Wednesday, September 13, 2017

To read or not to read: Hamlet, illustrated three ways

I'm not certain that anyone reads Hamlet in high school anymore (at least as an assignment). I can think of many reasons why they should, including it being, hands-down, one of the best pieces of work written in the English language. Moody Danish Prince comes home from college because his father died, only to find out that his mom has married his dad's brother. I mean, that set-up alone is full of drama. But when Hamlet meets his father's ghost, and the ghost tells him that he didn't die of natural causes, but was murdered by the same dude who married his widow and took his throne? Well.

Throw in some additional plots - the uncle scheming to get rid of Hamlet, Hamlet meeting up with his girlfriend, whose father is a counselor to the king, a few additional murders (SO MANY MURDERS), and the plot is crazy good. As are so very many of the lines in the play. It's not limited to Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, which begins "To be or not to be, that is the question."

Now, I get that Shakespearean texts aren't always super easy to understand. And hey, these were supposed to be plays, acted out on stage in front of live audiences. Sure, you can watch movie versions -- the most faithful is probably Kenneth Branagh's version, which includes pretty much the full text, where other versions edit a bit, though my daughter especially likes the versions with David Tennant or Ethan Hawke, both of which are set in modern times (the latter being in New York City).

But if you need to read the play and think you might like some help in understanding it, may I recommend reading either the No Fear Shakespeare graphic novel or the Manga Shakespeare edition?

I'll explain the pros and cons of each version in the remainder of this post.

Hamlet (No Fear Shakespeare): Adapted and illustrated by Neil Babra. It claims to be a "translated" text. An easy-to-navigate version of the story of Hamlet in graphic-novel format. This version sometimes retains original Shakespeare quotes, but often summarizes and/or modernizes them (in addition to streamlining the plot). Still, it gives a decent version of the story rather quickly.

On the plus side, I had the distinct impression after reading it that I'd seen the play. And I can still picture the image of Hamlet lying on a couch with his head in Ophelia's lap. (The double entendres in that scene completely disappear in this version of the text, however.)

On the hypothetical down side, kids who read it might be tempted to quote from it, and they'd do so at their peril. Parts of it are the original Shakespeare--for instance, the line "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I" in the panel here--but a lot of it is restated. As in the other No Fear Shakespeare books, when the text is restated, it's not overly simplified (which is good), but may cause readers to think it's the original text (which could be bad if relied on for, say, a term paper).

Manga Shakespeare Hamlet: Illustrated by Emme Vieceli, it's a streamlined version of the play that uses authentic Shakespeare text throughout. Set in 2107, after global climate change has devastated the Earth, "now a cyberworld in constant dread of war." Introductions to the chief characters are in color up front, and each of them is accompanied by a piece of text from the play that sums up some essentials of their character. And y'all should see what Ophelia's got on. Oh wait--I can show you.

That would be "Ophelia, daughter of Polonius" on the left, and "Horatio, scholar and friend of Hamlet" on the right.

After the introductory pages, the remainder of the volume is grayscale. The story is told using snippets of actual text from the play, and I found it to be highly effective.

Finally, there is Shakespeare's Hamlet: The Manga Edition, which is adapted by Adam Sexton and drawn by Tintin Pantoja. The cover is full color, but the entire inside is greyscale.

As with the Manga Shakespeare edition, the plot is streamlined and the full text is not inside, but any text used is actually Shakespeare's. It's set in more historic times, with Horatio depicted as a person of color.

Here's an inside spread:

If I had to pick just one of these three versions, I'd go with one of the manga editions. I think the depiction of the action is clear in both, and the use of original text works.

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