Charles and Mary Lamb on Shakespeare for children

(I am currently reading Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. The Lamb siblings wrote the first ever children’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1807. This is still deemed the best children’s edition of Shakespeare’s stories, and is still in print. The following extract is from their preface.)

 

In those tales which have been taken from the Tragedies, the young readers will perceive, when they come to see the source from which these stories are derived, that Shakespeare’s own words, with little alteration, recur very frequently in the narrative as well as in the dialogue; but in those made from the Comedies the writers found themselves scarcely ever able to turn his words into the narrative form: therefore it is feared that, in them, dialogue has been made use of too frequently for young people not accustomed to the dramatic form of writing. But this fault, if it be a fault, has been caused by an earnest wish to give as much of Shakespeare’s own words as possible: and if the “He said,” and ”She said,” the question and the reply, should sometimes seem tedious to their young ears, they must pardon it, because it was the only way in which could be given to them a few hints and little foretastes of the great pleasure which awaits them in their elder years, when they come to the rich treasures from which these small and valueless coins are extracted; pretending to no other merit than as faint and imperfect stamps of Shakespeare’s matchless image. Faint and imperfect images they must be called, because the beauty of his language is too frequently destroyed by the necessity of changing many of his excellent words into words far less expressive of his true sense, to make it read something like prose; and even in some few places, where his blank verse is given unaltered, as hoping from its simple plainness to cheat the young readers into the belief that they are reading prose, yet still his language being transplanted from its own natural soil and wild poetic garden, it must want much of its native beauty.

I find it interesting that there can be a definitive version of what are essentially summaries of Shakespeare’s stories (beautiful summaries, it must be noted). How is it that someone else’s work can become your own work? Somehow, Charles and Mary Lamb do this.

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