The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is excited to present a Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) show once again this year. The 2022 production is titled Much Ado About Quite A Lot, written by Nancy Steele Brokaw and directed by Lori Adams. This free production is part of ISF’s education and outreach efforts for children and families, though everyone is welcome.

Youth programs like this are a common sight in American theatre. In fact, Shakespeare has been a cornerstone of education for children and teenagers for a long time. The National Endowment of the Arts and Arts Midwest operates the Shakespeare in American Communities fund, which “supports high-quality productions and educational activities in middle schools, high schools, and juvenile justice facilities throughout the United States.” Shakespeare is also taught in English classes, encouraging students to become better readers by closely analyzing characters and poetic passages. Unfortunately, some people never shake off the association between Shakespeare and the classroom, turning them off his plays. But for others, public education (and extracurricular activities if you are fortunate) instills a lifelong admiration for Shakespeare, driving them to seek out theatre productions and film adaptations on their own.

But given that most people need practice and the help of a glossary to understand Shakespeare’s language, how do we make these plays more accessible to young readers and audiences? The history of Shakespeare adaptations for children could help us answer this question.

Illustration of Much Ado about Nothing from later reprint of Tales from Shakespeare (Wikimedia Commons)

A major milestone in that history was the 1807 book Tales of Shakespeare, written by the siblings Charles and Mary Lamb in England. This volume turned 20 of Shakespeare’s plays into fairytale-like short stories. Because many of Shakespeare’s plays contained mature themes, the Victorian authors deemed it necessary to cut and censor material inappropriate for children. But that is not all. The Lambs write in the books preface:

“What these Tales shall have been to the young readers, that and much more it is the writers’ wish that the true Plays of Shakespeare may prove to them in older years—enrichers of the fancy, strengtheners of virtue, a withdrawing from all selfish and mercenary thoughts, a lesson of all sweet and honorable thoughts and actions, to teach courtesy, benignity, generosity, humanity: for of examples, teaching these virtues, his pages are full.”

The authors believed that Shakespeare’s plays could teach valuable moral lessons. By using an omniscient narrator, Charles and Mary Lamb could amplify these moral messages, or in some cases insert one if Shakespeare himself was not clear. For example, in their adaptation of King Lear, the narrator comments on Kent’s unconditional loyalty, disguising himself to stay at Lear’s side: “See to what mean shifts and disguises poor loyalty is forced to submit sometimes; yet it counts nothing base or unworthy so as it can but do service where it owes an obligation!” This commentary turns Kent into a role model for youths who were expected to serve their ruler and country in the early nineteenth century. The contrast between good and evil also becomes stark in this version of the story, leaving little room for complexity or ambiguity among the characters.

Shakespeare purists may balk at the idea of altering his plays in this way. But it would not make sense to force children to read Shakespeare’s plays as they are written, full of obscure lines and bawdy humor. If one believes (like the Lamb siblings did) that experiencing Shakespeare can be beneficial to a person’s intellectual and emotional development, then some adjustments have to be made. Rather than seeing this as watering down or distorting Shakespeare, it may be more enlightening to see what some of the major strategies are in adapting Shakespeare for young audiences. Through this process, we may learn what a given society values in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as what values we think Shakespeare’s plays could potentially reflect.

The first strategy is to simplify the stories. Shakespeare’s plays often involve a large cast of characters entangled in multiple plots. This can be especially challenging to newcomers to Shakespeare, so it is important to cut and streamline when you can. The King Lear story in Tales from Shakespeare omits the Gloucester plot entirely, putting the focus entirely on Lear, his three daughters, and Kent. Edmund is still the villain of the story, responsible for Lear and Cordelia’s imprisonment. But his betrayal of his half-brother and father is not mentioned at all—also conveniently removing the gruesome scene in which Gloucester is blinded.

Brokaw’s Much Ado About Quite A Lot also condenses Much Ado About Nothing into just the essentials. In addition to the four main lovers, there is only one actor required to play the Tour Guide—serving a similar function as the Lambs’ narrator. The cast of five also plays some of the minor roles needed to tell the story, but significant characters such as Don Pedro and Leonato are left on the cutting room floor. These cuts are partly necessary to shorten Shakespeare’s two to three-hour drama into a 40-minute production—something that even our youngest audiences could attend without growing restless. This is in line with the shorter length of children’s programs. The excellent BBC series Shakespeare: The Animated Tales (1992–94) condenses the plots of 12 plays into 20-minute episodes using stunningly beautiful hand-drawn and stop-motion animation.

The second strategy is to modernize the language. Of course, the point is to introduce children to Shakespeare, so some lines should be kept. Brokaw writes that one of the goals for the TYA show is “to teach our audience what it means to follow a script and let everyone hear real Shakespeare words–but not too many.” This is a common approach among adapters. Tales from Shakespeare include some dialogue from the play in quotation marks to give young readers a taste of the Shakespearean language while relying mostly on the narrator to convey the story more clearly. But modernizing Shakespeare is about more than just the language. Many of his plays now contain outdated views towards women, racial minorities, and the disabled, among other groups. If Shakespeare is to be used as an educational tool, these problems should be addressed in some way. In Much Ado About Quite A Lot, Brokaw gives Hero a voice that she lacks in Shakespeare’s play, allowing her to not only advocate for herself but also forgive Claudio’s wrongs on her own terms.

A Summer‘s Winter Tale, written by Nancy Steele Brokaw and directed by Lori Adams in 2021.

Granted, there are many productions of Much Ado About Nothing that attempt to highlight Hero’s journey without adding new lines to the play, instead of relying on allusion, nuance, and ambiguity. Thus, modernization Shakespeare does not have to be the only solution. But it seems that almost all children’s adaptations of Shakespeare attempt to iron out the ambiguity and give the plays clear resolutions, which is the third and final strategy I want to bring up. This is necessary because young audiences may not yet be ready to form their own conclusions about the plays. Rather than leave them in the dark or allow for misinterpretations, it may be better to guide them in a certain direction—which is what the Tour Guide in Brokaw’s adaptation does.

But also, conventions and expectations have changed considerably since Shakespeare’s time. As such, children today will inevitably understand Shakespeare’s stories through the books, plays, TV shows, and movies that they already know. And if most of these stories have clear moral messages and happy endings, that should be taken into account when introducing Shakespeare. After all, a TYA show like Much Ado About Quite A Lot is meant to be a gateway to Shakespeare, not a replacement. And even for audiences who are familiar with Shakespeare, it can be interesting to see how adapters boil a play down to its essence, to notice what a version for children keeps, cuts, and changes.