Tuesday, March 29, 2011

William Shakespeare (Usborne Young Reading Series 3) by Rosie Dickens.

The challenge of producing biographies of complex figures to younger audiences is demonstrated when writer Rosie Dickens has to tackle subject of William’s marriage to Anne. Dickens mentions that he seemed rather young to be married and that many thought she wasn’t the right match, but that they were in love, so much so that she might have inspired one of the sonnets. We’re then told that six months after the marriage, she gave birth, which is factually correct but of course, unavoidably might suggest to the reader that young Suzanna was born prematurely.

An inquisitive child, a Fred Savage in The Princess Bride type, would have all sorts of questions. But perhaps that’s fitting considering how much of Shakespeare’s life is a mystery, how a man whose grammar school education was curtailed managed to write himself and collaborate on over forty plays. The book is also relatively ambiguous on that point too with a suggestion William joined some travelling players who were passing through (having seen a similar group with his father as a child) but a note in the back to explain that no one really knows.

Having offered readers the chance to discover the stories behind the plays in series two, Usborne's series three presents “readers who are ready for longer stories” with a fictionalised account of Shakespeare’s life from schoolboy to oblivion, covering all the main points, the theatres, the career, playing for the queen, the plagues and quite surprisingly Essex’s protest production of Richard II and the destruction of the Globe. Throughout the book is sumptuously illustrated with photographs and paintings by Christa Unzner who brings a characatured Roald Dahl element to the story.

Mostly Dickens's work reads like a Target novelisation of John Mortimer’s Will Shakespeare with the homoerotic tension removed. Like that tv series, once William reaches London, there’s a real sense of the camaraderie amongst the plays, mainly Burbage and Kemp as they sit about like Enid Blyton characters trying to decide what they should do when life's knocks come their way, including the ingenious plan to dismantle the theatre and ship it across the Thames to become the Globe. Dickens also doesn’t shy away the darker elements of the period, the traitors heads piked on the entrance to the capital.

The book closes with a summary of William’s life, the aforementioned note about the omissions, a list of his works, or at least what the author considers the highlights (not Love’s Labour’s Lost apparently) and an index which is a useful addition even if important figures are included using their christian name rather than surname (Anne Hathaway appearing first). But all of that is to churlishly criticise a remarkable achievement in, like the Templar book, bringing a version of the life of Shakespeare to a young audience, who should be eager to learn more.

Young Reading Series 3: William Shakespeare (illustated by Christa Unzner) is published by Usborne. £4.99. ISBN: 9780746090022. Review copy supplied.

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