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Tales from Shakespeare by Charles Lamb

Tales from Shakespeare (original 1807; edition 1999)

by Charles Lamb, Mary Lamb (Author), Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliott (Illustrator), Patricia Barrett Perkins (Foreword)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,606252,297 (3.76)50
From the foreword: ”In the twenty tales told in this book, the Lambs succeeded in paraphrasing the language of truly adult literature in children’s terms.”

And they succeeded beautifully. Each tale is about twenty pages long. I confess that I’ve never actually read Shakespeare, and frankly found myself somewhat daunted by the thought. This was a lovely way to taste the stories, in a thoughtful retelling for children. ( )
  countrylife | Jul 3, 2012 |
English (21)  Dutch (1)  All languages (22)
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These stories are a perfect way to introduce children to Shakespeare’s plays. I loved this book when I was 10, and I’m convinced it’s one of the main reasons I was a Shakespeare fanatic well before I entered high school. ( )
1 vote Lisa2013 | Apr 9, 2013 |
Charles and Mary Lamb

Tales from Shakespeare

Penguin Popular Classics, Paperback, [1995].

12mo. 313 pp. Preface by the authors [pp. 5-7].

First published, 1807.
Penguin Popular Classics, 1995.



The Tempest
A Midsummer Night's Dreams
The Winter's Tale
Much Ado About Nothing
As You Like It
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Merchant of Venice
King Lear
All's Well That Ends Well
The Taming of the Shrew
The Comedy of Errors
Measure for Measure
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Timon of Athens
Romeo and Juliet
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Pericles, Prince of Tyre


Why on earth is this a classic? How can so many people rate so highly this junk? What sense exactly does this type of book make?

Those heretical questions orbited inside my head while I was reading with incredulity one of the greatest disappointments in my reading career. Admittedly, I am a little past the age of the target audience, and I of course have not read all of it; in fact, only eight out of twenty chapters, because only so many of the original plays I know so far. I have absolutely no intention of reading the rest twelve chapters.

The best that can be said about this book is that the authors frankly admit in their preface that it is for "very young children" and that it contains "faint and imperfect images" of the originals. The truth is that this volume has no business existing at all, let alone being kept in print 205 years after its first publication. This is a crime against Shakespeare. I would certainly consider it criminal to recommend the Lambs as an introduction.

First of all, what is Shakespeare when he is reduced to his "tales"? An epitome of farcical triviality, that’s what he is. It should be obvious for every reasonably intelligent fellow that the plots are by far the least important part of Shakespeare. It is the poetry and above all the characters that make the Bard timeless. Extracting his "tales" - for children or for adults, no matter - reminds me of books like Milton Cross' Complete Stories of the Great Operas. The same stupendous inanity. As if any opera had ever remained in the standard repertoire because of its story! As if any play of Shakespeare had ever survived because of its "tale"!

Since neither the poetry nor the characters of Shakespeare are suitable for children, you will get nothing of them in the misguided, ill-advised, ruthlessly bowdlerized and rigorously sanitized parody of his plays as presented by the Lambs. All right, this is not strictly true. To do justice to Charles and Mary, one must admit that they do quote many of the most pedestrian lines and that they do manage to misrepresent completely all main characters. Their "tales" are abominations that have nothing to do with Shakespeare.

Why should children be introduced to Shakespeare in the first place? It's none of their business. Is there is a shortage of nice, ordinary, black-and-white fairy tales? Even the most fairy-tale-like of Shakespeare's creations - a sheer fantasy like The Tempest for instance - are way more than weird talking creatures, mighty magicians or enchanted islands. Children should grow first, then tackle Shakespeare in original. Reading such "tales" is at best perfectly useless as an introduction. At worst, it may fill the heads of the youngsters with tons of stupid preconceptions which will actually hamper their mature appreciation of Shakespeare.

To those who are in my position - long past childhood, non-native speakers in the beginning of their Shakespearean quest, somewhat daunted but much more fascinated by the language - I would simply say: "Forget this rubbish by the Lambs!" There are plenty of meticulously edited scholarly editions of Shakespeare's plays. Take your pick and start serious exploration. Yes, it's very tough, don't you think I know that? But it might just be worth it. There is no easy way to be "introduced" to the Bard, no short cut to understand and appreciate his poetry and his characters. It requires serious application and lots of hard work.

Whether it's worth it, that's for you to decide personally. But don't fool yourselves that such impossible crap like those "tales" would bring you anywhere near the heart of Shakespeare. On the contrary, it will mercilessly keep you out of it, with the most mundane details to keep you company.

Last and least, on the top of all that, the book is hideously written. Again, the Lambs gracefully admit in their preface that they have tried to use as much as possible Shakespeare's own vocabulary. The result is a florid, labored, verbose and singularly ungraceful prose travesty that occasionally resembles Shakespeare but vaguely, usually not at all. Children in the beginning of the nineteenth century appear to have been quite a bit more accomplished masters of the English language than their modern counterparts. If the latter can manage the Lambs, for sure they can manage the Bard as well.

