Tales from Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Charles and Mary Lamb's classic of children's literature Tales from Shakespeare is characterized by almost fairytale-like plot devices-complications arising from identical twins, magical forests, ghosts and witches, and foolish kings. The prose renditions of fourteen comedies and six tragedies are just as captivating for adults. Far from being mere plot summaries, the Tales closely follow the plays, frequently incorporating Shakespeare's exact language into the narratives and refusing to impose simplistic moral ...
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Tales from Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Charles and Mary Lamb's classic of children's literature Tales from Shakespeare is characterized by almost fairytale-like plot devices-complications arising from identical twins, magical forests, ghosts and witches, and foolish kings. The prose renditions of fourteen comedies and six tragedies are just as captivating for adults. Far from being mere plot summaries, the Tales closely follow the plays, frequently incorporating Shakespeare's exact language into the narratives and refusing to impose simplistic moral conclusions on the often-messy philosophical universe of Shakespearean drama.
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Meet the Author



Charles and Mary Lamb were not only creatures of the English Romantic Movement, they were also at its vanguard.  Charles was considered one of the greatest essayists in English letters for his imaginative and witty prose styling published under the pseudonym of “Elia,” and Mary wrote poetry and prose that have enjoyed a renewed scholarly interest with the rise of women’s studies.
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Introduction

First published in 1807, Charles and Mary Lamb's classic of children's literature Tales from Shakespeare was a major success in its own time and has not been out of print since. Adult readers as well as children remain captivated by the Lambs' prose renditions of fourteen comedies and six tragedies. Far from being mere plot summaries, the Tales closely follow the plays, frequently incorporating Shakespeare's exact language into the narratives and refusing to impose simplistic moral conclusions on the often-messy philosophical universe of Shakespearean drama. True to their sources, many of the Tales are characterized by almost fairytale-like plot devices-complications arising from identical twins, magical forests, ghosts and witches, foolish kings-that themselves were in accord with the Romantic ethos famously expressed by the advice Charles Lamb gave to his lifelong friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Cultivate simplicity." But Romantic simplicity did not equate to simplification. Rejecting the plodding didacticism that characterized much conventional children's literature of the era, sibling writers Charles and Mary Lamb present a Shakespeare to inspire the imagination rather than to illustrate the more prosaic objectives of moral instruction. In short, they present a Shakespeare fully recognizable to adult readers well versed in the plays themselves.

The Romantic Movement, which spanned roughly from the last decades of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, did not "discover" Shakespeare, but on a certain level one might suggest that it invented him. The Romantics were arguably the first to elevate the bard to the status of artistic deity possessed of timeless and transcendent genius. While the eighteenth century's admiration of Shakespeare was tempered by an ambivalence about his plays' violations of Neoclassical decorum and their frequent reliance on the fantastical, Romantics saw in Shakespeare's works the embodiment of their aesthetic ideals of imagination, subjectivity, and the sublime. The Age of Reason mistrusted Shakespeare's explorations of irrationality and the supernatural, but Romanticism extolled them. As if playing Hamlet to their eighteenth-century predecessors' Horatio, the Romantics insisted that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy.

Charles and Mary Lamb were not only creatures of the English Romantic Movement, they were also at its vanguard. The lives of its authors have surely contributed to the enduring interest of Tales from Shakespeare almost as much as the literary value of the work itself. Charles Lamb was and remains the more renowned of the siblings; considered one of the greatest essayists in English letters for his imaginative and witty prose styling published under the pseudonym of "Elia," he is also celebrated for his literary criticism, and to a lesser extent, his poetry and plays. Mary, eleven years his senior, is remembered chiefly for her co-authorship of Tales from Shakespeare (she was actually its primary author, with Charles composing the six tragedies), but she too wrote poetry and prose that have enjoyed a renewed scholarly interest with the rise of women's studies. The Lambs are also remembered for their influence on other, more noted writers; they were at the center of a London literary circle that included Coleridge, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, and William Godwin, among other luminaries. Indeed, it was Godwin, widower of the great early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, whose children's library commissioned the Tales.

