Happy birthday, Mr. Shakespeare!

Here’s a question for you parents: what was your first experience of Shakespeare? Was it reading aloud in turn in a stuffy classroom, or being taken to the theatre and being shushed and told to sit still until the interval and an ice cream bribe? Here’s another question: will your children’s experience be the same, or will they be acting excerpts or reading manga or watching DVDs? Shakespeare for children used to be considered unworkable: too ambitious, too challenging, too many difficult words and archaisms, unless in the blandest of retellings; now the range and invention of Shakespeare approaches is astonishing.


These days, we start ’em young: with Andrew Matthews’ short and accessible story versions for Orchard, for instance, aimed at beginner readers and with the same zest and liveliness as Geraldine McCaughrean’s Greek Myths, as well as Tony Ross’ gloriously irreverent illustrations. For slightly older readers, I’d say (don’t be misled by the picture book format), Marcia Williams’ Mr William Shakespeare’s plays and Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare present fourteen of the best-known plays in picture strip format, with a plain-English commentary below and quotations from the plays incorporated into the pictures themselves. The pictures are exuberant, full of character and gorgeously coloured, in a format that has also worked brilliantly for Greek myths, Arthurian legend, Robin Hood, Chaucer and other classics.


It won’t surprise you, will it, to hear that there’s an Usborne Shakespeare, or indeed many Usborne Shakespeares. From direct experience, the Young Reading adaptations intended for 7-9 year old readers are especially successful, especially the ones with Christa Wolf’s atmospheric pen and wash illustrations: in the time when I used to encourage Y3s to take out reading books each week, children would return one title and promptly take out the next until they had read through all available. There’s also an engaging and readable Shakespeare biography in the same series, a handsome clothbound collection of Shakespeare tales and a fascinating World of Shakespeare with insights into not only Shakespeare’s life and times, plays and poetry but also modern-day interpretation and performance.


For older readers, say 12+, there are two inspired Shakespeare initiatives: the Classical Comics Shakespeare series combines a graphic novel treatment and sensibility with a brilliant three-level approach, so that the play is available either in the full original text or in a plain English or easier “quick text” version, each using the same art (see how it works at www.classicalcomics.com/titles/romeo-and-juliet.html).


And who could imagine that Shakespeare would work so well in manga form? It’s always been said that the Japanese have a special affinity with Shakespeare – look at Kurosawa, they say, although is that proof of cause or effect? These subtly abridged versions of original texts are true to the originals whilst incorporating all the dynamism of the manga form, and bringing out some startling parallels: in the As You Like It that I picked up, Oliver is just as repellent as a lank-haired, fastidious dandy in a long silk coat as in sombre doublet and hose. Sixteen titles to date include all the best-known plays (as well as a slightly surprising Henry VIII, commissioned in 2009 for the 500-year anniversary of Henry’s accession).


There are those who might say, though, that reading Shakespeare is beside the point, and the best introduction is either watching or acting. The idealist in me wants to agree, and to recognise the brilliance of events like the Shakespeare Schools Festival, www.ssf.uk.com; I also remember being struck by director Christine Edzard’s comment on her 2001 film, The Children’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, that much of the Dream makes complete sense in terms of playground politics, especially if you substitute “friend” for “love” – “you were my friend, but now she’s my friend and I don’t like you any more.” The pragmatist in me admits, though, that sub-par Shakespeare (like sub-par opera) can leave a taint for years – is it worth the risk?  (Even with the possibility of £5 groundlings tickets at the matchlessly atmospheric Globe Theatre, where the performances run on a scale of good to unforgettable – still, the ground is hard after the first hour or so, and the rain can rain though not every day, and these things are less easily shrugged off when you’re still struggling to see over adult shoulders.) My preferred first Shakespeare would be something like Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular Romeo+Juliet, which combines big-screen glamour, spectacle and cool with dramatic edge and a genuinely lyrical feel for some of Shakespeare’s most poetically charged and playful language. There’s a substantial catalogue of film adaptations, of course, and a growing range of remarkable theatre performances to watch either on live relay or on DVD; but for me it’s Luhrmann who knows best how to reel in the lively-minded pre-teen or teen (and it’s not all down to Leo DiCaprio either).


Children and Shakespeare – one wonders what Shakespeare himself would have made of the question. After all, in his own time the only children with an obvious interest in Shakespeare were the boy trebles called upon to play the women’s parts (more or less convincingly, and the clear occasion for assorted cross-dressing roles from As You Like It to Twelfth Night). However, for a writer who could speak as easily to fellow bards as to tavern brawlers, and whose imagination ranged freely from Egypt to Fairyland by way of Tudor England, it’s not hard to imagine Shakespeare embracing manga and soundstage as happily as any period-costume perfect-diction in-the-round performance out there. How lucky are we to have the choice.



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