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«“Upon the Threshold of Thy Greatness” Shakespearing Children through Early Children’s Versions of The Merchant of Venice 1761-1822 Supervisor: ...»

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Ghent University

Faculty of Arts and Philosophy

“Upon the Threshold of Thy Greatness”

Shakespearing Children through Early Children’s Versions of The

Merchant of Venice 1761-1822

Supervisor: August 2013 Dissertation submitted in

Prof. Dr. Sandro Jung partial fulfillment of the

requirements for the degree of

“Master in de Taal- en

Letterkunde: Engels” by Tielke



“Upon the Threshold of Thy Greatness”

Shakespearing Children through Early Children’s Versions of The Merchant of Venice 1761-1822 iii Acknowledgements First of all, I would like to thank my supervisor, Prof. Dr. Sandro Jung, for his suggestions, his patience, and his trust.

As Launcelot tells his father in The Merchant of Venice: “It is a wise father that knows his own child.” While Launcelot’s father does not, mine does, and he is wise; and so I thank him.

Shakespeare did not include any comments on mothers in Merchant of Venice, but that is no excuse: thanks to my mother for her proofreading and her unrelenting motherliness.

Finally, thanks to all of the friends who have always supported me. Specific thanks go out to Yentl, for her understanding and for generally being a marvellous friend; to Liesbet and Nina, for their entirely misguided but comforting trust in me. Finally, to Veerle, thanks for twelve years (and counting, oh dear!) of what I will describe as shidangledoodlbingbops, but in fact defies definition. I trust you will understand what I mean.

iv Table of Contents




1.1 FOLIO 1, NO. 78 1










–  –  –

While the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays is generally considered one of the most important works ever published, its historical relevance does not necessarily imply that every single individual copy is fundamentally interesting in itself. Some, however, deserve specific attention. Copy seventy-eight; held by the Folger Shakespeare Library, belongs to the group of folios that stand out for having a certain added value of their own. Its particular interest lies not in its production -in the oddities of its print - but rather in its reception, that is, in the traces of the hands the book fell into after it was produced. It appears that at least at one point during the book’s lifetime, these hands might have been

rather small (Folger). The first few pages of the folio are illustrated with simple sketches:

various stickmen, one standing in front of a castle-like house, two others surrounding what looks like a table (see fig 1.). The style of the images, as well as the mere fact that they are drawn onto the pages of a rather valuable book suggests that they were done by a child.

Unfortunately, copy seventy-eight does not divulge its secrets. It would be fantastic if we could consider the images a reflection of a child’s interpretation of the contents within the book, but the reality is that we cannot, and that they may just as well be the work of child that entered his or her father’s study, found paper, pen, and ink; and began Figure 1. Page from copy seventy-eight of the first folio. Reproduced from the Folger Shakespeare Library,

–  –  –

to draw. As Susanne Greenhalgh also noted (Chedgzoy, Greenhalgh and Shaughnessy 117), the pages testify to a moment of contact between a child and a book containing Shakespeare’s plays, but fail to indicate whether or not that contact was accidental. Was the meeting between the child and the folio simply the result of the former needing some paper to draw on and finding it in the latter, or was there an intellectual connection, and if so, of what kind? In short, the meeting might have been disappointingly physical. The only reasonable deduction is that, apparently, somewhere in the early eighteenth century (Folger), a child took a pen to an old book that happened to contain Shakespeare’s work.

Yet, the copy’s intrigue compensates for its lack of informative value. The traces of a child’s handling of a book that, certainly in our own era, is generally only owned, held, and studied by adults are fascinating even if they frustratingly fail to reveal their secrets.

Not knowing often creates a desire to know, and therein lies the reason I could hardly resist to begin a dissertation about early Shakespeare for children by discussing copy seventy-eight: precisely by not revealing much, its doodles, however banal their true origins may be, have already raised some pertinent questions.

Moreover, the bescribbled folio evokes responses representative of adult perceptions of the interactions between Shakespeare and children. A first reaction, I should think, would be what a pity it is that such a valuable piece has been damaged. The crude pen drawings next to the neat rows of printed letters read like an intrusion of the child onto the page and into a world where it does not yet belong. Less cynical would be a sense of irony at the fact that the young artist probably had little idea what he or she was drawing on, and at the contrast between the simple pictures on the front pages and the complex concepts, escaping a child’s understanding, within the book. The unrealistic proportions literalise the child’s alternative worldview and its failure to comprehend the adult world. While the folio’s author is applauded for his realism, the child perceives and expresses in ways that, at least to adults, seem inadequate. A drawing on the top right corner of one of the pages is placed within a square, visually hedging it off from the rest of the page; similarly, the illustrations’ marginal position in the front matter, segregated from the actual text, emphasises their comic or tragicomic opposition to the book’s content.

The drawings’ opposition to their material and textual context thus unintentionally symbolises the perceived divide between children and Shakespeare’s work: if not Shakespeare in general, then at the very least editions such as the folio are considered a matter of adults, and preferably serious and academic adults at that. For children, Shakespeare is often considered too complex, too difficult, too heavy. Nonetheless, there is a wealth of Shakespearean material designed exactly for them, including board games, plushies, even a “to pee or not to pee” baby romper, and a vast array of Shakespearerelated books, ranging from modern “translations,”, over comic books such as Marcia William’s entertaining series, to spin-offs for teenagers, such as Lisa Fiedler’s Dating Hamlet. Modern consumerism has thoroughly embraced Shakespeare, and the young are far from excluded as possible targets.

