“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.

Is Shakespeare Kid Stuff? Toy Book Adaptations.

Prospero’s storm from The Tempest – detail from cover of Shakespearean Tales in Verse (Cotsen 72670)

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.

The Merchant of Venice – upper wrapper of the “Tales from Shakespeare” toy book  published by Warne & Co. (ca. 1868-88; found on Ebay by the writer)

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 Bros. 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.  Accordingly, their production values seem a little higher than the penny novelettes.

Upper cover of Shakespearian Tales in Verse for Children by McLoughlin Bros., (© 1882) (Cotsen 72670)

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 wrappered toy books of single 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’s editorial contribution to Shakseperian Tales: a new title page, adding an attribution to “Mrs Valentine.”

McLoughlin Bros. stamped an 1882 copyright notice on the foot of the cover of this edition of Shakespearian Tales, an act of real chutzpa.  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.

Tiger, tiger, burning bright? 
The first page of  Taming of the Shrew, but why the fierce tiger and Cupid?

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 Taming of the Shrew… or, Love Conquers All?

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 unexpressive, with an emphasis on “old” costumes and decor.  Kate generally looks quite demure.

With that, her cheeks all fiery red,/
She beat the lute about my head, /
Through the broken wood it passed, /
And I was in a pillory fast!

No supper Kath’rine had that night, /
But hungry work with morning’s light, /
And putting haughtiness aside /
Went forth to get her wants supplied.

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.

Opening illustrated page of The Merchant featuring a Venetian backdrop

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.

Shylock proposing the bond

Shylock ready to extract his bond

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.)

The opening page of The Tempest

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.

“Sweet music floated on the air”

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.

“For he was skilled in magic arts…

“…and could call spirits from the deep”

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 opening page of The Winter’s Tale

“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?

Telling winter’s tales that children like on a cold winter night…

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.”