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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
Shakespeare for Kids
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0091  Tuesday, 13 January 2004

[1]     From:   Michael B. Luskin <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Jan 2004 13:33:11 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0074 Shakespeare for Kids

[2]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Jan 2004 07:04:33 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0074 Shakespeare for Kids


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael B. Luskin <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jan 2004 13:33:11 EST
Subject: 15.0074 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0074 Shakespeare for Kids

 >...I say that most children are left cold by Shakespeare because their
life
 >experience is
 >inadequate for an understanding of the adult themes of violence, sex,
 >politics and morality.

Talking to my teen age son, whom I have taken to half dozen
performances, Hamlet, R&J, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night
(twice, different productions), language is the barrier.  He prefers to
see a play than to read one and understands more.  He finds reading one
very difficult and dry, seeing one much more attractive.  To me, this
means that it would be profitable to do readings of the plays in school,
with line by line explanations, until kids get a feeling for the
language and vocabulary.  Some of the difficult vocabulary makes sense,
if you consider nuanced meanings.

For similar reasons, he is having some trouble right now with A Tale of
Two Cities, but is sufficiently interested to keep plowing away.

Michael B. Luskin

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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 >
Date:           Tuesday, 13 Jan 2004 07:04:33 -0000
Subject: 15.0074 Shakespeare for Kids
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0074 Shakespeare for Kids

 >Terence Hawkes is quite right in his restrained ire.  I have battered on
 >about this subject before but feel the need to countermand such
 >injustice to young humanity.   The point about Shakespeare is not plot.
 >Only two of his play's plots were written by him - therefore a child's
 >book relating the bare story of the plays isn't really about Shakespeare
 >at all.
 >
 >The essence of Shakespeare is the stunning poetry and his awesome
 >insight into universal human nature.  With many of his themes rooted in
 >classical biblical theology it is hardly the natural fare for growing
 >children whose peer group hero would be more like Justin Timberlake than
 >John Falstaff.

Sam Small may be talking for a very small group of so-called
"Shakespearean purists", but he is simply wrong to claim that "the point
about Shakespeare is not plot".  Plot is one of the single most
important things about Shakespeare, either because the stories that he
chose to adapt were very powerful in themselves (in which cases what is
special about Shakespeare is his ability to identify and retell stories
with this power), or more commonly because he does things to their plot
and characterisation that make them much more powerful, and which
involve a combination of plot and character that is unique to Shakespeare.

If what Small says were true, then not only would he be condemning
children's books based on Shakespeare, but all adaptations of
Shakespeare - from operas to parodies to spin-offs - not to mention all
translations into foreign languages.  If Small is right, then how can
those dizzy foreigners think that Shakespeare is one of their favourite
playwrights when they are reading or watching his works in translation,
and consequently all they can get are effectively paraphrases that
follow Shakespeare's plots and characterisations, but heavily alter or
completely lose his original [English] poetry and language?

Of course, we only have to say things like "Lear's Fool", "Falstaff",
and "Ophelia" to know that these are characters that Shakespeare
created, which did not exist in any earlier version of the stories that
he tells.  Similarly it is usually very easy to know whether a
particular translation or adaptation is based on Shakespeare or on one
of Shakespeare's sources, because Shakespeare's plotting and
characterisation are very different from his sources.  Would Small
really not recognise the following plots as uniquely Shakespearean?

"A man kills his girlfriend's father by mistake.  She goes mad, and
eventually drowns herself.  Her brother wants revenge".

"A man is betrayed by his eldest children.  His youngest child, who he
has unfairly rejected, stands by him - but is killed just as the man's
allies are victorious.  The man is so upset that he dies with his
child's body in his arms."

"The heir to a powerful man is considered dangerously morally corrupted
and shallow, and it is feared that he will waste the inheritance he
receives from his father and prove a poor leader.  His corruption is
particularly displayed by his relationship to an alternative
father-figure who is greedy, dishonest, and larger than life.  This
corrupting figure tempts the young heir to break the law and to live in
a world of human appetites, but the heir is only playing with corruption
and is really morally honest and clear-sighted.  Before his father dies
he intends to cast off his connection to this illicit underworld and
become a powerful moralistic leader".

Of course, as the last example shows, in pulling out the themes and
plots of Shakespeare's plays we are in danger of producing adaptations
or translations that are as much about our own interpretation of
Shakespeare as about Shakespeare's own work, but then the same is true
every time that Sam Small or anybody else reads or watches Shakespeare's
original works.  When Sam Small says that "The essence of Shakespeare is
... his awesome insight into universal human nature", what he really
means is "his awesome insight into the world as seen by Sam Small".
Exactly what Shakespeare's "awesome insights into human nature" are
supposed to have been has changed from generation to generation.  Many
critics now believe that Shakespeare's insights into human nature
included a powerful understanding of homosexual and lesbian desire, an
idea that would have horrified most 19th century critics, many of whom
thought that his insights were into how an ideal woman should behave (by
sacrificing her own needs to those of her lover, father, or husband).
Rather obviously these insights into human nature, although they may
well be present within Shakespeare's plays - or at least can be
convincingly argued to be - are not universal.  What Sam Small gets out
of the plays is rather obviously very different from what I get out of
them, and has very little in common with what Kurosawa or Brecht or
Marowitz got out of them, let alone what Samuel Pepys or Charles II got
out of them.

Sam Small's use of "universal" to mean "what I believe" is fairly
standard in the history of Shakespearean criticism.  Shakespeare's true
strength is that his plays contain so much, and can be made to contain
so much more, that they can be used to support just about any and every
reading of "human nature", or - often as importantly - can be shown to
obstruct just about any and every reading of "human nature", so that
readers and audiences have the choice of holding Shakespeare up as a
feminist / monarchist / Marxist or as an example of extreme
anti-feminism / anti-monarchism / or anti-Marxism; in either case
proving very useful to those who advocate or oppose these ideas.
Feminist critics gain just as much for the feminist cause by condemning
Shakespeare as an example of the dangers of male-chauvinist and
oppressive thinking as by celebrating him as an early proto-feminist
supporter of women.

The truth is that Shakespeare's plays are so successful for the very
reason that they can be adapted to suit just about every viewpoint and
potential reader or audience member.  Whether that adaptation is done by
rewriting Shakespeare's plays as children's books, adult novels, other
spin-offs, or foreign language translations, or just by performing or
responding to the original works and telling people that in your opinion
they mean one thing rather than another (as Sam Small seems keen to do)
that interpretation of Shakespeare's plays to fit the individual who is
interpreting them is all-important.

Small can only say that *to him* Shakespearean adaptations are worthless
and not authentically Shakespearean.  The fact that millions of people
around the world enjoy Shakespearean adaptations of one kind or another
proves the value of these adaptations beyond any reasonable question.
The fact that many children enjoy seeing Shakespeare plays or being read
stories based upon them may annoy Small, but his irritation or fury does
not change the fact that these children often are getting something that
they would consider satisfying or important from this experience.
Shakespeare's status and importance would be much reduced if he were not
capable of being enjoyed on all sorts of levels by all sorts of people
in this way.

Thomas Larque.
"Shakespeare and His Critics"       "British Shakespeare Association"
http://shakespearean.org.uk           http://britishshakespeare.ws

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