Tuesday, May 7, 2024

How Not To Teach Shakespeare to Kids

A friend of mind recently shared with me a children's Shakespeare book, a kind of modern Lambs' "Tales from Shakespeare" which condenses the plots of fifteen Shakespeare plays into easily digestible 5-6-page segments. Entitled "Shakespeare's Stories," the book is beautifully illustrated by an artist named Koa Lhe, and the tales, "retold" by a British reviser, are engagingly written. The problem, my friend and I agreed, is that the plots aren't exactly Shakespeare's. And why are they not? Well. It turns out that "sweet William" is actually kind of a scary William, and young children must be protected from contact with certain types of Elizabethan stage villainy.

This is gently explained in the prologue, which instructs children that those involved in the adaptation project have "skipped over some parts of the tales, but have left all the key story elements in place. If something in one of the stories worries you," they advise, "show that story to a trusted grownup and have a chat about it." Also, "if you find any of them too scary, you can just turn the page and choose a different one." When I reflect back on my childhood, during which my siblings and friends and I exulted in macabre tales of horrifying violence, I wonder whom exactly this adapter is worrying about. "They wrap you up in a bloody sheet, and dig you down about six feet deep! The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, they crawl in your belly and out your snout!" We used to sing that a lot. One of our favorite stories was Poe's "The Telltale Heart," in which, of course, the protagonist goes crazy and kills an old man for no reason, and buries him under the floorboards, but then can't escape the imagined sound of his heartbeat: boom Boom! boom BOOM! I haven't noticed any major recoil from fictive violence in subsequent generations, though much attention has been transferred from books and movies to video games. I don't think it's easy to shock or scare kids with stories. But it is pretty easy to scare parents who think delight in tales of violence, or in the macabre, is not innate, but imposed by some imperfect culture from without. So I think it's the parents for whom these revised tales -- and their introduction -- are written.

These are parents who may think a summary of "Hamlet" that omits Ophelia's suicide is one which still leaves "all the key story elements in place." (Laertes is gone, too, which makes it Claudius' job to duel Hamlet at the end -- an unusual move for a king, especially one several decades older than his adversary.) The courtesan is missing from The Comedy of Errors, a decision our New Victorian (or Puritan) editor made in accordance with that of the Actually Victorian Lambs. The book's "King Lear" omits the Gloucester plot, presumably because it includes the tearing out of eyeballs, though this part would have interested ten-year-olds. "The Merchant of Venice" was included, but, apart from illustrations which have Shylock in strangely Eastern-looking garb in contrast to the other European characters, there's no suggestion of religious prejudice, or of a Jewish daughter who steals money from her father to elope with a Christian. Shylock simply tries to cash in (or flesh in) on Antonio's "pound of flesh" because he inexplicably doesn't like him: not because Antonio spits on him in the marketplace, calls him misbeliever and cutthroat dog, and foots him as he'd spurn a stranger cur over the threshold, and certainly not because Antonio and his friends have helped Shylock's daughter flee with a Christian after robbing him. Some moneylenders are just like that, I guess. Neither my friend nor I could see the gain in hiding from youthful readers the fact that ethnic and religious prejudice leads to serious social conflict -- in effect, in obscuring the major theme of this play.

But the summary that most provoked our amusement was this collection's version of "Othello." Nowhere is Othello's blackness mentioned as a factor in Desdemona's father's abhorrence of his and Desdemona's union, or of Othello's susceptibility to Iago's predatory behavior. (In the play Iago is able to provoke Othello's unwarranted suspicion of Desdemona by convincing him that as an outsider to European culture, he can't really understand what white women are up to.) "As if my daughter could love someone like you," Brabantio says to Othello, but doesn't explain what he means by "like you." As in the "Merchant of Venice" chapter, it's left to the pictures to tell that story. Le's illustrations -- which, again, are lovely -- show a very black Othello standing next to a white-skinned, red-haired Desdemona. What's potentially confusing about this is not just that the text feared to mention what the pictures did show, but that illustrations for all the other plays indiscriminately feature characters of color among white characters, all getting along just fine. "Much Ado about Nothing"'s old Leonato, who is black, is very happy to marry off his very white daughter to a black Claudio. "As You Like It"'s Celia is black, and her cousin Rosalind is white. "Twelfth Night"'s Viola is black, Olivia is white, and Orsino is white; no marriage problems here, just some gender confusion, which is quickly sorted out -- as it isn't, exactly, in the play, where in the fifth act Orsino is still fantasizing that Viola is male, though perhaps it's understandable that the revisers didn't want to get into that subtlety. What's more difficult to comprehend is how child readers are suposed to intuit, from pictures, that color differences don't matter in Shakespeare (they do), but also intuit, from "Othello"'s illustrations, that racial bigotry can tear families apart. What Shakespeare is on offer here?

Yet I partly digress. The most amazing part of this book's adaptation of the Othello story comes at the end of the six-page summary. In the play, the jealous Iago ends up killing his wife Emilia in revenge for her revealing his treachery. Two husbands kill two wives, acts of violence facilitated by the tendency of both women simply to obey their men, even when the husbands are dictatorial and crazy. Iago, master-perpetrator of the deaths of women, is dragged off in act five to be tortured, showing no hint of remorse. But here's how our adaptation ends:

"You beastly man!" Emilia cried. "You would have broken up my best friend's marriage to advance your career? See what you have done. Your wretched plots have killed my friend. All for a promotion! I no longer want to be your wife. I'm leaving." .... Iago was ashamed of himself for having set such tragic events in motion. He resigned from the army, and he never made the mistake of not respecting a woman again.

Wow. That play was simpler than I thought.

I suppose we should be grateful that the current penchant for revising older works to make them more culturally sensitive will probably not succeed in destroying the originals. My understanding is that "classic" versions of Roald Dahl books are still being published, along with the new versions that mitigate greedy Augustus Gloop and the Oompa Loompas. Hopefully Shakespeare will also survive his improvements by enlightened adapters like the one behind "Shakespeare's Stories." But any kids who grow up reading this book are in for a shock when they get to a college literature class -- if they still want to take one!