If you so much need plot summaries of the plays, just use Wikipedia: a great improvement over the Lambs in terms of clarity and brevity. But what the deuce do you need these summaries for? It's much more exciting to experience the twists and turns in the plays themselves, no matter how slow and painful the first reading may be. Shakespeare was not just a great poet and a penetrating observer of the human condition. He also was a very clever dramatist who knew how to keep his audience on the edge. This is the single quality on which the Lambs tried to capitalise in this ridiculous book. Never have I read a more worthless volume on Shakespeare.

PS Actually, for readers who are already well familiar with some of the plays, the Lambs' corresponding chapters are recommended as unintentionally hilarious. Once your indignation has subsided, you could hardly fail to be amused by such monumental misrepresentation. It is indeed ageless. Just don't give, sell, lend or recommend this book to anybody who is not your implacable enemy. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Oct 31, 2012 |
From the foreword: ”In the twenty tales told in this book, the Lambs succeeded in paraphrasing the language of truly adult literature in children’s terms.”

And they succeeded beautifully. Each tale is about twenty pages long. I confess that I’ve never actually read Shakespeare, and frankly found myself somewhat daunted by the thought. This was a lovely way to taste the stories, in a thoughtful retelling for children. ( )
  countrylife | Jul 3, 2012 |

It's really very good - a retelling of Shakespeare's dramas, which are not really easy reading for today's reader (or even the reader of 1807) in digestible prose, aimed at sophisticated teenagers. It's surprising what is censored and what is kept in, given how we tend to imagine nineteenth-century senisibilities - the blinding in King Lear is out, and the detail of Antiochus' incest (and Marina's life in the brothel) in Pericles, but so for some reason is the entire Malvolio subplot in Twelfth Night. However, the immorality laws of Vienna in Measure for Measure are explained, and so is the detail of Macduff's birth in Macbeth (of course an important plot detail but one that could have been worked round with imagination). Knowing what I now do about the authors, I was also struck by the sympathetic treatment of mental illness in the summary of Hamlet, which sets a good example rarely met in later literature. Strongly recommended. ( )
  nwhyte | Aug 13, 2011 |
Available with Rackham's illustrations at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20657/20657-h/20657-h.htm. This is the famous expurgated version of Shakespeare's plays, with all the naughty bits cleaned up, published by the brother and sister team, Charles and Mary Lamb in 1807.

Mary lived a quiet life until the day in 1796 when she suddenly killed her mother with a knife and spent the rest of her life in and out of insane asylums. Charles was friends with romantic poets and, apparently, wrote "essays, under the pen name of Elia (pronounced “a liar”), for the London Magazine. Here he cultivated a strange mixture of nostalgic memory, quizzical fiction and rambling meditation which makes these essays some of the most delightful in English literature." (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article1...; accessed on 8/8/2011)

The Project Gutenberg version has the illustrations interspersed in color with the stories (in the right place); this book has color plates together in the middle of the book with no clue as to which plays they are for.
  raizel | Aug 8, 2011 |
The kids begged for more Shakespeare. No, really, they did. Although it was a difficult read aloud with all of it's run on sentences, this was a wonderful version of Shakespeare. Not overly simplified but easier than reading the plays. I had intended to read one story a month to them but ended up doing one or more a week! ( )
1 vote momma2 | Jul 14, 2011 |
Wonderful colourful dustjacket from the Readers Library
  jon1lambert | Feb 8, 2011 |
I think this book is great to approach before reading the original. I had read Romeo and Juliet before I read this book and had some confusion in some parts. However, if I had read this book before reading the original, I would have had less trouble at reading Romeo and Julliet.
Also, all the stories are quite short and fast-paced. I was able to finish one story before I got bored.
I really enjoyed reading this - more than I thought I would. ( )
1 vote emilyl31395 | Dec 14, 2010 |
Children are not inherently stupid; nor are they incapable of processing complex emotional situations. However, the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare is just one of the publications that has convinced adults everywhere that their poor little darling really aren't very bright, and they must be sheltered from dangerous ideas at all cost!

The cost, in this case, is a Canon King, and confidence in children's intellectual capabilities. I said this before, but I'll say it again: the Lambs present the shell of the plots, but the characters and details are horribly mangled. The language and story construction are clumsy, and I'm amazed I ever made it through the book as a young reader. I have very strong ideas about children and reading material, so I realize I will be in the minority in my opinions. But so they stand.

