March 02, 2017


Shakespeare Retold. By E. Nesbit. Illustrated by Antonio Javier Caparo. Harper. $19.99.

Ronit & Jamil. By Pamela L. Laskin. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Back in 1897, there appeared, from one of the great children’s writers of the past 150 years, a collection called The Children’s Shakespeare, which was reprinted 10 years later as Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare. The author was E. (Edith) Nesbit, best known nowadays for wonderful fantasy adventures such as Five Children and It, The Railway Children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers, and many more. Nesbit wanted to retell Shakespeare’s plays in language that modern children would find accessible, preserving the tales’ drama and some of their intricacy while reducing the barriers to understanding caused by Elizabethan English and the deliberately convoluted way in which Shakespeare often structured his plots. Nesbit gave 20 of the plays her streamlined treatment, including some that are infrequently studied even at the college level nowadays: Timon of Athens, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale. Nesbit provided a Shakespeare biography, pronunciation guide, and list of famous quotations, too. Now there is a new, slimmer, much abridged edition of Nesbit’s distillation of Shakespeare, called Shakespeare Retold and including illustrations by Antonio Javier Caparo and a biography and timeline by Mariah Fredericks. Only seven of Nesbit’s play summaries are offered: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Tempest, and Much Ado about Nothing. Parents familiar with Shakespeare will have a number of understandable quibbles with Nesbit’s presentation. For example, Macbeth becomes “chieftain” rather than “thane,” and Nesbit changes “Macbeth hath murdered sleep” to “Macbeth destroys the sleeping.” And near the end of the tale of Hamlet, Nesbit writes that Hamlet finally kills Claudius, adding parenthetically, “(Which, if he had steeled his heart to do long before, all these lives would have been spared and none would have suffered but the wicked king, who well deserved to die.)” Nevertheless, even if one admits weaknesses in these retellings, with (for instance) the Capulets and Montagues being described merely as “deeply sad” after Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths, the fact is that Nesbit largely accomplished her purpose: these prose distillations of the seven plays included here are accurate as to plot, explanatory as to motive, and turn the enormous complexities of Shakespeare’s thinking and writing into something approachable and genuinely interesting. The book, after all, is not a Shakespeare book so much as a book about Shakespeare and the plays he wrote: Nesbit’s aim was to introduce young children – Shakespeare Retold is for ages 6-10 – to some of the greatest literature of all time by making it intriguing, even at the expense of much of the style and form that make the plays great. Given the sad reality that it is now possible to go through an entire college education without taking a single course in Shakespeare – a consequence of the increased focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and of the contemporary view of college as little more than a path to a well-paying job – a book like this may go some small distance to redress the balance that has relegated Shakespeare and other great writers and humanists to little more than an educational afterthought. Caparo’s illustrations are overly romantic, but they are appealing in their own way, and Fredericks’ biography and timeline are nicely done and useful for children who, captivated by the stories that Nesbit retells, find themselves wanting to know a bit more about the man who wrote them and the time in which he lived. Hopefully Shakespeare Retold will be a door opener, and a mind opener, for quite a number of young readers.

     The continuing fascination of Shakespeare’s tales shows itself again and again in works that recast the stories for later ages and place them in different locations. One such is Ronit & Jamil, a (+++) novel in verse – not Shakespearean verse, though, by any means – that takes the Romeo-and-Juliet theme (note the letters that begin the two central characters’ names) and plops it down in modern Israel and Gaza. The idea here is that Ronit, an Israeli girl, and Jamil, a Palestinian boy, are brought together because their fathers work with each other in one of those uneasy but necessary business relationships that pervade everyday life in and near Israel. The two teenagers – older than Shakespeare’s Juliet, who is 13 (Romeo’s age is never specified) – fall desperately in love, and Pamela L. Laskin goes out of her way to balance everything they say, think and feel. This leads sometimes to considerable awkwardness: at one point, Ronit thinks about the fear of being blown up while traveling by bus, by someone who could be a member of Jamil’s family; then Jamil thinks of the possibility of people who would “chop down trees to build settlements,” which is scarcely comparable. But the whole point of Ronit & Jamil is equivalence, to indicate that Israelis and Palestinians are perfectly equal in desires, hopes, fears and motivations. The book will surely appeal to people who believe that; but it is a stance without nuance, one that undermines the very humanity of the young lovers, to write as if each is no more than a mirror image of the other. Laskin also shies away from the tragic ending of Shakespeare’s play, having Ronit and Jamil make the decision to flee the Middle East altogether and perhaps even end up in America, even though “America has problems, too. Every place has problems.” The book insists on ending in uplift and hope – which, in fact, is also how Shakespeare’s play ends, but in that case, to do so requires a double sacrifice beyond anything in Laskin’s novel. Of course, adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – itself an adaptation of earlier works – need not be faithful to their source, and some superb modernizings play considerable havoc with Shakespeare: West Side Story, for example. But Ronit & Jamil reduces too many complexities to simplicity for this slim book to be wholly satisfying. It does not suggest that love conquers all, but it does say something along the lines of Sir Joseph Porter’s remark in HMS Pinafore: “Love levels all ranks.” Yet even Sir Joseph eventually comes to realize, “It does not level them as much as that.” So it is in Ronit & Jamil. Love may overcome a great deal, but not everything. Reconciliation of Ronit’s and Jamil’s families, and Israelis and Palestinians in general, is not even a flicker of a possibility here: if there is any escape, it is for two people only, leaving society at large no better off than before. That is the exact opposite of Shakespeare’s message, for all that Laskin tries so hard to build her work on his vastly superior one.

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