16th March 2001 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE COLLECTION MacBETH. Retold by Anthony Masters.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM. Retold by Clare Bevan.


ROMEO AND JULIET. Retold by Rebecca Lisle. Hodder amp; Stoughton pound;8.50 each.


ROMEO AND JULIET. TWELFTH NIGHT. Retold by Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore. Heinemann pound;3.50 each.

Shakespeare wrote for stage performance, mainly in verse, in language of unsurpassed variety and power. Prose retellings of his plays are a curious literary breed because they jettison all the elements that compose his greatness and retain only the stories (which he usually pinched in the first place). At their best they are Shakespeare's bones without the flesh.

Nevertheless they have a long and sometimes distinguished history, given a new lease of life by curricular demands onEnglish which insist on deference to the master.

Shakespeare without Shakespeare has grown into a practical teaching necessity, which both these series seek to cater for. Their methods are almost identical.

Each series opens with a doule spread of illustrated "characters", as if what followed were a play. There follows a short and simplified prose narrative, which incorporates a few perfunctory snippets of original Shakespeare at his easiest, and other bits of dialogue which are lightly paraphrased from the play text. The rest is modernised storytelling.

The books are designed as stories for the primary age range, and an aid to study of the actual Shakespeare texts for older children.

Plot-guides can certainly be useful. The Shakespeare Collection even has a series consultant from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kathy Elgin, who has "expertly checked" the stories.

Her job sounds enviably easy, but perhaps it was influential, because the Shakespeare Collection is the better series of the two.

A good retelling can catch the mood and spirit of the original, and these little books are successful in this respect, with especially high marks for Clare Bevan's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Heinemann series is even simpler, and takes more liberties with Shakespeare, yet by comparison its effect is dull.

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