Shakespeare as Children's Literature

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Shakespeare in school: Shakespeare’s plays, like all other English literature, were not taught in schools until the 18th century. His work was first taught in English colonies in India and elsewhere (see “Colonial and Postcolonial Shakespeare”) and later incorporated into the English grammar school curriculum, where it was seen as the pinnacle of English and literary achievement and a source of moral lessons.

Rewriting Shakespeare for children: At the height of Shakespeare’s cultural centrality, in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, no child’s education in England or the United States could be complete without some acquaintance with him. Yet by this time, the perception of children had changed from the early modern period. No longer were children, like adults, seen as fallen beings whose natural propensity toward sinfulness had to be sternly controlled. (In the early modern period, plays were often thought to be invitations to sinful idleness (see “Jonson’s Workes”).) By the 18th and 19th centuries, childhood was seen as a state of innocence to be protected and nourished carefully. Literature directed at children changed accordingly. Shakespeare’s plays, whose language could be difficult or raw, whose moral arcs did not always reward virtue, and whose storytelling-by-dialogue did not always draw definitive moral lessons, posed problems for educating children. Thus, Shakespeare was simultaneously necessary for children and potentially harmful to them. 

In response, Shakespeare was rewritten. At school, Shakespeare was often taught in the form of isolated quotations and speeches thought to exemplify virtue and rhetorical mastery. At home, Shakespeare could be presented to children in simplified, edited, and illustrated forms. For example, Thomas and Harriet Bowdler’s popular The Family Shakspeare  (1807) cut or altered language deemed unsuitable for children. Frequently, Shakespeare’s texts were converted from plays (consisting of dialogue that readers had to evaluate on their own) to prose (containing narrators who could draw attention to newly clarified moral lessons). In these ways, adaptations for children helped redress Shakespeare’s perceived difficulty for and potential threats to children, removing content deemed troubling and providing cues to the plays’ “correct” moral interpretation. Like the new versions of Shakespeare’s plays popular onstage from the Restoration into the 19th century (see “Shakespeare’s new plays”), children’s literature made striking changes to Shakespeare’s texts in order to meet the needs and desires of his audience. Shakespeare’s continued popularity derived in part from these radical changes to his content.

This section collects some important and beautiful examples of Shakespearean children’s literature, from Bowdler’s altered versions of the plays, to editions of Charles and Mary Lamb’s pioneering prose retellings of them in Tales from Shakespeare  (1807), to further retellings of the plays by later children’s writers such as E. Nesbit and Anne Terry White. They feature the beautiful illustrations that became an increasingly important component of children’s literature in the 19th century and after. By the 20th century, in White’s Three Children and Shakespeare, one can see increasing interest in teaching children to think critically and historically about Shakespeare. The model governing children’s interaction with Shakespeare had begun to shift again.

Shakespeare as Children's Literature