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Shakespeare's Storybook: Folk Tales that Inspired the Bard (with two full-length CDs) Review by Tammy Walker

Patrick Ryan
Barefoot Books
2067 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140

Begin a story with "Once upon a time . . ." and watch your children's eyes widen. A simple tale told in an intriguing manner can easily captivate even the most apathetic of audiences. Several such stories have been told and reinvented from century to century and in many different cultures throughout the world. The masterful stories of William Shakespeare, himself, are tales gathered from many different sources and retold in the rich language and poetry for which he has become famous, a language sometimes inaccessible to very young minds. Yet, one might be surprised to see the similarities between Shakespeare's As You Like It and the children's fairly tale "Snow White."

Professional storyteller Patrick Ryan, desiring to find the sources behind many of William Shakespeare's plays, searched out stories from old books, visited libraries, and even read original books printed in Shakespeare's time. He discovered that Shakespeare's plays seemed to be related to old stories that had many different versions. He chose bits and pieces of stories that suited him and reinvented seven of the bard's famous plays in accessible language suited for children.

In "The Devil's Bet" (The Taming of the Shrew), beautiful Nora is grumpy, lazy, and quarrelsome. Taken by her beauty, a young woodsman decides he will civilize her and make her his wife. His cunning allows him to win her hand in marriage, but he has to work hard to win her heart. With the help of Nicky Nicky Nye, a water devil, and the woodsman's reminder to Nora that "soft words and a gentle touch win more than harsh words and mean tricks," he tames the grumpy maiden, and the two live happily ever after.

"The Hill of Roses" is Ryan's version of Romeo and Juliet. On either side of a hill covered with roses live two villages that are sworn enemies. Julietta must combat her brother, Tibbot, when he discovers she has fallen in love with Romeus, a young man from the enemy's village. There are battles, magic potions, feigned deaths, and, ultimately, the true deaths of the lovers because of the enmity between the two families. This great tragedy causes the villagers to make peace. They plant flowers on the hill to remind themselves of the cost of hatred.

"A Bargain Is a Bargain" (The Merchant of Venice) tells the story of two brothers--the older a wise, shrewd businessman, the younger a foolish, sensual creature. The younger squanders his money on a short-lived time of luxury and wants to borrow money from the sensible brother to win the hand of the duke's daughter. The older brother agrees, under the bargain that a pound of the younger brother's flesh shall be paid if the debt is not. The young brother manages to win the prize of the duke's daughter, but he loses that privilege when both he and his older brother are outwitted by the clever mistress. The younger brother remains a pauper; the older brother is disappointed but probably wiser; the duke's daughter is delighted that she will not be forced to marry after all.

"Snowdrop" (As You Like It) reminds the reader immediately of "Snow White," except it is a wicked, usurping king who tries to destroy the beautiful and innocent young maiden in this tale. When the king learns that Snowdrop has found refuge in the forest with a pack of thieves, he makes several attempts on her life (even with a poisonous apple!) until he finally succeeds. Thinking her too beautiful to bury, her friends place her in a glass coffin in which to rest. When the king sees his son adoring the seemingly dead maiden whom he has loved since childhood, the king pushes the coffin out of his son's hands in a rage. The jolt causes the poisoned piece of apple to fall from Snowdrop's mouth, awaking the princess. The son punishes the king and marries Snowdrop. The two, obviously, live happily ever after.

"Ashboy" is Ryan's retelling of Hamlet. As the story goes, the young prince is hated by his own mother and stepfather, the king (who has killed his real father). He is sent to his death via a secret note from his stepfather to another king. The note is intercepted by pirates, who take pity on the young boy and change the note to assert that the prince should be married to the recipient's daughter at once. The princess is privy to all that has transpired, and once she is married to Ashboy, the two of them make war upon the stepfather's kingdom, killing him and placing Ashboy's mother in prison. They live a happy and adventurous life.

"Cap-O-Rushes" is the story of Shakespeare's King Lear. When a king asks his daughters how much they love him, the third princess says "as much as salt." The king takes offense at this and has her banished. The princess finds work at a prince's palace cleaning pots and pans. When the prince holds a festival, Cap-O-Rushes retrieves her mother's hidden dresses by the river and secretly joins the festivities. By the third day of the celebration, the prince is taken by her beauty and insists on knowing who she is. He gives her a ring so that he may find her. When he is dying from lovesickness because she is in hiding, she decides to make him a special soup and place the ring within. Once he discovers his love, they are married at once. The marriage provides the opportunity for the princess to reconcile with her father, the king, who has come to the event not knowing it to be his own daughter's wedding. When she has the food prepared without salt and everyone complains, the king instantly realizes how much his daughter really did love him. The two are reunited, and all is well.

"The Flower Princess" (The Winter's Tale) introduces a hard-hearted king who many think will never find a wife. When he actually falls in love one day and marries, he grows jealous of his wife's doting on their daughter and has the young baby's cradle thrown into the river. The horrified queen then locks herself in the highest tower and feigns death. Meanwhile, the daughter is found and brought up by a young couple who care for another king's gardens. The king's son soon falls in love with her, but his father forbids him to consort with the servant girl. When the prince is pricked in the garden and falls into a deep sleep, the king is told that only Flora's kiss can revive him. Reluctantly, the king allows the kiss and then has poor Flora thrown into the sea once again. Flora miraculously ends up back in her own country, where the young prince ultimately winds up in his search for her. All are reunited in the tower when Flora's father discovers daughter and queen (who is not really dead), and the prince discovers his love.

This work is a very natural piece to add to any homeschool. Besides the timeless tales, the detailed artwork, and the lines from Shakespeare's plays written throughout the margins, each story is introduced by a summary of the Shakespearean play from which it is borrowed. Additionally, the original sources for Patrick Ryan's stories are listed in the bibliography. What a wonderful way to introduce little ears to tales written by the renowned poet and playwright, giving them the groundwork for eventually hearing the "real thing." This work makes a great read-aloud; the CD can be used at quiet time, in the car, or just as children are falling asleep. My children have enjoyed listening to the CD over and over. I am certain your children will as well.

Product review by: Tammy Walker, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, July 2008