For years, loyal readers know, I’ve been telling Shakespeare stories to my children. Sometimes as a bedtime story, sometimes by request, and sometimes to entire classrooms of elementary school children. Thus far it’s been fairly straightforward, and I’ve been able to tell most of them off the top of my head.
This month is got complicated. My daughter, at 11yrs old, is in middle school (sixth grade) and starting down the theatre road (she’s playing an orphan in their production of Annie next month). What’s interesting is that in the high school, just three short years away, they do Shakespeare. This year it’s Hamlet.
I thought, “I know! I’ll write up a Hamlet intro/guide/summary/cheat sheet that’s not just an off-the-top-of-my-head summary, but an actual short ebook that would be advanced enough for middle school kids to understand. My goal : a middle school student reads my book, then goes to see Hamlet, and actually gets a better experience because of it.” I even told my daughter that I’d have something for her, and that if we thought it was good enough, maybe she could forward it around to some of her friends. My true goal would be to go straight to her teachers, of course, and distribute it that way.
And here I sit, word processor at the ready, half a dozen attempts started and restarted. How do you summarize Shakespeare? At one end you just collapse it down to the essential plot line, leave out most of the interesting bits, and end up with something that could as easily be the Lion King. But at the far end of the spectrum you get something in the “modern English translation” category where you’re so afraid to leave out even a single bit that you go through the play word by word, “updating” it in the hopes of making it easier to understand? Does that ever work?
I’m looking for advice. I don’t want to do some sort of novelization where I’m reinventing setting and dialogue. I want to tell enough of the play, presumably to an audience that’s not yet seen it, that when they *do* see it they’ll recognize what’s going on and be able to pay attention to details that I’ve told them ahead of time to watch for.
Right now I’m going scene by scene, almost as if they were on flash cards. That at least gives me a baseline to treat the entire play on equal footing (rather than front loading it with all the introductory stuff and the whipping through other scenes too quickly). I’m not sure how that will format in the final version. I’d also like to something more character driven. I definitely believe in the “short attention span” approach, and would like to serve up Hamlet in a number of bite-sized, more easily processed bits. If my reader wants to absorb them in random order, that’s fine with me.
How would you summarize Shakespeare? Would you swing more toward the “less is more” side, cutting out everything that gets in the way? Or is every detail important, and it’s all a matter of how succinctly you explain them?