Charles Lamb > Tales from Shakspeare > Introduction
Charles and Mary Lamb.   Tales from Shakspeare.  1878.

IN the year 1806 Charles and Mary Lamb were residing in Mitre Court Buildings in the Temple. For more than ten years Charles had devoted himself to the care of this sister, content to forego for her sake all thoughts of other ties, and living beneath the shadow, which never lifted, of a great family sorrow. Happily for both, they were united by strong common tastes and sympathies as well as by the tenderest affection, and prominent among such tastes, as all readers of the “Essays of Elia” well know, was the love of Shakspeare and the other great Elizabethans. In a letter of May 10 in this year to his friend Manning, who had shortly before sailed for China, Charles Lamb writes of the sister who was never far from his thoughts: “Mary, whom you seem to remember yet, is not quite easy that she had not a formal parting from you. I wish it has so happened. But you must bring her a token, a shawl or something, and remember a sprightly little mandarin for our mantelpiece, as a companion to the child I am going to purchase at the museum. She says you saw her writings about the other day, and she wishes you should know what they are. She is doing for Godwin’s bookseller twenty of Shakspeare’s plays, to be made into children’s tales. Six are already done by her, to wit, ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Winter’s Tale,’ ‘Midsummer Night,’ ‘Much Ado,’ ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’ and ‘Cymbeline’; and the ‘Merchant of Venice’ is in forwardness. I have done ‘Othello’ and ‘Macbeth,’ and mean to do all the Tragedies. I think it will be popular among the little people, besides money. It’s to bring in sixty guineas. Mary has done them capitally. I think you’d think.”   1
  “Godwin’s bookseller” was the agent of William Godwin, the author of “Caleb Williams,” who had started just a year before in Hanway Street, as one of the many ventures of his struggling life, what he called a “Magazine of books for the use and amusement of children.” Godwin himself, under the name of Baldwin (for he did not venture to connect his own name, associated as it were with so many novel and strange heresies, with books designed to educate the young), furnished several volumes of fables and school histories; and it was he, doubtless, and not his “bookseller,” who formed the happy thought of calling in the aid of Charles and Mary Lamb.   2
  “Printed for Thomas Hodgins, at the Juvenile Library, Hanway street,” and “embellished with copper plates,” appeared in the year 1807 the first edition of “Tales from Shakspeare, designed for the use of young persons, by Charles Lamb.” The illustrations were by Mulready, who did much work of the same kind for Godwin in the first years of his bookselling career. Neither on the Title-page nor in the Preface did Mary Lamb’s name appear, though in the latter it is not concealed that more than one hand had been engaged at the task. Perhaps it was the sister’s own wish that her name should be suppressed. But we have her brother’s testimony to the important share which she bore in the work, and her name therefore appears in the title of the present edition.   3
  It is only matter of conjecture to which of the two writers we owe the Preface—a singularly eloquent and musical piece of English prose. There are passages in it which suggest the woman’s hand, and probably it represents the joint counsels of brother and sister. The Preface sets forth the method on which the Tales had been constructed, that of weaving into the narrative the very words of Shakespeare, wherever it seemed possible to bring them in,—a method which it is obvious only writers of the special training of Lamb and his sister could have hoped to pursue with success. To put the language of Rosalind and Beatrice in close contact with that of the ordinary compiler of children’s books might result in anything but a harmonious whole. The writers, indeed, were evidently aware of the risks they ran, and adopted the very sound principle of avoiding, as far as possible, the use of words introduced into the language since Shakespeare’s time. But not even this restriction might have saved the scheme from failure, had not the brother and sister been so familiar with the rhythm and cadences of Elizabethan English, that their own narrative style assimilated almost without effort with the language of their original, “transplanted from its own natural soil and wild poetic garden.”   4
