The Lambs and their Shakespeare

Chalres and Mary Lamb were brother and sister and lived when the Regency was morphing into Victoriana. Charles was known as the most lovable figure in English literature.

In case you need a reason to accept this,

In the autumn of 1796, at the age of 21, (he) came home from his desk at the East India Company to find that his sister, Mary, had stabbed their mother to death in a mad seizure.

Charles was able to disarm his sister before she killed their father as well.

BTW, a bit of context here is appropriate.  A short time before this incident, Charles himself had suffered a mental breakdown and been in a private hospital. Mary lived with and had been  the primary care gier for their parents and aunt  for some time. Her mother suffered from severe pain probably from arthritis and her father had gone senile. And brother John had suffered an accident and moved in as well so that Mary could care for him too.  In other words, her insane rage did not arise out of thin air.

The story goes on

Young Charles Lamb had to persuade the parish to let him take responsibility for his sister for the rest of her days. Mary’s madness would recur briefly almost every year until her death in 1847. However, there remained enough good reason in her for brother and sister to collaborate on literary projects, possibly as a sort of therapy. Besides, from all accounts, Charles Lamb was exceptionally kind, extraordinarily free from affectation and blessed with an innate good humour. It seems that he accepted his fraternal duty without complaint, and channelled his own and his sister’s imaginative energies into literature, in particular the highly popular Tales from Shakespeare, a bestselling book throughout the 19th century.

This extraordinary story tells one quite a bit about the  sense of duty that Victorians felt was appropriate. Tough times? Yes. But no complaints. Just get on with it.

And the project that Charles and Mary Lamb took up is remarkable too for its victorian values. As you can read from the above link, the Lambs sought to civilize the work of Shakespeare. They omitted the dramas that were beyond the pale like Richard III, And they tamed the ones that could be shared with children. Tales from Shakespeare is that children’s book.

And there is one more thing. Lamb did not believe that Shakespeare was best experienced on the stage. The great bard was better read in book form. Perhaps one can manage one’s emotions better that way.  Sahkespeare tamed?

And why go on about this? Whatever one can say about the current period, it has its excesses. Is Donald Trump our  Prince Regent?  Perhaps so. We might be on the lookout then for 21st century Lambs.

Stay tuned.


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