A few excursions to the Globe have taught me that it’s a good idea to be acquainted with the plot of a Shakespeare play before seeing it performed – I mean, imagine being one of that handful of people that always leave half way through, presumably because they can’t follow what’s happening!
This is where the Manga Shakespeare series comes in. A useful cheat sheet, bridging the gap between text and performance, his most famous works, abridged and reimagined, in Japanese comic book form. Admittedly not for purists, the series is nonetheless a new and fresh take on the works of our most celebrated playwright.
Each edition opens with a full colour character list and has a convenient plot summary at the back for reference. At around two-hundred pages, they are a quick read and, as such, there can surely be no faster or more cost effective way to blag some Shakespeare expertise.
I finished The Tempest in a couple of short sessions on the train, The whimsical imagery of which lends itself well to the graphic novel format. As You like it was likewise a quick and delightful read and I am currently in the middle of Othello – the artwork of which is my favourite thus far.
My only reservations at this point are that the stories do occasionally feel a little chopped. The texts obviously have to be cut for the format, but it seems clumsy in places – similar to when a movie has been obviously edited for length.
Manga and Shakespeare…
I’m no expert on Manga, but the illustrations are fantastic and really give a sense of action. The characters are expressive and everything has the illusion of movement. Most of the background settings have been re-envisioned (Manga Macbeth is set in a post-apocalyptic Japan, for example) to make them more appropriate to the style. The three editions I own are illustrated by three different artists and each have their own nuances and build their own atmosphere.
Setting any snobbery aside, as all Shakespeare productions are, after all, interpretations, the series works really well. Despite being heavily cut, the words and images form a cohesive story. My only quibble is that, aside from a few colour pages in the intro (which look incredible), everything is in black and white, as is the tradition with Japanese comics. It seems a shame as the opening pages look so good, the following monochrome ones seem a bit drab.
All in all, Manga Shakespeare editions are fun and easy to read, providing an accessible way to approach The Bard’s work. Highly recommended, but only as a starting point – Nothing can beat seeing the plays as they were intended: in performance.