  The Tales are twenty in number, and the general principle on which they were chosen is sufficiently clear. The whole series of English Histories is left unattempted, as well as the Roman plays; and of the few that remain, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is the only one the reason for whose omission is not quite obvious. Perhaps Miss Lamb felt how little would have remained in its language and the brilliant wit of its dialogue had been removed. In fact, the share of the work undertaken by Mary Lamb was the more difficult and the less grateful. It is easier to tell the story of “Hamlet” effectively in narrative prose than “Twelfth Night,” or “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream.” The mere recurrence of the same class of incidents in the Comedies, such as the likeness existing between two persons, tried the patience of even so devout a Shakspearian as Mary Lamb. Her brother, writing to Wordsworth when the book was in progress, says, “Mary is just stuck fast in ‘All’s Well that Ends Well.’ She complains of having to set forth so many female characters in boys’ clothes. She begins to think Shakespeare must have wanted—imagination!” If Lamb, however, chose for himself the more grateful part of the joint labor, he was generous in always insisting upon the superiority of his sister’s workmanship.   5
  In the Preface already referred to, the aims which the compilers had in view are distinctly explained. They wished to interest young persons in the story of each drama, to supply them with a clear and definite outline of the main argument, omitting such episodes or incidental sketches of character as were not absolutely necessary to its development. But, more than this, they sought to initiate the young reader into the unfamiliar diction of the dramatist, and by occasional slight changes in it to remove difficulties and clear up obscurities. Thus, in the first of the Tales—and it is thoroughly characteristic of Lamb that even when writing for children he adhered to the first folio arrangement by opening with the “Tempest”—the long and intricate narrative of Prospero in the first act—broken by grief and anger, sentences begun and left unfinished as recollection after recollection wells up and overflows its predecessor—is shortened and resolved into a harmony more intelligible to a child, so that the original, when it comes to be read, will be freed of most of its difficulties. In this way, a kind of running annotation or commentary is provided for the reader—unsuspected by him or her; as where in the matchless lines of Viola to the Lady Olivia: “Halloo your name to the reverberate hills, And make the babbling gossip of the air Cry out ‘Olivia,’” the adapter introduces the word “echo,” which a child might have lacked the knowledge or imagination to supply for himself.   6
  It is in the Tragedies, and in the profounder problems of human life there treated, that the master-hand of Charles Lamb distinctly declares itself. The subtle intellect and unerring taste that have elsewhere analyzed for us the characters of Lear and Malvolio are no less visible even when adapting Shakspeare’s stories to the intelligence of the least critical of students. It would be difficult, in writing for any class of readers, to add anything to Lamb’s description of Polonius—“a man grown old in crooked maxims and policies of state, who delighted to get at the knowledge of matters in an indirect and cunning way,” Again, the connection between the actual and the assumed madness of Hamlet himself—still so vexed a question among amateur critics—is after all explained and exhausted in the following simple version: “The terror which the sight of the ghost had left upon the senses of Hamlet, he being weak and dispirited before, almost unhinged his mind, and drove him beside his reason. And he, fearing that it would continue to have this effect, which might subject him to observation, and set his uncle upon his guard, if he suspected that he was meditating anything against him, or that Hamlet really knew more of his father’s death than he professed, took up a strange resolution from that time to counterfeit as if he were really and truly mad; thinking that he would be less an object of suspicion when his uncle should believe him incapable of any serious project, and that his real perturbation of mind would be best covered and pass concealed under a disguise of pretended lunacy.” And nothing can be finer in its way than the concluding sentences of Lamb’s version of “Romeo and Juliet,” where he relates the reconciliation of Lords Capulet and Montague over the graves of the unhappy lovers. “So did these poor old lords, when it was too late, strive to outgo each other in mutual courtesies.” How exquisitely in the two epithets is the moral of the whole Tragedy thrown into sudden light! The melancholy of the whole story,—the “pity of it,”—the “one long sigh” which Schlegel heard in it, is conveyed with an almost magic suddenness in this single touch; and yet one touch more, and that of priceless importance,—the suggestion of the whole world of misery and disorder that may lie hidden as an awful possibility in the tempers and vanities of even two “poor old” heads of houses.   7
