Reduced Shakespeare

When I was a small child my mother had a glass fronted bookcase, which was usually kept locked. When I was ill however, she would unlock the cabinet, and I could read whatever was within. There was quite a selection - the complete works of Shakespeare, old editions of Dickens, Trollope and the Brontes, Charles and Mary Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare, and the wonderful The Wonderland of Knowledge, a childrens' encyclopedia from the 1930's full of the most intriguing facts mixed in with a good dash of classic fiction and how-to articles. Because of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, I knew the plots of most of the comedies and tragedies long before I actually got round to reading Shakespeare's plays.

Re-reading Lambs' Tales is an interesting experience. The Lambs pared down the action to its most basic, so most of the sub-plots that are present in Shakespeare's plays are excised here (only one brief mention of Malvolio in the Twelfth Night synopsis for example, not even his name is included - he is just a gentleman who is in love with Olivia). The paring down of the narrative has an interesting effect, shorn of Shakespeare's wonderful language, it becomes immediately obvious how very silly some of the plots are. I got quite fed up with chaps who are in love with chaps who turn out to be ladies (phew!), I even wondered occasionally were the chaps actually rather disappointed to discover that the gentlemen of their dreams turned out to be women? A definitely subversive thought for Tudor times, although perhaps this was actually Shakespeare's point.

Some of the plots remain enduringly strong - this is especially true of the tragedies with Romeo and Juliet and King Lear both standing out. What truly fascinated me though were some of the character titles used in the comedies. I've been enthralled by the first season of The Borgias, where Dukes of Milan and Kings of Naples play a large part, one cruel and intriguing, the other mad and evil. Although set a century before many of Shakespeare's plays were written, I'm sure that an aura of the exotic, and outlandish must have clung to the titles, hence their inclusion in Shakespeare.

Once you've read the originals these brief glimpses into Shakespeare will not satisfy, but they're great for a quick refresher before heading off to the theatre for a night with the Bard, and can be a godsend if that play that you've got to read for an exam proves to be incomprehensible. They're a bit of a period piece, with some of the language now as archaic as Shakespeare's. Avoid most of the comedies, but the tragedies are a surprisingly satisfying read.


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