Neither of us enjoyed the latest bedtime story. ( )
3 vote Luxx | Jun 23, 2010 |
The Lamb sibllings did an amazing job of creating and transforming Shakespeare beautiful plays into kid friendly plays. Much Ado About Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet and Othello are just a few of the plays included in this set of Shakespeare's writing. The authors change Shakespeare's language into kid friendly vocabulary but keeping with some of the quotes and phrasing we know and love from Shakespeare.
  shannanjones79 | Jun 5, 2010 |
Such a slender little volume and how apparently unimportant. After all, if one reads seriously, why a collection of retold versions of the bard aimed at school children. Ah, but they are witty and to the point and entirely delightful.
Recently I have been reading something that extolled the virtues of Charles Lamb, so I have been feeling the need to fill in the gaps in my education caused by a far too liberal education. And I have been intrigued by the stories of Mary Lamb, who was a sad and sorry case. This little edition seemed a likely introduction.
Ah, well, with the strongly worded warning that the retelling of the Merchant of Venice is distasteful to be kind, may I say that this is a blithe book. I want to buy it for any student who is slogging through class readings without the guide of an inspired teacher. Heck, I want to buy it for all sorts of people who don't get Shakespeare. The two authors quote a smattering of stirring speeches, carefully chosen and in enough quantity to whet and not slake a taste for dialogue.
Most of the big plays, the tragedies are the sphere of Charles Lamb, while the comedies belong to his sister. She has a wry wit that flutters happily through Puck, Benedick, Rosalind and she pitches her tone to be as a confident to the reader.
On another point,I really like the cover and want to see more Sadowski. ( )
2 vote owenre | Nov 25, 2008 |
In my opinion, Lamb's adaptations are truly masterful. They use small excerpts from Shakespeare, retain some of the feeling of Shakespeare, pare away sub-plots and characters, and sanitize some situations (e.g., the incest in Pericles), to make relatively simple, cohesive stories appropriate for children. As far as I know, no one else has successfully done this.

On the other hand, the joy of Shakespeare is in his language and character development, most of which is lost in Lamb. Some of the omitted characters are delightful favorites in the actual plays, and while they are non-essential in terms of the main story, they are part of what makes Shakespeare so wonderful. Although Shakepeare's stories are interesting, they are (mostly, at least) not original to him; it is his treatment of them that makes them so great.

I enjoyed reading Lamb, partly because of my interest in how writers adapt other works for their own purposes, and partly just as a reminder of which comedy is which (although I remember the stories, for some reason I have trouble putting the title to many of them, unless I have read/seen them recently).
2 vote ivyd | Nov 2, 2008 |
I originally read this in my grandmother's edition (hence the 1915 date), and reviewed again about five years ago. The second reading was a little disappointing, but tempered by the fact that I had to account for the period in which the book was published. ( )
  Prop2gether | May 1, 2008 |
Yes, as many will point out, these are excellent introductions to the works of Shakespeare for young readers or older readers who never got around to reading his complete works (here the reviewer raises her hand).

What I really liked about them, though, was the way they allowed me to enjoy the stories as I would a collection of fairy tales. When you avoid the tendency to focus on Shakespeare's language these tales of kings, queens, princesses and mythical creatures are just as good as settling in with a collection of Grimm or Anderson. ( )
1 vote llamagirl | Apr 13, 2008 |
Date unknown
Belonged to Albert John Wenzlaff, grandfather to Marty Magee
  maggee | Mar 23, 2008 |
These are twenty stories from Shakespeare's works, retold for children. The old language and play format have been removed. Frankly, they don't appeal to me much, though for smaller children who are not ready to read Shakespeare, I suppose they could be a good thing.
The reason I love this book is the illustrator. I will buy anything which Arthur Rackham has illustrated, and the pictures in this volume are fine, though I wish there were more. ( )
  MrsLee | Jan 25, 2008 |
This is an audio version of Tales From Shakespeare, the IDEAL primer for anyone interested in becoming familiar with the works of the great bard. The stories’ warmth and clarity make them pleasurable reading even to confirmed Shakespeareans. The brother/sister team of Charles and Mary Lamb retold Shakespeare’s fourteen comedies and six tragedies in prose form in 1807, they wanted to make the stories accessible to children and to offer moral education to the young – something for which Shakespeare had a natural talent. Let us not underestimate young readers: they love a complex story with many and varied characters, twists of plot, and turns of fate as much as anyone — but they draw the line at reading in unfamiliar language. The Lambs provide a real feast of plain fare, and flavor it with as many tasty tidbits of Shakespearean language as they felt the young reader could easily digest. This is a FOUNDATIONAL book to one’s education. It WILL add to one’s cultural literacy. ( )
  lorileeke | Mar 20, 2007 |
These are the Comedies told in "story" form suitable for boys and girls. The Notes by the Editor, William Rolfe reveal him to be an idiot (clueless about children), so I worry about his "editing", and wonder what Charles and Mary Lamb did originally. ( )
  keylawk | Sep 20, 2006 |
Date unknown, but must be prior to 1970 because the marked price is five shillings. Contains Charles and Mary Lamb's retellings of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "As You Like It", "The Merchant of Venice", "Romeo and Juliet", "King Lear", and "Othello." These sweet and unpretentious re-tellings of stories from some of Shakepeare's most important plays prepare a child for the real thing, and the woodcut illustrations add life to the tales. ( )
  hilleviw | Sep 12, 2006 |
I got this from my grandmother, I think it was hers when she was young, when I was maybe 10 years old and read it so many times.
  susanj | Jul 10, 2006 |
Best introduction to most of Shakespeare's plays. A nice short story for each work. ( )
  julsitos2 | Oct 27, 2005 |
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9 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0141441623, 0141321687

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