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The Bard, for kids

January 13, 2008|Nick Owchar

Charles AND MARY LAMB demonstrated in the early 19th century what J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, Lemony Snicket and so many others know today: The children's market is profitable. The Lambs turned their affection for the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon into "Tales From Shakespeare" (Penguin: 270 pp., $12 paper), newly reissued with an introduction by critic Marina Warner. "[W]riting for children began as hackwork for survival," Warner explains, though the brother and sister soon enjoyed it and went on to write other books after the success of "Tales."

You won't find all the plays here because some storylines aren't for children -- "Titus Andronicus," for instance, includes rape and cannibalism of the "Sweeney Todd" sort -- and the siblings made startling editorial interventions. Charles begins his "Hamlet" tale with the elder Hamlet's death and Gertrude's sudden remarriage, which "was noted by all people at the time for a strange act of indiscretion, or unfeelingness. . . ." -- what a missed opportunity to begin, as the play does, with the spooky sighting of a ghost! "I am your wife, if you will marry me," Miranda declares to Ferdinand in "The Tempest," but their innocent happiness is something Mary, who penned this version, never knew. In 1796, she murdered her mother in a fit of madness, and Charles spent his life, between his duties as a clerk and his efforts to establish a reputation as an essayist, caring for his ill sister. Their Shakespeare project, published 10 years after "the day of horrors," as Charles called it, was clearly a form of therapy.

Oh, dear, a snob told me once, you don't read Shakespeare; the plays were written to be performed, not to be read like novels. In the Romantic era, though, Warner says the public embraced the plays as literature, rejecting "the ranting actors of the day": "[T]he Lambs converted the plays into stories for private reading on the page . . . acting in accord with this antipathy to the living, moving stage." Children and adults, then, could do much worse than to acquaint themselves with Shakespeare's stories in "Tales," midwived to us by the marvelous Lambs.

-- Nick Owchar

nick.owchar@latimes.com

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