By Hilary Levey Friedman
It has been said that the Bard’s words can be applied to any human situation. James Andrews, a British humorist, puts that to the test in Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting, just released in the United States. In a month full of planning and parties, this short book (155 pages) is a great way to wind down, reflect, and chuckle as you head into a new year.
William Shakespeare had three children—first a girl and then twins, a boy and a girl. While he must have been familiar with the demands of children (including but not limited to dirty diapers, sleepless nights, teenage insolence, etc.) none of his works are devoted to the topic. Enter Andrews who organizes quotations from Shakespeare’s oeuvre into timeless and timely comments on parenting.
The book is divided into five acts that are roughly chronological. Act I focuses on newborns, so the issues here are evergreen. There is crying, breastfeeding, and calming. Of the latter Andrews pulls out a quote from The Tempest to apply to a father who tosses his child, with these words in a thought bubble above the baby’s head: “Prithee, do not turn me about. My stomach is not constant.”
And then, of course, there is the biggie, loss of sleep:
Notice that the drawings that accompany the quotes are very basic, which adds to the charm of Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting. The words are the stars, but the images do add to the sardonic tone that is pervasive throughout the volume.
That tone is evident as Act II begins, with a focus on the toddler years. Sleep remains an issue, as these two pages on “Up In the Night” illustrate with not one, not two, not three, but four lines from different Shakespearean works (both tragedies and comedies):
Act II also begins to take on some of the more modern challenges of parenting, like tantrums in supermarkets. Andrews and Shakespeare advocate for a denial approach, captured in this line from Much Ado About Nothing: “No part of it is mine; this shame derives itself from unknown loins.”
Acts III and IV continue to wind through way through childhood, both perennial and contemporary (car trips, sweets, hobbies, siblings, school refusing, and the list goes on), while the penultimate act, Act V, culminates with teenagers, who present new challenges.
For parents of female teens, there is this about clothing:
And for parents of male teens regarding food consumption:
Modern audiences need to keep a sense of humor when reading about punishments, and remember that Andrews is not advocating physical abuse or food deprivation, but rather cleverly using Shakespeare’s words (and even when taken out of context of a play, remember that disciplinary standards were quite different in the 1500s and 1600s!). For instance, a quote from Titus Andronicus regarding “smacking:” “You shall know, my boys, your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong.” And another from Titus about children who act improperly at the dinner table declares, “There let him stand and rave and cry for food.”
Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting draws exclusively from the plays, and does not include any lines from sonnets. You can imagine that the tone of the book would change quite substantially if it included lines like, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” as opposed to, “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me.”
The purpose of James Andrews’ illustrations and commentary in the end is to make you smile, and perhaps provide some reassurance for those days when you say to yourself in your head the line from The Tempest: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”
Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She has two good sons borne from her good womb.