The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VIII. Lamb

§ 4. Tales from Shakespear

Tales from Shakespear have had a very different fate. They belong to a type of literature requiring gifts which are seldom found in perfect proportion. The tale must attract the reader for its own sake; but its object is missed unless it attracts him further to study its source. In this case, the task was all the more difficult because the originals are the highest achievements of dramatic poetry. Shakespeare’s language had to be interwoven with the story and demanded a selection of phrase which would arrest a young reader’s attention without overtaxing his intelligence. The familiarity with old literature which Mary had acquired in Samuel Salt’s book-closet and Charles had improved in the library at Blakesware stood them in good stead. They were still able to bring to the plays the impressions of childhood, to reproduce in simple prose the phrases that had awakened their imaginations and to supply that commentary upon characters and incidents which a child needs, without over-burdening the easy narrative. It is not too much to say that the collection forms one of the most conspicuous landmarks in the history of the romantic movement. It is the first book which, appealing to a general audience and to a rising generation, made Shakespeare a familiar and popular author and, in so doing, asserted the claims of the older literature which, to English people at large, was little more than a name. The Adventures of Ulysses, written by Lamb alone and published by Godwin in 1808, was a further experiment in the same direction, founded upon Chapman’s translation of the Odyssey, and suggested by the popularity of Fénelon’s Aventures de Télémaque. In the qualities of simple style and narrative, it is a worthy successor to Tales from Shakespear. It has not achieved, however, an equal reputation. While Tales from Shakespear is drawn directly from an original source abounding in human interest, The Adventures of Ulysses is an attempt to familiarise readers with a poem which, with all its beauty and vigour, is merely a reflection, often disturbed and imperfect, of the special qualities of the Odyssey. Apart from purely literary considerations, both books are a valuable testimony to the purity and simplicity of Lamb’s character. The bright visions of youth were still strong enough to chase the shades of the prison-house which had threatened Lamb’s early manhood. Further, Mary Lamb’s contributions to Tales from Shakespear prove that her sound judgment, in the normal state of her reason, was not a mere figment of an affectionate brother’s imagination.