What is more, despite the fact that his work is not always entirely child-friendly, Shakespeare has been part of children’s education and amusement for at least two centuries. The current practice of offering his texts to children is thus but one stage in a long development affected by different historical variables. In this dissertation, I will outline the origins of this rather paradoxical endeavour, and examine how the apparent paradox was negotiated in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain.

1.2 Research Questions Versions of Shakespeare for children are frequently ignored in books on the history of children’s literature and, to a slightly lesser extent, those on historical Shakespeare adaptations. Nevertheless, though its dimensions have greatly increased over the last decades, the genre is not entirely modern. A rather well-known older example is Edith Nesbitt’s Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare, first published as The Children’s Shakespeare in 1897. Nesbitt’s approach –transforming the plays into prose stories- was famously preceded by Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, dating as far back as 1807.

In the same year, another sister and brother pair, Thomas and Henrietta Bowdler, published the first edition of The Family Shakspeare, an expurgated version of the play texts. While The Family Shakspeare censored not just for children’s but also for adult females’ sakes, the first edition’s preface explicitly flaunts the book’s suitability for “the young reader” (vii).

Few critical work on children’s Shakespeares, in itself a relatively small field of research, has shown a profound interest in these early versions. The first part of Chedgzoy, Greenhalgh and Shaughnessy’s Shakespeare and Childhood focuses on children in Shakespeare, its second part on late-Victorian and contemporary children’s Shakespeares. Erica Hateley’s Shakespeare in Children’s Literature has applied a gender framework to the genre, but again the focus is Victorian and contemporary. Though Hateley herself acknowledges “a lack of diachronic reading” (51) within the field, her own historical overview limits its discussion of pre-Victorian children’s Shakespeare to the two 1807 texts introduced above, stating “it is surprising that only two examples of Shakespeare for children in English emerged in the early nineteenth century” (26).

This would be quite surprising indeed, but other scholars, such as Georgianna Ziegler and Charles Frey have shown that there quite an amount of material was published before these versions. Still, even research focusing particularly on historical children’s Shakespeare often gives pre-eminence to the Bowdlers’ and especially the Lambs’ work as the most central outcomes or even the starting points of the phenomenon (Ziegler 133).

So Skinner states:

. I used the Kindle edition of this book. Page numbers in Kindle are not stable, depending on letter size and “words per line” settings, but the technology does offer the page numbers of the original print version. The parenthetical references thus refer to the print edition, but are only approximate for the Kindle edition.

Though writers of children’s literature and Shakespeare adaptations had generated a variety of editing philosophies prior to the nineteenth century, there were no English Shakespeare editions designed specifically for children or families. Tales from Shakespeare and The Family Shakespeare changed this by combing [sic] several elements from both genres into a new literary entity: children’s Shakespeare (70).

Hateley’s historical chapter even asserts that “Tales from Shakespeare originates Shakespeare for children in English” (27). Even if other authors may well be aware of the existence of alternative early versions, few of these have been closely examined. Ziegler and Frey’s aim, for one, was to record existing children’s versions rather than to analyse any text in particular. Still, their articles provide highly useful surveys to these early examples. An analysis of these productions may well be vital to a nuanced understanding of a tradition in which Lamb and Bowdler may justifiably be considered milestones, but of which they were not the first and certainly not the only products. In this dissertation, I intend to explore some of these “marginal” children’s Shakespeares - the items alongside which the Lambs’ and the Bowdlers’ functioned.

In order to delineate the main research questions, I return briefly to modern Shakespeare adaptations for children. Despite its diversity, all of these adaptations demonstrate two central principles. One is precisely that children’s Shakespeares are, consciously and often quite openly, adaptations: the “originals” – insofar as they exist- are almost always purposely transformed. The reasons why have been implied: particularly for and amongst the young, Shakespeare has a reputation of being too difficult and, consequentially, too boring. In 1893 The School Review already complained that the turn-of –the-century student “will heave a sigh of relief when he reaches the closing ‘Exeunt,’ and thank his stars at having finished the most tiresome of authors” (Maxcy 108), a situation far from extinct in modern classrooms. Online demands for summaries still testify to the problems children encounter when reading Shakespeare, problems that, admittedly, are often not entirely obliterated at later ages, but become particularly relevant in a school context, when grades come into play.

Taking into account the availability of modern children’s texts that do not need to be transformed into something at times hardly resembling the original, one wonders why we keep bothering. The efforts made to bypass the problems created by trying to feed Shakespeare to a young audience obviously mean that the attempt is considered worthwhile. Canonicity and national identity are crucial factors: Shakespeare’s texts belong to the highlights of English civilisation; a knowledge of his work is essential to establishing the imagined community of England or, in a broader sense, the West2. The.For the teaching of Shakespeare outside the Anglo-Saxon and perhaps even the western world, the 2.

influence of cultural studies on teaching may be mentioned. The discipline has suggested to education the idea that, as culture is firmly rooted in language, learning a language should also involve attaining some knowledge of the culture in which that language is spoken.

fact that Shakespeare is hardly driven out of the classroom even though schools are increasingly ordered to focus on contents of direct pragmatic use can be explained by lingering traditionalism, utopian beliefs in the power of art and literature, or the related idea that Shakespeare’s work propagates universal values. And of course, commercial interests may be a factor: Shakespeare sells.

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