One of the undeniable joys of parenting is introducing our children to all the things we loved as a child. Likewise, a second joy is being introduced to things as an adult that we missed in our own childhood. For example, it was a wonder to me how readily my children took to stories, and it is through sharing my favorite fairytales and children’s books with them that I discovered the well-known truth that children come to us ready-made for story filling. Thankfully, it is they who have also granted me a second chance with Shakespeare, taking to him as readily as they did Cinderella.
My introduction to Shakespeare in high school was pathetic, notably colored by an exceedingly dull teacher whose method in teaching Hamlet was perhaps akin to having dinner with an earnest scientist who serves you a plate sprinkled with dabs of acids, proteins, sugars, and nutrient capsules and calls it pizza. I concluded that Shakespeare was not for me. After weeks of tedious dissection of words, phrases, and characters, I was forced to conclude that I was too dumb or dense for such stuff. Nothing of the mouth-watering scent or flavor penetrated my senses, let alone triggered my appetite.
Imagine my astonishment to hear friends in college rhapsodize, or even roar with laughter, as they sucked down his plays. I must have made an unconscious note to give him another try at some vague future date.
Thus it was that thirty years later (I know! All those barren, Shakespeareless years!) that day arrived. Timidly, I approached my re-investigation through the pages of Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. These beautifully written retellings of 20 of William Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies were just the ticket. This brother-sister team masterfully presented the essence of each as a polished gem, flavored with the savory original phrasing of the plays. Vital characters in each tale jumped to life. The intrigue and twists of the plot caught us up and carried us along till their satisfying and dramatic conclusions.
Naturally, it was Hamlet I chose for our first full-length selection after we had made it through Lambs’. I was a little nervous that my 10-year-old son would balk, but he was undaunted. Reading-challenged (to say the least), he nevertheless did not languish as we plowed along, week after week, a little at a time, though I was convinced he had no clue as to what was going on. This was a mysterious phenomenon to me, but being the older (and hopefully thus wiser) parent that I was by then, I did not attempt to probe his reaction. I was simply grateful it was not negative.
Then one day it happened that a mother who visited our library asked me for some suggestions for a new series for her nine-year-old daughter to read. My son piped up, “Have you ever heard of Shakespeare?” My recommendations of Hollisters or Bobsey Twins evaporated. Respectfully, she simply asked what he liked about Shakespeare. “It’s great! He’s funny and there’s lots of surprises.” Notably there was no mention of odd language, and for a boy who could barely struggle through books, this was an amazement to me.
My desire to expose my youngest children to Shakespeare extends beyond my own unfinished business with him. I knew his influence on literature was ubiquitous. I had been encountering quotes of his sprinkled lavishly throughout all the books I had devoured throughout my life. Shakespeare lived at a critical time in the development of the English language. It’s estimated his own vocabulary range was around 20 thousand words. Conservative estimates credit him with the invention of at least two thousand words and phrases that are still in daily use – even by the unreading masses.
It was the immersion in language that I most desired for my children. I long for all children to be enamored, entranced, enthralled with words – their infinite shapes and sizes and sounds; to hear, taste, smell, and feel; to be thoroughly steeped and saturated in them. Shakespeare is the undisputed wordsmith of English, and reading his plays and poetry is the richest road to travel toward this destination.
For getting acquainted with him, I recommend the Lambs’ retellings. Praiseworthy literary geniuses in their own day, friends of Coleridge and Wordsworth and Shelley, their efforts to make the beauty of Shakespeare palatable to the young have stood the test of time since they published their version nearly 200 years ago. These simpler renditions make excellent bedtime story reading.
And don’t be a bit surprised if you start to hear demands for reading “the real thing.” The Lambs’ gift to children may be an appetizer that instills a continuing craving for all that is best and must not be forgotten in word-rich story, a taste for that Bard of Avon.