Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

"Faint and Imperfect Stamps": The Problem with Adaptations of Shakespeare for Children

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

"Faint and Imperfect Stamps": The Problem with Adaptations of Shakespeare for Children

Article excerpt

Despite the numerous reasons against adapting Shakespeare's works for young children--including the difficult language and mature subject matter of the plays--many authors have done so over the past two hundred years. Why is this? How do authors deal with the difficulties of Shakespeare's texts? What is lost and gained by these adaptations? This article examines the various justifications for presenting Shakespeare to children, from the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare to the present. It points to the problems inherent in some of these explanations, and suggests that adults must be critical of their motives for, and methods of, presenting Shakespeare to children. To illustrate this claim, the article provides a comparative analysis of a selection of Hamlets for children.

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Murder, revenge, adultery, suicide--these are hardly the subjects discussed in an elementary school classroom. In fact, often when young children ask adults questions touching on any of these topics, 'grown ups' do their best to avoid directly responding to the inquiry. This is the stuff, however, of which Hamlet, one of the most commonly adapted of Shakespeare's plays for children, is made.

Hamlet is an odd choice of text for young people, not only due to its lofty subject matter, but also because of its ostensible lack of interest in children. The play does, admittedly, include one brief discussion of the young, but in it they do not come out looking very good. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstem announce to Hamlet that the Players are coming to Elisnore, the prince asks if the troupe is held in "the same estimation they did when I was in the city" (2.2.321-22). Rosencrantz informs Hamlet that the feud between adult actors and children's companies has harmed the players' reputation: "[T]here is," explains Rosencrantz, "... an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of the question and are most tyrannically clapped for't" (326-27). In response, Hamlet sharply critiques the youngsters and those who write for them:

   What, are they children? Who maintains 'em? How are they
   escoted? Will they pursue the quality no longer than they
   can sing? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow
   themselves to common players--as it is like most will, if
   their means are not better--their writers do them wrong to
   make them exclaim against their own succession? (331-36)

Here, Hamlet makes reference to the condition of players, both young and old, in the early modern theatre. At the time, playwrights were using child actors, who are here referred to as "eyases" or young hawks, in private theaters, as ventriloquists use dolls, to voice their discontent with adult actors in public theaters. Though an interesting commentary on the theater of the period, this exchange seems to reveal yet another reason why Hamlet should not be adapted for a young audience. Although Hamlet displays some degree of empathy with the child actors, he is ultimately critical of them and, even more so, of the adults who use them as pawns in a battle over cultural supremacy. The children in these companies are pitied perhaps, but ultimately they are deemed foolish creatures, destined only for a sour end.

One might guess that this negativity regarding children and the theater, accompanied by the play's mature subject matter and, as the Folger Shakespeare Library notes, the fact that, at 4,042 lines, Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, children's authors would want to avoid it (Folger n. pag.). They do not, however; nor are they discouraged by Shakespeare's other works, many of which are equally, if not more, ideologically disturbing than Hamlet. Why is it the case, since there seem to be so many reasons against adapting Shakespeare for young people, that doing so has been popular for the last two hundred years?

The answer lies, in part, in the varied visions of children, Shakespeare, and his work over the years. …

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