Much Ado About Children: How Shakespeare Has Been Tailored to a Child Audience
By: Markwin Allison, BA Creative Writing
University of the Philippines – Diliman
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these images or videos.
How young is too young…when it comes to experiencing Shakespeare’s works? If you think about it, children generally wouldn’t be the first group of people that would pop into anyone’s head when ruminating on the audience of Shakespeare (or maybe they do for you?). English majors and Theater actors perhaps, but very seldom children. First off, the language that he uses in his works is dense and difficult to understand even for some adults. Many would consider the content of his work unsuitable to an “impressionable young mind”, with his work depicting or implying scenes of murder, suicide, betrayal, sex (mostly implied though), drug use (if you really read into it) and a lot of many other topics that would make the typical adult go “nope, not giving that to my child yet, thank you very much.”
Generally, a child will encounter Shakespeare (his actual texts, and not a reference of some sort) at around the age of 11 in the classroom, their first plays usually being Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During his meeting with the Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2014, Gregory Doran, the current Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, opined that this age is quite late to be introducing Shakespeare into a child’s life. He believes that by this age they would already be “cynical” about Shakespeare’s works and convinced that his works will be “difficult or boring or academic”. He believes that “You have to let the bug bite” earlier, in order for children to really enjoy Shakespeare in the future.
This idea of “starting them young” is not a unique idea of Mr. Doran, and has been shared by many advocates of Shakespeare’s works since the rise of the concept of Childhood. Believe it or not, Children were not considered a separate category of people until around 17th C – 18th C, with the emergence of the studies from John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the true fashion of Shakespeare, his works have slipped its way into material for this new audience — children — and like all the other forms of art he has inhabited since, has evolved with it.
The very earliest form of Shakespeare’s works for children, of course would be literature or book based works. One thing we have to remember about children’s literature, and any material made for children in particular, is that they are made for children by adults, and not by children. It is adults who decide what is “appropriate” for children, and that works must not impinge on the “innocence” of children through adult contents. With this, Shakespeare’s plays go through a process of sanitization, and reduced to the skeleton of its story. In addition to this, creators take into consideration the attention span and the level of stimulation needed to keep children interested.
One of the earliest of these written works was Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare, which was first published in 1807. In this, Shakespeare’s plays were adapted into stories.
Their stories were retained, though shortened to accommodate a young audiences attention span, and scattered among the stories are little illustrations — each edition drawn by different artists — from memorable scenes from the plays. One thing that Charles and Mary Lamb had done was keep some of the original dialogue from the plays, which is their way of preserving some of the beautiful language that Shakespeare wrote, but they believe cannot be understood by the audience they were writing for.
Another book was E. Nesbit’s The Children’s Shakespeare, that was very similar to Mary and Lamb’s.
The stories are watered down to almost 5 pages each, and there are occasional illustrations attached to some stories.
In the introduction, Nesbit provides a small story that explains her reasons for making the project — to make translate Shakespeare’s works into language that children will understand (again a lot like Charles and Mary Lamb).
A more contemporary book retelling of Shakespeare’s works is Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays by Marcia Willaims.
This is a very colourful and richly illustrated picture book, which tells the story of each play through a succession of panels.
On the edges of the panel there are characters that play audience from the globe and the comment on the play, which can add an interactive element to the reading experience of the children. The plays offered are Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and the Tempest.
An innovative take on the book retelling of Shakespeare is Louis Burdett’s Shakespeare Can Be Fun Too.
Burdett holds Shakespeare workshops for children, and what she does is she uses quotations from the workshops as well as illustration that the children make to tell the story of the play in rhyming couplets.
I think this is an interesting idea as it brings about the concept of children writing for other children, and takes the reigns of the crafting of the story away from the adult.
This “making Shakespeare accessible to children” then moved onto the TV screen, when the medium became the more dominant form of information dissemination. A majority of the Shakespeares seen here are mostly referential: cartoons using his plays’ story archs, borrowing lines, or even mocking shakespeare, the plays themselves or, most especially, his language.
There are a few though that retell his plays faithfully, and make it more enjoyable for children to watch.
One such example is Disney’s animated short of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The setting and story are retained (of course with some trimming as it only runs for around 15 mins), but the language is contemporary, and is simple and humorous for children to enjoy. The characters names are also not retained, the roles being played by iconic disney characters, Minnie Mouse playing Hermia, Micky Mouse as Lysander, Daisy Duck as Helena, Donald Duck as Demetrius, Scrooge McDuck as both Egeus and Theseus and Goofy as Puck. It was first featured on the 11th episode of Mickey Mouse Works, and was featured again in House of Mickey.
Another is Shakespeare: The Animated Tales which was broadcasted by BBC 2 between 1992 to 1994. the plays were also trimmed, and simplified, but stayed true to their respective plays. The story is pushed forward by a narrator, but there are some parts where there are dialogues, and these dialogues have original lines from the plays.
At present, the internet and digital devices have become the most dominant way of sharing and disseminating information, and it is here that the movement to expose children to Shakespeare has moved to. In addition, all of the works that I have mentioned before can now be found in the internet, and can be shared further with other people with just a simple click of a button. Theatre companies have created interactive pages that provide all types of media that is Shakespeare related — things to read, watch and even games to play.
One of these is the Shakespeare’s Globe’s “Playground”, a colourful page where they offer an array of activities for children.
They’ve even created characters, anthropomorphic animals, to aid in making these activities more exciting and stimulating for children.
Folger Shakespeare Library also offers the same, though not as brightly designed as Shakespeare’s Globe. They offer games, and trivia as well as challenges for children to get interested in Shakespeare and his works.
I am sure that there are many more examples of works that also aim to get children interested in The Bard and his wonderful works, and that the entirety of it would need a blog of its own. Though these are enough to show just how much Shakespeare can reach children, and a show of just how accessible Shakespeare is. Who knows what people will come up with next in the pursuit to make children appreciate Shakespeare? Though as of now, it seems there is more than enough out there to make your child the next Bard super fan.
Matthews, Andrew. “Top Shakespeare books for children.” The Guardian. The Guardian News, 22 Apr 2014. Web. 3 Dec 2015
“Playground.” Shakespeare’s Globe. The Shakespeare Globe Trust. n.d. Web. 3 December 2015.
Reynolds, Kimberly. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. Hampshire: PAULGRAVE MACMILLAN, 2007. PDF File.
“Shakespeare for Kids.” Folger Shakespeare Library. Folger Shakespeare Library. n.d. Web. 3 December 2015.
Singh, Anita. “Why Shakespeare Should be Child’s Play.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 9 Feb 2014. Web. 3 Dec 2015