July 2007

Shaun Manning


Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet illustrated by Emma Vieceli and Rome & Juliet illustrated by Sonia Leong

There's something really inspired about the idea of setting Shakespeare's most famous plays in the popular manga format. SelfMadeHero's books allow for a new interpretation of the Bard's works, presenting Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and soon, The Tempest and Richard III in compact, accessible, and affordable volumes for teenage readers and curious Shakespeare enthusiasts. The translation from stage to shonen is not entirely smooth, and as with any interpretation there are cuts made that audiences may approve or denounce, but it is quite astonishing how much can be successfully translated into a genre-appropriate context without altering the original dialogue.

Of the initial offerings, Romeo & Juliet is by far the better read in the way it is presented. Themes of love, jealousy, and rivalry work as well in a present-day manga environment as they would have done in Shakespeare's Globe. And artist Sonia Leong's character design is fantastic, particularly for Mercutio and Tybalt. Leong also makes good use of “chibis” and manga faces, fun and expected devices which are nearly absent from Hamlet. The only questionable aspect of Romeo & Juliet is the introductory note stating Romeo is a pop idol -- there is, of course, nothing in the text to support this, but more importantly our hero is never shown in the manga itself doing anything rockstar-like. Skipping over that bit, the rest of the story is fluid and coherent.

The issue of context is a greater challenge in Hamlet. The adaptation sets the story in the year 2107, complete with cyberpunk technology. This would be brilliant if the adapters could slide this seemlessly in. But what we have is characters in fancy dress plugging little tubes into their necks or hands without any indication of what they hope to gain by such. For the transition to futurism to work, the visual cues would have to be much stronger. That said, the costumes are quite good. And since the Shakespeare's dialogue is so stirring, particularly in Hamlet, this is pretty much automatically going to be a good manga to read. One hopes it will be read aloud, maybe with the players striking the dramatic (or fey) poses illustrated here throughout.

Any performance or adaptation of Shakespeare's plays will choose to focus on certain aspects at the expense of others. Still, some of the choices in the initial Manga Shakespeare titles are puzzling. The “thumb-biting” exchange in Act I, Scene I of Romeo & Juliet, which teenagers seem to love and would make excellent material for manga, does not appear in this edition, and the rival servants' dialogue that is presented is spliced together rather jaggedly. Also, seeing as there is great precedent for the visual style of an “old fool” in manga, it was a surprise to see that the creators did not use such a character for Polonius; but then, Manga Hamlet is a gloomy affair, divorced of nearly all the humor old Will put in the original. Hamlet's never going to be a comedy, but ignoring or playing down bits that might get a laugh seems an unfortunate course.

There are other problems in the interpretations, though, that go somewhat deeper. More than once it is unclear whether the adapters understand their source material. The most crucial example is the episode of Hamlet coming upon his uncle in prayer. Hamlet sees the opportunity to avenge his father's death, but realises that killing Claudius just after confession would “send this same villain to heaven.” Instead, Hamlet resolves to wait until the king has sinned again, thus damning him to hell. But the manga misses out the opposition of heaven and hell entirely, placing the crux on Hamlet saying “no” and there lowering his sword, several lines later than the decision ought to have been made. In this presentation, it appears Hamlet has the opportunity for revenge but simply can't be bothered.

It may be that half the challenge of reading Shakespeare is the daunting prospect of “reading Shakespeare.” Visuallizing the plays through manga may ease the way, and allow varied audiences to appreciate the poetry of the dialogue without expending all their concentration sorting out just what's going on. Shakespeare's plays work as pretty good manga; and if the books lead readers to attend performances of the plays and form their own opinions on better and worse interpretations, so much the better. As the pilot for SelfMadeHero's Manga Shakespeare series, Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet have a lot to offer and a lot more to promise.

Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet, illustrated by Emma Vieceli
196 pages

Manga Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet, illustrated by Sonia Leong
196 pages