Patrick Ryan,
Shakespeare's Storybook
(Barefoot, 2001)

Pretty much everyone knows William Shakespeare by name, and -- love him or hate him -- most of us have a general idea of the plots of his major plays. But what about Will? What stories were shared by and familiar to the Bard and his contemporaries back before Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and other tales were every schoolchild's bane?

According to Patrick Ryan, Shakespeare grew up hearing many of the same stories we did. His plays, brilliant and enduring as they are, were not cut solely from the broadcloth of Shakespeare's rich imagination. The poetry was his, as were many intricate plot twists and character developments. But the frameworks of many of his plays were based on old, common folktales that had been passed down for generations, told over fires and in taverns, and published in some of the early story collections of the day.

Ryan resurrects some of those stories in Shakespeare's Storybook, a children's book that is equally interesting for adults. Seven plays, briefly described at the beginning of each chapter, are followed by their antecedents. The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, bears a great deal of resemblance to "The Devil's Bet," an old Irish yarn that has the added element of a water demon. Romeo & Juliet comes in various forms from many sources, including sad legends in Scotland, France and Italy. It is retold here as "The Hill of Roses." As You Like It actually bears a similarity in some ways to Snow White in "Snowdrop." And, while "Ashboy" is very much like Shakespeare's Hamlet, the protagonist is a dim-witted lad who benefits from the clever aid of a beautiful princess -- and the end is markedly different. And a twist to the tale "Cap-o-Rushes" makes this King Lear antecedent veer in a direction very like modern renditions of "Cinderella."

The stories here are short. Each is preceded with a two-page introduction in which Ryan explains the various sources of his version and describes the parallels between Shakespeare and these earlier works that inspired him. Although obviously written for children's enjoyment, Ryan provides additional information at the end of the book so that adults and inquisitive young readers alike can research the subject more fully.

James Mayhew provides colorful illustrations throughout the slim volume. Thoroughly modern and nicely detailed, the full-page paintings and numerous smaller pieces evoke the feel of an Elizabethan storybook.

Whether or not you enjoy reading Shakespeare, anyone who likes a good folktale will enjoy Ryan's efforts here. As Shakespeare well knew, a good story deserves to be told and retold, and this book -- like Shakespeare's plays -- deserves to be read and read again.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 1 May 2004

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