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“Tales from Shakespeare” – Charles and Mary Lamb

by Farzeen Mughal

Book Title: Tales from Shakespeare
Writers: Charles and Mary Lamb
Genre: Children’s Literature
Ratings: 4/5
Warning: The review may contain some spoilers for those who haven’t read William Shakespeare’s plays.

The book ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ is a prose retelling of William Shakespeare’s plays, by Charles and Mary Lamb. Charles Lamb was a celebrated prose writer of the Seventeenth Century and ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ is a work that he wrote in collaboration with his elder sister Mary Lamb who was also a writer and poet, to acquaint young readers with Shakespearean plays. Therefore, Charles Lamb retold the tragedies and Mary Lamb retold the comedies in the story form. When I dug a little deeper to know more about Lamb siblings I learned that Mary Lamb suffered from some mental illness and in a fit once mortally wounded her mother as a result of which she was confined to mental health facilities for most of her remaining life. However, the comedies were written so beautifully that it was astonishing that a person suffering from mental illness could write so beautifully. The plays transformed into stories by Lamb siblings are, ‘The Tempest,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’‘ The Winter’s Tale,’‘ Much Ado About Nothing,’‘ As You Like It,’‘ The Two Gentlemen of Verona,’‘ The Merchant of Venice,’‘ Cymbeline,’‘ King Lear,’‘ Macbeth,’‘ All’s Well That Ends Well,’‘ Taming of the Shrew,’‘ The Comedy of Errors,’‘ Measure for Measure,’‘ Twelfth Night or, What You Will,’‘ Timon of Athens,’‘ Romeo and Juliet,’‘ Hamlet,’‘ Prince of Denmark,’‘ Othello,’ and ‘Pericles Prince of Tyre.’

Although I enjoyed reading all the stories except one, my favourite stories are ‘Tempest,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Timon of Athens,’ and ‘Merchant of Venice.’ I loved ‘Tempest’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ because it has a fairytale quality with fairies and other elements of fantasy which made them my favourite reads and I am tempted to read them in their original forms as well. I found the story ‘Romeo and Juliet’ quite moving and I do not know why ‘Timon of Athens’ reminded me of Johnathan Swift’s misanthropic ideas. Moreover, the story ‘Measure for Measure’ revolved around the theme of abuse of power and though it does not explicitly explain the inappropriate advances of Lord Angelo towards Isabella, however, this story, in my opinion, is not for young readers but maybe I am wrong.

The one story that I extremely disliked in this whole book was “The Taming of the Shrew.” Though this story was meant to be a comedy yet I found it anything but comic. I found it quite disturbing as in the story the husband, in order to tame his ill-mannered wife, starved her, sleep-deprived, and humiliated her so she can submit to his will. In short, through this inhumane behavior, he aimed at making her an “obedient wife.” Till the end, I was waiting for some element of genuine respect or love between the couple but to my disappointment there was none. This story reminded me of the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. When we were studying it, our teacher told us something that I still remember to this day, the Blacks in Congo were starved and forced into so much labor that they could not break the shackles of slavery forced onto them by their oppressors. Hence, they were bound to live in slavery because the only thing they could think was of food and survival, and they would never think of revolting against their oppressor. This is what Taming of the Shrew illustrated with the husband who forces his ill-tempered wife into submission by starving and depriving her of sleep so the only thing she could do in order to survive was to submit to her husband’s will. And this is why I did not find anything comic about this horrible story. However, I do understand that it was written in different times and the situation of women during those times was entirely different from what it is now yet this story was still unsettling.

The only story that I can compare to its original form is ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ because that is the only play I read by Shakespeare. In my opinion, Charles Lamb had very nicely summarized and adapted the play into a story form for young readers. It included almost all the parts of the play. The siblings have done a great job of rewriting the plays that are written in poetic form into the story form and tried as best as they could to retain the essence of the original writing. 

Also, ‘Othello,’ in my opinion, is a very stupid story. It was more like the crap we watch in most of our Pakistani dramas where a husband loses his trust in his wife because some Tom Dick and Harry tell him that his wife is not faithful to him. Hence, I see Othello as a world-class loser. I mean who does that? A general of high repute who has the whole army under his command and is shrewd enough to win battles and all is so dumb that he falls for another man’s slandering about his wife’s character. And he falls into his trap just because of an insignificant handkerchief as proof enough to believe in his wife’s infidelity and is cruel enough to murder her. I have zero sympathy for him in this whole story.

Apart from all that, in my opinion, the book is a great read and reminded me of my childhood memories of reading bedtime stories before going to sleep. The plays were beautifully transformed and penned into story form. I just fell in love with their writing style and how they connected one incident to the other so smoothly. Though the stories were meant for young readers and I am not sure what age their targeted audience was, however, in my opinion, the language was a bit too heavy for young readers, especially of the modern age. Since I haven’t read most of Shakespeare’s plays, hence, the surprise element in the stories made them all the more interesting and worthwhile to me. Also, I see that the plots of all the stories/plays were quite different and unique however, stories shared some similarities for example women took the appearance of a man, or a King or a Prince was banished from their Kingdom, and so forth in many of the stories. Yet, the stories were told and presented in a unique manner which made me enjoy most of them.

This book is an excellent way for readers who had never read or watched Shakespeare’s play to get acquainted with them through these short stories. Also, the stories were quite didactic and the young readers can learn various lessons as the Lamb siblings put in the Preface of their book, “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 plays are full.”