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8 December 2021updated 09 Dec 2021 9:46am

Ben Okri: Long before I encountered them as plays, Shakespeare’s narratives were part of my imagination

Charles and Mary Lamb did something amazing when they retold Shakespeare’s plays for children: they made available to kids like me some of the most moving stories at the heart of a culture.

By Ben Okri

I have always loved reading fables and legends. For as far back as I can remember I have read books of mythologies. I think to go from reading comics to myths is a natural progression. If I were to trace the books that I enjoyed most as a child I would have to say that it wasn’t any of those stories written by a single author, nor was it any of the classic childhood texts (though some of those played their part), but those books that gathered tales from the treasure house of stories from ancient lands. It is a shame that they didn’t compile the Egyptian myths for children earlier. And in schools in London no one taught African myths and legends. I had to wait till later, on our return to Nigeria, to encounter those in their purest form of oral tales.

In London, growing up, I had to make do with Greek myths. Or Shakespeare. Charles and Mary Lamb did something amazing when they retold Shakespeare’s plays for children and had them illustrated. They made available to kids like me some of the most moving stories at the heart of a culture, told as if they really happened. Long before I encountered them as plays, Shakespeare’s narratives were part of my imagination. They were tales of sad kings and banished princes, of star-crossed lovers and midsummer night enchantments, of people who loved too well and fathers who made wrong choices, of caskets and poisons, of twins and shipwreck.

More than the richness of the language, the primal power and range of the stories, which encompass so many permutations of being human, seem to me to lie at the heart of the Bard’s genius. He told stories that could thrill the heart of a child. Even in their retelling they were not destroyed but made more real. I would read them as a child when I was supposed to be asleep. Would read them deep into the night. And then have dreams about them. For me the best readings were the ones that gave you good dreams afterwards, as if they woke up your own storytelling faculty: story awakening story, at the threshold of life, preparing one for all the tumult, the adventures, to come.

Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb (1807)

“Every Leaf a Hallelujah” by Ben Okri, illustrated by Diana Ejaita, is published by Apollo

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This article is part of our “The children’s books that shaped us” series. Read more reflections from our writers here.

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