Shakespeare is full of paradoxes. He wrote for a mass public but has become high culture, didn’t keep his manuscripts yet First Folios are now priceless, was a glove maker’s son but understood kings and courtiers, was a social outsider who became part of the establishment.
Genius leaps boundaries and it is surely Shakespeare’s ability to mix the high with the low that is one of the reasons his work has lasted through four centuries and is still able to find new audiences and fresh interpretation. He was at root a popular entertainer. He wrote as much to please the groundlings as the nobility and in late Tudor times a third of all Londoners visited the theatre every month. People flocked to see his plays in the same numbers they hustled to see bear baiting, cock fights and duels – often in the same theatres and on the same bill.
So the idea of presenting his work in comic book format wouldn’t have seemed that strange to him. If it were merely the etiolated expression of a long ago elite culture, it wouldn’t have survived. His plays are full of the fizz, crudity and knockabout associated with traditional comic art – and much of his work balances the austere and grand with humour. Lear has his fool, Macbeth’s murder of Duncan is followed by the drunken Porter and Juliet’s expressions of love are offset by Mercutio’s obscene raillery.
The comic book format isn’t just another medium through which to present Shakespeare’s work. It happens to be a particularly good one precisely because inherently visual. A live performance is always the best way to understand Shakespeare’s genius, but an illustrated presentation gives some sense of theatrical performance. This is a point appreciated by award winning writer Naomi Alderman when on BBC Radio 4 she said of the Shakespeare Comic Book Series, ‘Amazing… It’s really like a staging of Shakespeare… You can take it at your own pace… for things like Shakespeare where you really want to be focusing on the words but at the same time seeing the staging – it’s just the perfect form for that.’
Being in a comic doesn’t suddenly make Shakespeare’s text less profound or meaningful, though it might make it more accessible to many students. It’s true the original has been edited, but almost any stage production will edit in places – a full length production of Hamlet would last more than five hours and few these days would have the endurance for that. It is doubtful that even Tudor or Jacobean audiences ever saw the play in its entirety. Editing can be helpful, especially when key scenes and speeches have been preserved.
As well as the edited Shakespeare text, Shakespeare Comic Books also offer a modern English translation. This is important. Much of Shakespeare remains easy to understand. Quite a lot of it is challenging but becomes comprehensible after much scratching of head, chewing of lip and consultation of dictionary. Some of it is utterly unintelligible and about which academic experts fail to agree.
It’s not fair to expect school students to tackle that sort of linguistic demand. It’s also not sense. Students baffled and off-put by the seeming complexity of Shakespeare’s language may turn away from it altogether. Students supported in their understanding by a modern English translation may begin to discover the wonder of his verse.
The Shakespeare Comic Books Series is helping to bring Shakespeare alive for the next generation. It’s not definitive, but it’s a brilliant place to start – or as teacher Helen Reynolds put it, an ‘ideal introduction to Shakespeare.’
More information at www.shakespearecomics.com or on 01691 770165