Mary Lamb, born in 1764, and her younger brother Charles, born in 1775, emerged from the servant class. Their father, John, was a scribe and valet for lawyer and Member of Parliament Samuel Salt; their mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of a gardener and a housekeeper. Mary and Charles also had a brother John, who was a year older than Mary. John Lamb the senior was a man of intelligence and some artistic inclination who impressed upon his children the rather radical notion that gentility was not conferred by class but instead by comportment and such values as honesty, kindness, and tolerance. It was a worldview that proved amenable to the Romantic aesthetic that preferred the representations of humble lives and the natural realm over the courtly, aristocratic themes and milieus of English Neoclassicism.

The Lamb family lived in the servant quarters of Salt's residence in the Inner Temple, which was part of London's famed Inns of Court. Through the influence of Salt, Charles Lamb and his brother were able to attend Christ's Hospital, a school for poor but intellectually promising students. At Christ's Hospital, where Charles was enrolled from the ages of eight to fifteen, he befriended Coleridge, two years his senior, forming a lasting friendship of mutual creative influence. Meanwhile Mary, because she was a girl, was denied the opportunity for much formal education. An autodidact, she was from an early age a voracious reader, encouraging in her younger brother a love of books. Growing up in London also afforded the siblings access to the theater, for which they both maintained a lifelong passion. Charles would later famously suggest in his acclaimed work of criticism, "On the Tragedies of Shakespeare Considered with Reference to Their Fitness for Stage Representation," that Shakespeare's plays were better appreciated as literature than as drama:

It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever. Their distinguished excellence is a reason that they should be so. There is so much in them, which comes not under the province of acting, with which eye, and tone, and gesture, have nothing to do.

But both he and Mary were sophisticated and seasoned playgoers, which certainly fostered their sensitivity to the delicate task they faced in the Tales of transposing the dramatic into the narrative.

Both Lambs appear to have been of delicate constitution; Charles suffered from both the aftereffects of a bout of childhood polio that left him with a distinctive gait and a stammer that kept him from acceptance into a university. Even as a child, Mary was subject to psychological distress that would blossom tragically into the madness with which she was intermittently afflicted throughout her life. More than one biographer has suggested that Mary's madness was at least in part a consequence of the circumscription of her creative and educational opportunities due to her gender and class. Others, however, have attributed Mary's struggle with mental illness, along with Charles' adult alcohol dependency, to a family history of insanity, although there is scant evidence to support this hypothesis.

Mary was apprenticed to a dressmaker at the age of fourteen, soon becoming a needle worker of sufficient skill to have her own assistant. Mary's 1814 essay "On Needle-work," which appeared in the British Lady's Magazine, offered a proto-feminist, even radical perspective on her former profession; as Lambs biographer Sarah Burton puts it, "[Mary's] argument was that needlework was an instrument of oppression." Mary suggests in the essay that not only is middle-class women's occupation with needlework a means of preventing them from pursuing avenues for intellectual improvement, it also deprives their economically disadvantaged sisters of much-needed paid labor.

Economic circumstances also impinged upon Charles' intellectual aspirations: upon conclusion of his formal education he went to work as a clerk and accountant, first at the South Sea House in 1789, moving on to the India House in 1792. That same year Samuel Salt, the family's benefactor died, leaving John Lamb without a position and forcing the family to move from the Inner Temple to a small dwelling not far from the Inns of Court in early 1793. The household consisted of John and Elizabeth Lamb, both in poor health, Charles and Mary, and an elderly aunt, all barely sustained by the younger Lambs' modest wages. To Mary the additional responsibility fell of caring for her increasingly senile father, partially paralyzed mother, and always-difficult Aunt Sarah. It seems clear that the burden played a part in the calamitous events of September 22, 1796.

It was Charles, however, who was first to suffer a breakdown that required a stay in a private asylum at the end of 1795. Few details are known about the nature of his emotional collapse other than that it coincided with his apparent failed courtship of a young Hertfordshire lady named Ann Simmons, to whom he devoted a number of sonnets. Charles had also been spending much time in the company of his good friend, the equally complicated Coleridge, leading the younger John Lamb to blame Coleridge's unhealthy influence for his brother's mental crisis. More likely the two young writers played into and off one another's emotional instability, but the Romantic exaltation of the irrational might well have convinced John Lamb that the two had been tinkering with an intellectual powder keg that had combusted to Charles' detriment.

