Friday, July 27, 2012

Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb and Other Resources

Tomorrow I shall come back with a review of my #1 Favourite Shakespeare Play of All Time to close off Shakespeare Week, but today is busy and I thought it might be a good moment to review a handful of Shakespeare-related resources.

The first thing you need, of course, is a Complete Works of William Shakespeare, but the second thing you need is Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. This book contains retellings of 21 of Shakespeare's plays for children. Shakespeare wrote comedies, tragedies, and histories; Tales from Shakespeare contains all the most famous comedies and tragedies. In the Preface, the authors explain:
[Shakespeare's] words are used whenever it seemed possible to bring them in; and in whatever has been added to give them the regular form of a connected story, diligent care has been taken to select such words as might least interrupt the effect of the beautiful English tongue in which he wrote: therefore, words introduced into our language since his time have been as far as possible avoided.
Tales from Shakespeare is well-written and simply the best introduction to Shakespeare's plays for children. Knowing the basic plot of a play helps immensely when young readers move on to the real thing, whether performed or read. If the students never are intended to move on to the real thing, Tales from Shakespeare will help with cultural references they may stumble over--they will, for example, understand the allusion to Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Tales from Shakespeare helped me enormously as I was dipping into the wide world of Shakespeare, and I recommend it to anyone who is trying to give their children a good education.

Illustrated etext
Librivox recording

The next essential Shakespeare resource is Peter J Leithart's book Brightest Heaven of Invention: A Christian Guide to Six Shakespeare Plays. Peter Leithart is a minister, philosopher, and accomplished literary critic, and this is the most able, in-depth, and scholarly work I have read on Shakespeare. The six plays he deals with are two histories (Julius Caesar and Henry V), two tragedies (Hamlet and Macbeth), and two comedies (Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew). Leithart delves deep into the themes and literary construction of the plays and provides excellent study questions throughout, together with brief reviews of available film adaptations.
Shakespeare was, as Caesar says of Cassius, "a great observer," able to see and depict patterns of events and character. He understood how politics is shaped by the clash of men with various colorings of self-interest and idealism, how violence breeds violence, how fragile human beings create masks and disguises for protection, how schemers do the same for advancement, how love can grow out of hate and hate out of love.
[...]
  Literature abstracts from the complex events of life (just as we all do in everyday life) and can reveal patterns that are like the patterns of events in the real world. Studying literature can give us sensitivity to those patterns. This sensitivity to the rhythm of life is closely connected with what the Bible calls wisdom.
This book is the place to start in studying Shakespeare. It's suitable for secondary students and up--anyone who wants to study Shakespeare. Leithart critiques the plays from an unapologetically Christian standpoint, which I believe is the only way to engage with Shakespeare, "the bard of the Bible." For example, obviously the only way to really understand The Taming of the Shrew is through a complementarian rather than an egalitarian-feminist lens: read by a complementarian, it's an amusingly exaggerated tale of a war of the sexes; read by an egalitarian or feminist, it's a deeply disturbing, humiliatingly sexist chronicle of patriarchal domination.

Leithart allows Shakespeare's true intentions to shine out, in scholarly critiques refreshingly free from current-day fads like Freudian analysis.

Amazon page for Brightest Heaven of Invention

Finally, I have to recommend The BBC Shakespeare Collection: filmed stage or TV productions of all Shakespeare's plays. There is no doubt that the best way to experience Shakespeare is through seeing him performed: the language comes alive, the stories begin to really dazzle. There are some worthwhile Shakespeare movies out there, which may outshine many of these productions (Branagh made a lovely Much Ado; his epic five-hour Hamlet and charming little As You Like It are also worth investigating, while Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Taming of the Shrew are well-loved, though I have reservations about the quantity of text he cut out, especially from the last; Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night is also worth mentioning, though he plays up the subtext so far that it ceases to become subtext and turns into Actual Text). However, for a complete collection of generally well-done productions, it's impossible to beat the BBC Shakespeare Collection. Where else will you find an excellent Measure for Measure and a really good Comedy of Errors?

I hope this helps you with your forays into Shakespeare, and will be back tomorrow with my favourite Shakespeare play of all!

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