Tales From Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb

To commemorate (some people are using the term ‘celebrate’ which seems a bit off!) the 400-year anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, each day this week I will be posting about a book linked to the great Bard of Avon.

Let’s be frank with each other. Many adults are scared of Shakespeare. I don’t blame us. By the time most of us get to Will, we are young teenagers dreaming of Brian from East 17*, or that boy in the sixth form with the Pop Will East Itself T-shirt, and there is not a great deal of room in our hormonal, crush-charged brains for all the words that Shakespeare throws at us from the 16th and 17th centuries (especially the ones he made up, the little bleeder). But, if as younger kids, concerned only with getting up early enough to watch Kyle Minogue on Going Live (I never made it. Up too late with Enid Blyton) and therefore with a bit more brain space to play with, someone had said to us ‘hey, this Shakespeare fella has some great stories, even if he did nick a few of them off of other people’, I wonder if we would be so bulldozed by him later on.

Therefore, I would love for every child to be given a copy of Tales from Shakespeare,  to remove the fear that surrounds the Shakespeare canon by enabling children to engage with its wonderful stories. Written by brother and sister duo Charles and Mary Lamb in 1807 (apparently Mary wrote the comedies and Charles the tragedies) and still in print today, I love to think of all the little kiddies who have enjoyed this book in the 200 years since its publication. The glory of Shakespeare’s language and its intricacies, and the quotes that encapsulate the human condition, can wait.  If children can get to grips with the stories (especially those weird ones where twins get mixed up, or women dress as men, or fairies and donkeys are involved), the rest of Shakespeare’s treasure will be be unlocked to them as adults.

The story of its creators, Charles and Mary Lamb reads like a Shakespearean tragedy itself.  In 1796 Mary murdered her mother in a fit of madness. She was only released from an asylum when her brother promised to care for her. Mary had taught her younger brother to read and I like to think of Charles defending the big sister who had given him the joy of the written word. I think my younger brother would probably just leave me there but after the incident with the ‘missing’ Power Ranger toys, perhaps I shouldn’t blame him.

Despite the mental health issues they both endured, Charles and Mary’s London home served as a literary salon and they really were part of the in-crowd, a sort of literary 19th-century Carpenters. From 1833 till their deaths, they lived in Edmonton, where I grew up. I walked past their cottage in Church Street, and their joint grave in All Saints’ Churchyard, every day on my way to school. In those days, I was too busy dreaming of Every Boy in the Sixth Form to pay much attention to this fact. These days, when I walk up the same road to see my Nan, I like to think of Mary doing the same walk to visit Charles’s grave. I really am a barrel of laughs. Happy Shakespeare Week!

* It was Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam for me. Today, tomorrow, always.

Charles_Lamb's_Cottage
‘Lamb’s Cottage’ in Church Street, Edmonton. Note the sexist apostrophe – both Charles and Mary lived there, after all
1280px-Charles_Lamb's_Grave
Charles and Mary buried side by side in All Saints’ Churchyard, Edmonton. My parents and both sets of grandparents were married in this church.

(with thanks to the internet for these pictures)

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