Yet Charles' episode of madness paled in comparison to the full emergence of Mary's, which compelled her to stab her invalid mother to death and injure her senile father on the night of September 22, 1796. The official coroner's inquest indicates that Mary's initial mad rage had been directed at her young apprentice; the exact circumstances of how she came to attack her father and fatally wound her mother in the heart are not clear. Charles returned from work to discover the terrible scene, which he described to Coleridge in a letter dated five days later, quoted in Susan Tyler Hitchcock's biography of Mary: "My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother. I was at hand only [in] time to snatch the knife out of her grasp." According to the laws of the time, Mary was found insane and thus spared a trial; instead, she was ordered confined to a private madhouse in Islington until she was deemed sufficiently sane to rejoin society. Charles agreed to be her legal guardian, a role he would fulfill without complaint for the rest of his life.

Although Mary regained her sanity within six weeks of the murder, she was to remain confined until her father's death in 1799, when she joined Charles in his new lodgings on the same street as their former home. The reunited siblings shared a modest but creatively stimulating literary life, their home becoming a salon at which their writer friends gathered regularly. Although the homicide of Elizabeth Lamb had been reported in several local papers, it is uncertain how widely known the tragedy was outside the siblings' circle of acquaintances, all of whom seemed to regard Mary as a valued friend and critic of their own work, a kind and gentle woman of considerable talent herself.

Among these literary friends, few would prove more instrumental in Charles and Mary's shared legacy than William Godwin, novelist, intellectual, and radical. With his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont, Godwin had founded a children's publishing house for which Charles was asked to write a version of the nursery rhyme favorite, "The King of Hearts." Charles wickedly parodied the didacticism of typical children's literature in his subversive conclusion:

Their Majesties so well have fed,
The tarts have got up in their head.
'Or maybe was the wine!' hush gipsey!
Great Kings and Queens indeed get tipsey!

Yet it was Mary whom the Godwins initially asked to write the Tales, an indication of the respect she owned among their circle as a literary talent in her own right. But while the comedies are chiefly the work of Mary's hand and the tragedies of Charles', their correspondence to others at the time they were composing the Tales bespeaks a true collaboration, with them working at the same table, sharing frustrations, seeking one another's advice. Despite Mary's primary authorship, Tales from Shakespeare was initially published under Charles' name alone, likely because of Charles' far greater literary reputation.

The book's preface is informed by the authors' keen awareness of the gender divide that shaped their respective upbringings and were still shaping those of the children for whom the Tales were written:

For young ladies, too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because being generally permitted the use of their fathers' libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book; and, therefore, instead of recommending these tales to the perusal of young gentlemen who can read them so much better in the originals, their kind assistance is rather requested in explaining to their sisters such parts as are hardest for them to understand. . . .

The authors had to assume that for many girls, the Tales would be their sole exposure to Shakespeare's plays, an irony driven home by the book's attribution to Charles despite Mary's leading role in composing the narratives. And while the tragedies may have struck some readers as the more "manly" works of drama, Mary's challenge was no less daunting in transposing and streamlining the comedies' complicated multiple plots and gender confusions that lent themselves to the stage more easily than to the written word. It is clear that Mary, unlike her presumptive girl reader, had a thorough grasp of her tales' originals.

The Lambs followed the success of Tales from Shakespeare with three other collaborations for young readers: a retelling of Ulysses, Poetry for Children, and a collection of tales for girls, Mrs. Leicester's School, all of which appeared in 1808. In that same year, Charles' Specimens of English Dramatic Poets who lived about the time of Shakespeare added to his growing reputation as a gifted literary critic. In 1818, Charles' writings were first collected in book form; two years later he began the "Elia" essays for London magazine that would permanently mark him as a master of the genre.

