There is a book that is near and dear to my family’s heart. This book introduced us to a whole new world at the beginning of our Charlotte Mason journey, opening the door to understanding perhaps the greatest writer in the English language. The book is Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb and I would like to share with you some fascinating biographical information, a few details about the book itself, and its place in a Charlotte Mason education.
December 3rd marks the 253rd anniversary of the birth of Mary Lamb. She was born the third of seven children in the year 1764 in London. Unfortunately, Mary had a mental illness and in 1796 during a particularly horrific episode, murdered her mother. Her devoted younger brother Charles (b. 1775) took over her care and they agreed to remain single the rest of their lives. They were voracious readers, reading and discussing works of great literature and enjoying their literary circles (which included Wordsworth and Coleridge) as much as Mary’s recurring illness would allow. Charles himself left school at 14 when he couldn’t advance, due to a speech impediment. He also suffered from a mild mental illness. Yet together, these two burst upon the literary scene with a collaboration published in 1807 that is still published and cherished today, some 210 years later.
The book was groundbreaking in a few ways. First of all, it didn’t point the moral to the children which was typical of books written for children during that time. Second, it was real literature – well written, interesting, and beautiful. And thirdly, it was the first retelling of a classic for children. A Critical History of Children’s Literature describes the creation of Tales:
Mary paraphrased the comedies and Charles, the tragedies. The project itself was a difficult one and left little chance for much of their own character and style to be represented. But it is remarkable how well they have avoided pure summary of the immortal William’s intricate and sometimes incredible plots. They capture the spirit and essence of each play, and they give one so strong of a sense of the central character and his or her vital problem, that even a young mind can get an immediate unity of impression to carry away with him until the high moment when he reads and then sees the play in its own form (Meigs, Eaton, Nesbitt, Viguers, 1953).
For over 100 years the book was under Charles’ name only, despite the fact that the book was Mary’s idea, that she wrote 16 of the 20 tales (the comedies and romances), and that she wrote most of the Preface. It should be noted that in 1893, 87 years after the publication of Tales, Harrison S. Morris wrote retellings of 16 plays that the Lambs did not cover, also titled Tales From Shakespeare.
Interestingly, the book was written mainly for girls. The educational opportunities for girls were slim when it was written and this excerpt from the Preface makes it clear that sisters would not have access to the original plays as early as their brothers would.
It was no easy matter to give the histories of men and women in terms familiar to the apprehension of a very young mind. For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys 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: and when they have helped them to get over the difficulties, then perhaps they will read to them (carefully selecting what is proper for a young sister’s ear) some passage which has pleased them in one of these stories, in the very words of the scene from which it is taken; and it is hoped they will find that the beautiful extracts, the select passages, they may choose to give their sisters in this way will be much better relished and understood from their having some notion of the general story from one of these imperfect abridgments; which if they be fortunately so done as to prove delightful to any of the young readers, it is hoped that no worse effect will result than to make them wish themselves a little older, that they may be allowed to read the Plays at full length (Lamb, Lamb, 1918).
Thankfully, this is not the state of things today. And those of us practicing Charlotte Mason’s philosophy and methods are placing the real, unabridged plays into the hands of our students around the ages of 9 or 10. While we admire the sensitive, caring brother mentioned here, we recognize today that sister’s mind is equally keen to enjoy and understand the plays.
I assumed that Charlotte Mason used Tales from Shakespeare in her schools and I examined the archives and only found about two dozen references to Tales. Most often it was included in listings of recommended books for sale through the PNEU bookstore with comments like “these tales have proved favourite children’s reading for one hundred and fifty years” (PNEU, 1957) or a Parents’ Review article which said of Tales as belonging to a list of books that “all children before they are, say, sixteen should have read”(PNEU, 1906). Only in a Parents’ Review article by Charlotte Mason’s close friend, Henrietta Franklin, do I see it used in school as a text for a reading lesson:
Class IB.-Children averaging from seven and a half, to nine. Here the same time-table is used, but the reading lessons are less frequent, and are taken out of such books as Old Tales from British History, Tales from Westminster Abbey, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, The Heroes of Asgard (PNEU, 1909).
Since the reading books were taken from the set books under Tales, History, and Geography for the form, one assumes that Tales was part of the programme, yet we don’t see it actually listed. So while this children’s classic is spoken of warmly and was a recommended book for the home library, it appears to have been used only sparingly in the PNEU schools, if at all. Considering that students began reading the full plays with their own copies of Blackie’s Plain Text editions (which were simply the text of Shakespeare’s plays with no omissions or annotations) in Form II and that there likely was more of a cultural exposure to Shakespeare in England, perhaps the Tales were not deemed the necessary prerequisite as they may be today, given our different context.
I know that when my children were very young (ages 4-8) we loved reading and narrating many of the Tales From Shakespeare, often with props such as beanie babies and dolls. Sometimes we read them just for fun, too. These retellings became a happy time of cozy reading, a fabulous preparation before viewing a performance, and the best bridge to the real deal, which was soon begun in earnest. I think the Lambs sum things up nicely at the end of their Preface:
What these Tales shall have been to the young readers, that and much more it is the writers’ wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to them in older years,-enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honourable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity: for of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full (Lamb, Lamb, 1918).
Lamb, C., Lamb, M. (1918). Tales From Shakespeare, preface, xiii-xv.
Meigs, C., Eaton, A.T., Nesbitt, E. & Viguers, R.H. (1953). A Critical History of Children’s Literature, 90.
PNEU. (1957). Books. Parents’ Review, volume 68. London: Parents’ National Educational Union, 279.
PNEU. (1908). Our children’s play: their toys and books. Parents’ Review, volume 17, London: Parents’ National Educational Union, 375.
PNEU. (1909). The home training of children. Parents’ Review, volume 20, London: Parents’ National Educational Union, 20-26.