Tales from Shakespeare
by Charles & Mary Lamb
Charles Lamb, alone and in partnership with his older sister Mary, published many works across a broad range of styles and genres, but he is best remembered for his eloquent essays and for this book, in which selections from the plays of William Shakespeare are distilled into the form of short stories. Really, that's a respectable legacy for a bipolar stammerer (Charles) and a convicted murderess (Mary)!
Preserving somewhat of the language and even some literal, or nearly literal, quotes of the best speeches, the Lamb siblings did much to bring those rarified, dramatic masterpieces to a wider reading audience. Convoluted plots, difficult language, muddy questions of interpretation, and matters that in those Victorian times were considered inappropriate for children and young women, suddenly became simple, clear, family-safe, and accessible. Today the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare is rightly regarded as a classic in its own right; attempts to surpass it have been numerous but unsuccessful.
Not all of the Shakespeare plays are here. For whatever reasons, Charles and Mary passed over such important plays as Henry V, Richard III, and other historical plays upon the theme of English royalty. They also skipped such tragedies of the Roman Empire as Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. You may also look, in vain, for quotes of your favorite soliloquies, such as "Out, out, brief candle" and "To be or not to be." Nevertheless you will feel as if you had read Shakespeare almost in his own words - only without half the difficulties that bard poses for the modern reader. The language is old-fashioned, in the manner of the age in which the Lambs lived; but it can still be readily followed, and its formal cadences have their own kind of charm.
What tales will you find here? You will find, of course, great tragedy in King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. You will find romance, often happy - as in The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night (or, What You Will) - but sometimes deliciously sad, as in Romeo and Juliet. There is outrageous humor, as in The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing; tales of faerie, as in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream; reworkings of ancient legends, such as The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre; and also thought-provoking plays that examine serious problems, such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Timon of Athens, and Measure for Measure.
Several of the plays, including As You Like It, feature characters who go about disguised as members of the opposite sex - with hilarious, romantic, and possibly scandalous results. Some of the plays, like The Merchant of Venice, would probably now be considered "politically incorrect" if they weren't mortared into the cornerstone of English literature. And many of them, like All's Well That Ends Well, have a strong ethical message that comes across loud and clear, even when (often in the "comedies") their endings are too tidy for their own good.
I have a large, heavy, one-volume edition of Shakespeare's complete works. I have enjoyed reading the parts of it I have read. But they take time and work to get through. In this lightweight little book you will find quick and easy synopses that will at least get the main points of some 20 Shakespearean plays into your head. They're good reading. I myself found only one of them dull (Timon of Athens), and the Lambs may not be entirely to blame for that. Rather, they excel at making difficult material easy to understand, doing for the bard what Roger Lancelyn Green did for Greek mythology. To start you on your journey of discovery in the works of Shakespeare, I heartily recommend this book.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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