Michael Stewart’s Millennium Shakespeare is in this grand tradition, designed to attract young readers, not only by introducing them to the heightened language of Shakespeare, but also by encouraging their imagination with splendid visual representations of the subject matter. However, unlike Tales from Shakespeare and most of the successive volumes designed to introduce children to the works of England’s greatest poet, Millennium Shakespeare presents comprehensive narrative treatment of the entire Shakespeare canon.
Two hundred years had passed from Shakespeare’s time to that of the Lambs; and now another two hundred have gone by since that first attempt to interest and to educate young readers in the colossal scope and splendid diction of Shakespeare’s plays. Stylistic changes have occurred in publishing, set design, directing and acting. Shakespeare’s audience today is very different from the motley crowd that thronged into the Globe Theatre in the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
Therefore, no purpose would be served by separating our sense of Shakespearean drama from popular cinematic performances of such plays as Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, to mention but a few. Actors like John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, Kenneth Branagh, Gwyneth Paltrow and Derek Jacobi – to say nothing of the notable directors and costume and set designers – have had as much influence in shaping the popular imagination of notable scenes and characters from Shakespeare’s plays, as have the sketches and paintings of such artists as John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Arthur Rackham. Perhaps even more important in that respect are the hundreds of films that have been produced based on Shakespeare’s works. Indeed, it could be argued that William Shakespeare from Stratford upon Avon, who may never have ventured further from the village of his birth than London, is the most successful screenwriter in history. Many youngsters who have never seen a Shakespeare play onstage have seen Romeo and Juliet on film.
From the early seventeenth century to the beginning of the third millennium, Shakespeare’s literary reputation has flourished. But the competition for the attention of children, who – experts tell us – are all too often ‘reluctant readers’, is intense. We don’t need to be hysterical defenders of a canon inscribed in stone to want the next generation of students to know Shakespeare; but that knowledge must begin somewhere. If an introduction to Shakespeare is to be successful, it is unlikely to be in the setting of an academic symposium. Rather, children need a vehicle like Millennium Shakespeare to prepare them for the adult experience of discovering the work of what many consider the most gifted writer who ever lived.
Distinguished Professor of English
University of California, Riverside, CA, USA