  The differences of genius in the two narratives appear very evidently in their shares of the joint task. As already pointed out, Mary Lamb’s part was the least rewardful, for she had to give to the improbabilities of the comedies an air of probability, which denied the compensations of glowing poetry and brilliant wit. And it was no brotherly prejudice on the part of Charles that made him praise her workmanship in the letter to Manning. She constantly evinces a rare shrewdness and tact in her incidental criticisms, which show her to have been, in her way, as keen an observer of human nature as her brother. Mary Lamb had not lived so much among the wits and humorists of her day without learning some truths which helped her to interpret the two chief characters of “Much Ado about Nothing:” “As there is no one who so little likes to be made a jest of as those who are apt to take the same liberty themselves, so it was with Benedick and Beatrice; these two sharp wits never met in former times but a perfect war of raillery was kept up between them, and they always parted mutually displeased with each other.” And again, “The hint she gave him that he was a coward, by saying she would eat all he had killed, he did not regard, knowing himself to be a brave man; but there is nothing that great wits so much dread as the imputation of buffoonery, because the charge comes sometimes a little too near the truth; therefore Benedick perfectly hated Beatrice when she called him ‘the prince’s jester.’” How illuminating, in the best sense of the term, is such a commentary as this! The knowledge of human character that it displays is indeed in advance of a child’s own power of analysis or experience of the world, but it is at once intelligible when thus presented, and in a most true sense educative. Very profound, too, is the casual remark upon the conduct of Claudio and his friends when the character of Hero is suddenly blasted—conduct which has often perplexed older readers for its heartlessness and insane credulity: “The prince and Claudio left the church, without staying to see if Hero would recover, or at all regarding the distress into which they had thrown Leonato. So hard-hearted had their anger made them.” It is this casual and diffused method of enforcing the many moral lessons that lie in Shakspeare’s plays that constitute, at least in the editor’s judgment, one special value of this little book in the training of the young. Writing avowedly, as Charles and Mary Lamb were writing, for readers still in the school-room, ordinary compilers would have been tempted to make these little stories sermons in disguise, or to have appended to them in set form the lessons they were calculated to teach. Happily, both as moralist and artist, Charles Lamb knew better how hearts and spirits are touched to “fine issues.” In an extant letter to Southey, Lamb complains of those writers who will have the moral of their story attached to the end, in clear-cut form, “like the ‘God send the good ship into harbor’ at the end of the old bills of lading.” It was not after this fashion that he himself left the world so many lessons of tenderness and wisdom. And so it has happened that these trifles, designed for the nursery and the school-room, have taken their place as an English classic. They have never been superseded, nor are they ever likely to be. Written in the first instance solely with a view to being read by children, they are marked here and there by a certain needless concession to the supposed phraseology of the nursery. But the genius of the writers had unconsciously administered to the wants of children of a larger growth, and a publisher’s notice, prefixed to the second edition of the book, informs the reader that the Tales, primarily intended for the amusement of children, had been found even still better adapted “for an acceptable and improving present to young ladies advancing to the state of womanhood,” and were in consequence now presented in an edition “prepared with suitable elegance.” Most certain is it that the book has proved itself, during the seventy years of its life that have elapsed, a pleasure, and an effectual guide to the “inner shrine” of our great dramatist to many besides young children or even growing girls. More and more is a knowledge of Shakspeare coming to be regarded as a necessary part of an Englishman’s education; and the editor knows of no first introduction to that study at once so winning and so helpful as that supplied by these narrative versions. And it is part of the charm that attaches to these Tales that while Lamb and his sister keep themselves studiously in the background, in their character of guides and annotators, their presence is still felt throughout. The “withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts;” and “lesson of all sweet and honorable thoughts and actions, to teach you courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity,” which they attribute (with what justice!) to their great original, is felt to be not less the habitual mood of the brother and sister, who, in what Wordsworth beautifully called “their dual loneliness,” found one of their best consolations in breathing together the pure and bracing air of the Elizabethan poetry.

A. A.

  OCTOBER, 1878.

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