Charles' description of Mary, whom he calls his cousin Bridget in the Elia essays, is a fitting testimonial to their life together:

We house together, old bachelor and maid, in a sort of double singleness; with such tolerable comfort, upon the whole, that I, for one, find in myself no sort of disposition to go out upon the mountains, with the rash king's offspring, to bewail my celibacy. We agree pretty well in our tastes and habit -- yet so, as "with a difference." We are generally in harmony, with occasional bickerings as it should be among near relations. Our sympathies are rather understood, than expressed; and once, upon my dissembling a tone in my voice more kind than ordinary, my cousin burst into tears, and complained that I was altered.

That seemingly idyllic life, however, remained shadowed by Charles's drinking problem and Mary's increasingly frequent psychotic episodes requiring temporary confinement in asylums. In 1825, they left their beloved London for the countryside, a move that resulted in relative isolation from their lively literary companions who had provided them with so much inspiration. Charles completed The Last Essays of Elia in 1833; the next year he suffered a bad fall, possibly while intoxicated, and died from the subsequent infection. Mary outlived him by thirteen years, residing with a series of caretakers until her death in 1847 at the age of eighty-three.

There is little doubt that the empathy and humanity that Charles and Mary Lamb bring to the Tales from Shakespeare was hard won, born of tragedy, perseverance, and perhaps above all, of their deep devotion to one another as well as to the literature they loved. The siblings' circumstances perhaps positioned them as ideal readers of as well as writers about Shakespeare's works. But for its merits and delights, the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare, like the plays on which the tales are based, endures to be read, reread, and passed on to new generations.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2014

    Ugh

    Good stories, but you can totally tell that someone tried desperately to constrict them into a couple pages. You can also tell which phrases were in the actual plays and which ones weren't.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2011

    Are you kidding?

    Are you kidding? I tried to buy this book three times, and you cancel the sale three times. Why? Because I live in Brazil, and you do not sell here. Amazon does.
    Anyway, I can not review a book that you REFUSE TO SELL TO ME.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Wonderful...

    I loved reading all of the stories. They are all moving and great for anyone who is interested in Shakespeare's plays. They are easy to read. Love it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2009

    not that great

    we had to read this book in the 7th grade for our english/lit studies. we had all heard most of these stories before, and Tales From Shakespeare completely missed alot of the key parts that Shakespeare put in, especially in A Misummer Night's Dream. They completely left out the play within the play. i think a more detailed book would be better for studying Shakespeare's themes and writing styles.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2005

    Great Book

    I began reading this book in third grade, and absolutely loved it. If you don't like Shakespeare or reading, you probably won't like it. It has wonderful overviews for children who can't read the plays yet.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2005

    So Cool!!!!

    Not knowing much of Shakespeare, but wanting to understand all the hype (400+ years is a pretty long time.), I began to read some of the Lamb's summaries. I was entranced. So many of the illusions to Shakespeare that I'd read and heard made sense. It's the beginning of the development of my right brain!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2005

    Good Start

    I used this book at the High School I went to in the U.S. equivalent of grade 8. This book was not only easy to understand but sparked my interest in this time period and Shakespeare's works in their original form. This book is one of the books I have saved from high school.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2004

    why even bother??

    it doesn't even deserve one star!!! why would you even consider reading this book?? it makes no sense what-so-ever!!!!! i'd rather eat dirt than go through the pain and misery of reading this book again (or does it even deserve the name 'book' ? it's more like a dictionary with English words from a 100 years ago!!! i'm sorry if you ever have to go through the torture that i went through.......(i could go on and on and on, but i think you get my drift!!!!)

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2004

    discusting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    this was a terrible book! I had to read it for school (8th grade) and i didn't understand a thing!!!!....the plots are great, but the language-whoooeee!!!!it was a killer!! but if ya like hard, boring, confusing, stressful books --good luck!!!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2000

    IT'S GREAT!!!!!!!!!!!

    I haven't read all of the storys in it, but what i have read is great!!!!!!!! I really recomend this to any shakespeare fans!!!!!!!

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    Posted June 27, 2011

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    Posted February 7, 2013

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