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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Shakespeare gets comic treatment
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

The appetite of publishers for comic book - or graphic novel - versions of Shakespeare plays seems undimmed. But is this a valid way of introducing the Bard to new readers?

Cover of Manga Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet

One new UK publishing house, Self Made Hero, is offering "Manga Shakespeare" - cut-down versions of some of the plays, in a Japanese cartoon style.

They are drawn by established manga artists, the characters acquiring the typical big bright eyes and cute little noses of the form.

Its first productions are Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, with Richard III and The Tempest coming this autumn and others to follow.

Romeo and Juliet, the blurb explains, is set in modern-day Japan.

We are trying to make it accessible and through a medium that's increasingly popular with kids
Emma Hayley
Self Made Hero books
Can the youngsters' forbidden love survive "as violence, betrayal and tragedy explode on the streets of Tokyo?"

This explosion is rendered in the "Kang! Thnk! Whud" of samurai-style swords clashing and plunging through torsos in a splurge of gore.

The text is Shakespeare's, but abridged.

The Prince of Denmark now inhabits the "cyberworld" of 2017, when global climate change has devastated the planet.

Hamlet's famous soliloquy begins in familiar fashion, "To be or not to be ... that is the question", but then jumps to "To die, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream..." - completely dropping the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the sea of troubles.

These cuts were made by series editor Richard Appignanesi, founder of Icon Books who produced the Introducing Freud / Jung / Critical Theory volumes.


Self Made Hero's Emma Hayley said Shakespeare's language had been cut where the comic format could carry the story visually.

In addition, each work had had to be made to fit their standard 208-page paperback book format.

Cover of Classical Comics' Macbeth
Boys like combat, as my son puts it, and Shakespeare is excellent at providing lots of that
Karen Wenborn
Classical Comics
"Obviously you are going to lose some of the poetry of Shakespeare, that's inevitable, but we are trying to get youngsters interested.

"I can totally understand some people aren't going to like the cuts we made but those were just editorial decisions.

"We are trying to make it accessible and through a medium that's increasingly popular with kids."

She said feedback from teachers and organisations such as the Young Vic and Royal Shakespeare Company had been very positive.

In a "coals to Newcastle" twist she has been asked to talk about the books to Japanese academics and students.

"Not everyone's going to like them, particularly Shakespeare purists - I was ready for quite a lot of criticism - but on the whole they have been quite well received," she said.

And after all Shakespeare's works had not been written to be read but to be seen acted out. The flowing visual style of manga lent itself to that, even more than Western-style comic strips.

Variations on a text

Which is not to say those have had their day.

Another new publisher, Classical Comics, is working on full-colour comic versions of some of the plays, starting with Henry V and Macbeth, but taking a different approach to accessibility.

Each comes in three versions: original text, "plain text" and "quick text".

Macbeth, set in 1040, is billed as a "spectacular treatment of one of the greatest works of the Bard" which gives "a brand new and totally fulfilling view of the sheer genius of his story telling".

Publisher Karen Wenborn said the rationale behind the series, which also aims to include other writers beginning with Bronte and Dickens, was unashamedly educational.

The witches, as seen in Classical Comics' Macbeth
The witches, as seen in Classical Comics' Macbeth
Focus groups involving teachers had produced "incredibly enthusiastic" responses, she said.

The different layers of text meant they could use them across a class with children of differing abilities reading at the same time.

They had applications also in drama and media studies and to an extent history, particularly as regards costume and how people lived, she said.

Many of Shakespeare's plays also helped to engage boys in reading and writing.

"They like combat, as my son puts it, and Shakespeare is excellent at providing lots of that," she said.

Teachers appreciate any kind of help in making the plays accessible
Ian McNeilly
National Association for the Teaching of English
Guidance from Learning and Teaching Scotland says comics have often been dismissed as a medium in Britain, and are usually approached with caution by both libraries and schools as "somehow undermining literacy and morality".

But it says graphic novels can play an important part in encouraging reading amongst older students, especially young men and boys who make up most of the market - though this is changing with the increasingly popularity of manga.

English teacher Ian McNeilly agrees that such works are a good way of encouraging readers to engage with difficult language.

"Because Shakespeare is the only author we have to teach in the national curriculum, teachers appreciate any kind of help in making the plays accessible and enjoyable," he said.

"Also in Year 9 [age 14] a lot of young people's, even avid readers' experience of English generally and Shakespeare especially is influenced by these ridiculous Sat exams.

"From their inception to their marking they are an absolute nightmare."

But he does have concerns about alterations to the texts.

"It's the ones where the language is changed that you have to worry about because if you are just telling the plot, what's the point? - Shakespeare borrowed all the plots anyway."

That said, he says publishing is "a hard game" and people are not going to print stuff that is not going to sell.

And Ms Wenborn said: "For some of the children in a lot of classes the original language isn't ever going to be accessible.

"A lot of these books can be used for adult learning as well."

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