Saturday, December 15, 2007

I tell thee, churlish priest -

Here's a snippet of one of my recent rough pages for Hamlet. It shows Laertes at his sister Ophelia's burial, pleading with the priest to give her a decent funeral service. The priest refuses, on the basis that Ophelia's death was "doubtful" - ie, she may have committed suicide.

In a subsequent panel we see Laertes lose his temper (just for a change) and tell the "churlish priest" that "a minist'ring angel shall my sister be when thou liest howling".

Noone really knows what Shakespeare's views on faith and religion were, but from his writing he doesn't appear to have been vociferously religious. Given England's merry-go-round of changes from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again that characterised his century, and all the attendant persecution of whoever wasn't on the right side at any given moment, I can imagine the clear-eyed Mr Shakespeare looking on and judging religion to be a terrible - and not very funny - joke. Though I would also accept the charge that I am at least partly projecting my own views onto him!

In any case, the priest in this scene gets no sympathy from Shakespeare. And I had a lot of fun with his portrayal as a dessicated, haughty-looking thing, obsessed with form and dogma and deaf to actual human suffering. Because my little creatures are actually actors playing the parts of the characters, I also decided to give the priest's role to the same actor who plays the second clown or gravedigger, just for a bit of fun. The gravediggers appear in the pages immediately preceding the funeral scene, so the rapid switch from "straight man" clown/workman to supercilious priest is all the more amusing. In rough form the gravediggers look like this:

The first gravedigger (who gets all the best lines) is partly inspired by my husband, the Big Squid. I like the idea that he is the only character in the play happily untouched by tragedy. But for the record, the Big Squid does not have three eyes, and is far more handsome than this!

Speaking of Hamlet adaptations, my mate Greg Gerrand, googler extraordinaire, recently sent me a link to yet another manga-style adaptation of Hamlet. Happily, it is better than the one that is out in the shops at the moment. The "Self-Made Hero Manga Hamlet is pretty horrible. It's set in the future/in space, which wouldn't necessarily bother me in itself, but I really cringed at how brutally it chops up the text. And the art... well, it's pretty ugly. Here's an excerpt from a review:

[the reviewer compares one of Hamlet's soliloquies with the chopped version in the Manga edition, and then writes:]

Shorn of the allusion to classical antiquity and the scathing critique of Elizabethean actors, Hamlet’s speech has been reduced to an action plan for gauging Claudius’ guilt. It’s a fair gloss on this very famous soliloquy, I guess, but one that misses the beauty and richness of Shakespeare’s language.

Perhaps these editorial decisions would be less distasteful if the artwork was well executed. Alas, poor Yorick, it’s awful. The panels are a jumbled mess; the characters’ appearances vary considerably from page to page; the figures are posed without regard for anatomy or proportion; and the backgrounds are virtually non-existent.


By now, I’m sure there are a few librarians, educators, or high school students who are reading this and thinking,
This woman just doesn’t get it. These books make Shakespeare accessible to students who might otherwise find the material too daunting. But to be useful as pedagogical tools, adaptations must illuminate an aspect of the original that’s difficult for modern audiences to understand. In the case of Shakespeare, it’s the language, not the basic plotlines, that poses difficulty for most readers. If your illustrations for, say, Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech simply show him looking pensive, then you haven’t added anything of explanatory value to the original. [my emphasis - NG] Shakespeare is especially tricky in this regard because so much of the action takes place off stage. Reaction and reflection lend themselves nicely to soliloquies, but are difficult to capture in pictures. Students would be better served by renting a good filmed version of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet than reading these manga treatments, as a film not only shows us what’s happening, but allows us to hear the emotions and sentiments behind language that sometimes confounds modern ears.
I absolutely agree with this. The enormous challenge of adapting Shakespeare in illustrated form is to allow the incredibly rich language to sing, as it would on stage, and then to add something more in the visual interpretation - something that draws out the meaning of the words, conjures up ideas, and explores the allusions and echoes in the language. And of course, you want the characters to be personable and believable in themselves, in their emotions and in their interactions. This is a big ask - it's like mounting a stage or screen production, but with the huge limitation of being restricted to ink on a page, without the benefit of sound or real, continuous motion! To mention just two of the challenges, timing must be handled carefully, and layout and transition are extremely delicate juggling acts. There are, of course, ways in which an illustrated adaptation allows greater freedom than a stage adaptation, in that the "special effects" that you can add (showing what is happening inside people's minds, for example) are limitless. I am finding the process absolutely fascinating.

The new Manga Hamlet by Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja looks better than the Self-Made Hero one, from the few pages shown on this website. I must admit that the manga aesthetic is not really my cup of tea, but the art in this adaptation is definitely more appealing than the Self-Made Hero one. And the text seems to be less badly butchered. I'll be interested to have a read when it comes out.


b1b2 said...

You're absolutely right Nikki (as was the reviewer that you quote). As a teacher I frequently use film versions of Shakespeare in order to illuminate aspects of the text (and Hamlet is particularly well served by a number of great film versions). But I'm not going to use a graphic adaptation simply for the sake of it adding a few pictures -and I can think of some recent awful graphic novel adaptations of Macbeth and The Tempest that completely missed the mark in this regard. You do need it to be adding something, as you say, and it's not an easy job to do this, which is why I've been particularly excited by the sneak peeks I've had of your work on Hamlet...

Nicki Greenberg said...

Hey, thanks B1 (or wiould you be B2?).

I recently read a fascinating book called Modern Hamlets and their soliloquies by Mary Z Maher. It goes through a number of famous Hamlets of the 20th century and describes in detail each one's approach to the role in general, and particularly to the soliloquies. The author did extensive interviews wherever she could, but also used reviews and other archival material. Very worthwhile, and a real stimulus for thinking differently about the process of adapting/interpreting (and importantly, as you say, "illuminating") a role - whether for live performance or in pictures.

On the topic of cartoon Shakespeare, I'd be very interested to know your thoughts on the Ian Pollock King Lear. I loved the pictures but have mixed feelings about the adaptation. But for Oscar Zarate's Othello, well, I stand up and applaud!

b1b2 said...

That Maher book sounds absolutely terrific. I'll have to get my hands on that. Unfortunately the Melbourne Uni library doesn't appear to have it. Might have to resort to The Book Depository...

I still haven't got onto the Pollock Lear or Zarate's Othello despite your recommendations, so I've only had the glimpses from online preview pages.

Completely Shakespeare-unrelated, though, I've been reading two brilliant graphic novels recently that I highly recommend you check out: Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories and Laika by Nick Abadzis. Check out the next Viewpoints for a review of the latter.

Blair (B2)

karen wenborn said...

It's brave of me sticking my head over the parapet here.....we've just produced our second graphic novel, this one is Macbeth. Three text versions, the first, Original text, complete and unabridged.
let me know what you think!