounds all the magical creatures on Prospero’s island, partly due to the toy book format’s inherent stress on illustration, but mostly due to inspiration of the illustrator (possibly J.H. Howard), who concocts several scenes calling to mind A Midsummer Night’s Dream world of fairies and sprites. Just take a look at them! Illustrated books about fairies, sprites, and elves have long been an audience-pleasing staple of children’s literature and the ones here must have strongly appealed.
After the visual enchantments of The Tempest, the version of The Winter’s Tale that closes out Shapespearian Tales seems like a somewhat unexciting variation of the overall design theme, as well as a blander text, at least to me. But take a look and decide for yourself:
“The sea ran high, the winter wind / Wailed o’er a desert, rocky shore…”? Shades of a “It was a dark and stormy night…” But then again, Mary Lamb’s version in Tales from Shakespeare seems a little uninspired to me too, with its opening: “Leontes, king of Sicily and his queen, the beautiful Hermione, once lived in the most perfect harmony together…” Not the best of her work in that volume, I’d say.
The toy book version does add a novel, if perhaps not entirely successful, visual wrinkle to its conclusion: a depiction of some old men telling winter’s tales around a roaring fireplace, while some children look on quite happily. Are they the tellers of the tale we’ve just read? The depiction recalls the traditional frontispiece illustration for Mother Goose, which we’ve looked at before here on the Cotsen blog: an old woman tells tales to children while seated in front of a fire. But again, you be the judge. Like some stories, some illustrations are perhaps best left to be enjoyed for their own sake, rather than critically anatomized by commentators?
But while we can’t tell how these verse adaptions of the plays were received by child-readers, I think it’s safe to say that the whimsical color illustrations in at least several of them must have been “a hit, a palpable hit.”