William Shakespeare, adapted by Richard Appignanesi & illustrated by Emma Vieceli, 196 pages, A5 softback book, Self Made Hero, £6.99. Available in high street bookstores or online stores such as Amazon.
Mole note: spolier alert for Hamlet! This article is best read if you already know the basic story and characters of Hamlet, either having read it, seen it on the stage or as a film etc.
So without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Kate…
Let’s look at Emma Vieceli’s Hamlet:
Hamlet, as I’m sure you’ve been told, is considered one of the greatest works of Literature that exists. Sadly Hamlet is often forced upon school children too young to appreciate it, causing a lifelong resentment of something that’s truly brilliant. Reading the dry text, I have to admit even with a degree in English Literature, can be a chore. To truly experience Hamlet, you need to see it. Because of this, I feel that reading the Manga Shakespeare adaptation is an excellent way to experience the story, as it is much closer to seeing it performed on the stage or on film.
It is important to remember, however, that all performances of Shakespeare plays are interpretations. This comic is an adaptation of the text. The dialogue has been condensed to two hundred pages, and illustrator Emma has made her own decisions about the setting and characters based on her interpretation of the text.
In this article, I will attempt to explain the comic adaptation from a literary perspective in plain English, and point out some interesting things. Since Emma Vieceli also has a degree in English Lit, you can be assured that this adaptation has been considered intelligently.
Hamlet is a tragedy. The definition of a tragedy is a story concerning the downfall and death of a character who is mighty and heroic, save for an unfortunate fatal flaw. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a noble man who is brought down by his own ambition (or possibly the ambition of his wife, depending on your interpretation). Hamlet is a particularly complex tragic hero. He becomes obsessed with bringing the truth to light, yet seems paralysed into inaction by his own inner turmoil. There is a lot of discussion about Hamlet’s age in Literary criticism. As a character, he is fascinating depicted as any age, but for a manga adaptation, I have to say I find Emma’s depiction of him as a dashing young adult bishounen quite pleasing! Emma’s Hamlet is less brooding than some depictions. She chooses to emphasise his quick wit, dark humour and his more active and flamboyant side. This works to great effect for the portion of the play in which he feigns madness, and makes him a strong, shounen hero you can root for in a sword fight. Hamlet is noted in the play for his dark, funereal mourning clothes, which he continues to wear some time after his father’s death, to the discomfort of the rest of the court, who are in wedding garb to celebrate his mother’s wedding.
Hamlet’s clothes are a statement of his disapproval of his mother’s rather early remarriage to her husband’s murderer, and Emma has given his look a rebellious gothic flair which really sets this off. Her Hamlet is a witty, swashbuckling rebel. Perfect, in my opinion, for a comic adaptation.
While we’re on the subject of casting, some other interesting things to note would include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being presented as twins. This is quite appropriate to the rather unnatural way in which the pair seem to act as one person. They are presented here almost as emotionless dolls and rather unsettling. This reflects their strange role in the play as seemingly unfeeling plot-movers. They eventually die offstage and their death is mentioned merely as a kind of side note.
Ophelia and Laertes deserve a mention, as Emma does a particularly good job of setting them up as very warm, loving siblings before tragedy strikes. Before her madness, Ophilia is portrayed as a very sweet, bubbly girl, and even playing in the river where she will eventually drown in a fit of insanity. By highlighting the comedy in the play, and the brief moments of happiness the characters find, this adaptation makes the tragedy more poignant.
You may not know that Hamlet was originally written as a History. All tragedies in Shakespeare’s day were based on history by tradition. They did tend to be rather loose adaptations of history, and often were based on legends with little actual historical basis, not to mention that they were hugely inaccurate through artistic licence. So Hamlet is based on a real Prince, Amleth, who lived in Denmark hundreds of years before Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare was an entertainer, not a historian, and so the details of the story bear close to no resemblance to what’s reported in history, not to mention, the details of life the characters discuss reference life as it was in Shakespeare’s time, not the period of the setting. I expect that the costumes would also have reflected contemporary fashions and not been based on those of Medieval Denmark. Since Shakespeare adapted his plays from the stories with so many licenses, I have no problems with any director or artist who does the same when adapting his plays. They are not written as accurate histories, so the setting should be created to reflect and emphasise the events and emotion of the play. In this case, the setting is dark, post apocalyptic cyberpunk.
The mixture of Gothic and Futuristic in the adaptation may feel a little jarring in places, but Hamlet is a play all about time being mixed up. It even contains the line ‘The time is out of joint’. There are many untimely deaths during the play, and the people of the present are haunted by ghosts of the past. Bones are dug up from the earth and casually tossed around. Nothing is allowed to just let lie in the story, as you’d expect since it starts with a dead king wandering around! The sparse, post-apocalyptic setting emphasises the hopeless feeling of the plot, and the theme of untimely death, by setting it in a dark and largely dead world. Another theme worth noting is information. The characters are constantly plugging themselves into information devices in this comic. Hamlet is a scholar, a man always searching for truth. The act of finding, searching and passing around information is shown in this adaptation through the futuristic setting, and it nicely complements the themes of how everybody is after information. The play begins with a question; “who’s there?” and revolves around a question, “to be or not to be”, and a plot to uncover the truth. By placing emphasis on the act of searching for truth as a physical action, the manga Hamlet makes the theme clear to the reader.
Overall, Hamlet is one of the most richly nuanced of Shakespeare’s texts, and any given adaptation may be very different from any others you have seen, almost to the point of feeling like a different play. The manga adaptation excels because rather than trying to portray a mere generic version of the play with fancy period dress, just going though the motions, it uses a setting, cast and visual metaphor to actually emphasise the important themes, as well as make the story feel like something belonging to the manga medium. Far from being just a dumbed-down ‘for teenz’ version, this is an adaptation which can be studied and analysed just as much as any film or stage production of the play. It’s well worth giving it a close read and taking time to notice the careful details and symbolism, especially if you’re using it as a study aid. If you’re not a Lit student, and just looking to enjoy your Manga Shakespeare books on a deeper level, try reading along with some study notes, which you can find online quite easily, and thinking about why the books chose a particular setting, as well as the depictions of the characters in appearance, age and personality. See how these versions compare to stage productions or films. You’ll find that you can keep coming back and noticing new things. That’s the magic of Shakespeare!
Many thanks to Kate Holden of IndieManga (aka. Darth Mongoose) for her time in writing this article on the Manga Shakespeare Hamlet from a more literary standpoint than I would be able to. The observant among you will have probably noticed that Kate also creates comics, in fact her webcomic Fan Dan Go has just rebooted from scratch today! So go check that out if you like the idea of some super colourful retro fantasy action.
If you liked this article then please say so! And I will try to get more points of view, or different takes, on more fantasic UK indie/small press comics in the future ^_^