Monday, March 28, 2011

The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (Notebook Series) by Ari Berk and Kristen McDermott.

The conceit behind this handsome volume is that in 1613, Shakespeare having written his final play, The Tempest, has decided to return to the country and compile a lavish scrapbook as a present for his daughter Judith, so that they look back on his life and work together. He describes for her his early childhood in Stratford, his move to London, his successes, the themes he’s interested in, and his friends, sanitising slightly the saltier aspects in that way a father might to even a twentysomething progeny who barely knows him, a tone which is about right for a book designed for older children.

Kristen McDermott and Ari Berk create a Shakespeare who wouldn’t seem out of place in one of his own plays. As the publisher’s note explains, they’ve deliberately laced the fiction with phrases from the canon and for the most part he speaks in the language of an in-costume tour guide at a tourist attraction, expositional without quite seeming like a real person. Once we accept this artifice the approach works very well and the authors do have some fun allowing adult readers to glance between the lines and what isn't mentioned because it’s not for young ears.

The design is perfect for children with an explorer instinct, a prefusion, even confusion of colourful illustrations and various flaps filled with even more information once opened, usually small books containing a synopsis of a play or contemporary knowledge and letters. The approach is similar to the RSC’s immortal Shakespeare: The Life, the Works, the Treasures which collects reproductions of the original documentation of the playwright hatches, matches and dispatches, but quite rightly for this audience the copperplate handwriting has been replaced with for the most part modern spelling and a clearer font.

It’s this surrounding material which really sells the book. We’re given recipes for stomach curdling dishes containing more dairy and sugar than seems fit for human consumption, gossipy biographies of courtiers to James I and there’s even a guide for young playgoers on the best etiquette for visiting the Globe, most of which is just as valid now. The biggest surprise is the willingness to use illustrative text from Shakespeare’s contemporaries rather than simply focusing on the cliches. Thomas Heyward’s The Four Prentices of London is quoted on the topic of avoiding work.

This life and times of William Shakespeare is perfect for the inquisitive child who wants to know more about the bard, perhaps having watched Shakespeare in Love or Doctor Who’s The Shakespeare Code, but too young for a proper full blown biography. It’s the romantic vision, a Wittington-like story of the son of a glove-maker heading to London to seek his fortune. Perhaps if I’d been given this book before venturing into the plays in secondary school, I might not have been quite so overawed. The fourteen year old version of me never quite appreciated Julius Caesar.

Ari Berk's website has an illustrative video.

The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (Notebook Series) by Ari Berk and Kristen McDermott is published by Templar. £14.99. ISBN: ISBN 978 1 84011 158. Review copy supplied.

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