I’ve used this before, but the internet needs more reverse trap Hamlet.
I have an unsubstantiated theory that any boys who encounter Hamlet during their adolescence will become slightly obsessed with the play. It is very easy to read Hamlet as a misanthropic, withdrawn and rather ‘emo’ teenager, and – though this would seem very alien to the original audience, who lacked the concept – it’s no surprise that 21st century teenagers identify with him.
You can probably detect the voice of personal experience here, though I no longer identify with Hamlet in quite that way. For a start, although his age is much-disputed, there is textual evidence for a rather older Hamlet. And withdrawn teenagers are, for the most part, boring. But the obsession itself is harder to escape; to this day, productions of the play have me reaching for my wallet with the same irrational fervour that others use for figurines. (‘Ooh, look! A 1:8 Ophelia, “distracted, playing on a lute, and her hair down, singing“!’)
And so it is that we come to Self Made Hero’s ‘Manga Shakespeare’ version of Hamlet. It’s a strange (though hardly the strangest) concept. Curiosity drove me to buy it. But is it manga? Is it Hamlet? And what’s it actually like?
If you’re rushing off to find scanlations, don’t bother, because this is not a Japanese initiative. ‘Not Japanese?’, I hear you ask. Well, yes. It’s drawn (left-to-right) by Emma Vieceli and the text was adapted by Richard Appignanesi.
But it looks like manga – unlike Cliffs Notes’s effort, which apparently looks pretty occidental – though what can you expect from a company which has been a ball-and-chain on individual thought for fifty years? – and I think that’s enough for me. Just my preferred definition of poetry is ‘text where the author, not the publisher, decided where the lines end’, so with manga I go by appearances. Wikipedia tells me [!] that ‘manga’ merely denotes ‘comics’ in Japan, and certainly, judging by Vieceli’s own account of her time spent promoting this in Japan, the Japanese themselves aren’t necessarily concerned with its origins.
To my surprise, the text is Shakespeare’s own, although it’s a cut version with sound effects and the occasional one-sentence caption to introduce a scene. There’s also the addition of emphasis in the lettering, which leads to some interesting choices:
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, enterprises lose the name of action.
But then, Shakespeare’s text on its own isn’t really much fun; it needs to be brought to life by someone.
Merely reading the text of a play is akin to holding a conversation with a skeleton. Living people are more entertaining than bones and Hamlet is much more fun when performed or, for that matter, drawn. Cutting the text is also not, per se, a problem, as Hamlet - with three available texts and well over four hours worth of dialogue – ought to be cut in performance for the audience’s sake. And the Manga Shakespeare textual consultant (de Somogyi) is something like a proper scholar, with experience editing Shakespeare for proper texts, and indeed he probably has proper letters after his name and all.
Still, this much excision is pushing it. Unlike a play in performance, you can pause a comic, put it down and do something else, like spending time with those loved ones who see you once a month when you come out of your hikikomori refuge. I suspect that this volume is aimed at fourteen-year-olds who appreciate manga but certainly don’t appreciate the Swan of Avon.
Actually, judging by the promise on the back cover that this is ‘a cutting-edge adaption that will intrigue and grip its readers’ it might be for the parents, teachers and librarians concerned about said fourteen-year-olds. And it’s true that not every teenager has the stamina for large chunks of anything in one innings. I’d like to think, however, that Hamlet is more Test match than Twenty20, and so I’m going to have to dock points for over-zealous pruning.
I’m no judge of the visual – only five of my posts, including this one, are in the ‘review’ category – but I enjoyed reading this. That’s significant: Shakespeare’s text is very good, but I wouldn’t read a cut version for pleasure, so the fact that I did enjoy this suggests that the art succeeds in adding something. There’s a lot more white space on the page than I’m used to. This lends an apt tenuousness or instability to the scenes of intrigue and in particular to the Ghost, but can sometimes look like simple wastage. The character designs could also be accused of being a bit workaday: Claudius is bald (ergo Machiavellian), Polonius is monocle’d (ergo pompous), and so on. In general, though, it was nice to look at, which is about the most incisive visual assessment I can offer.
Settings for Shakespeare adaptions need to add something (see the ’95 film adaption of Richard III for a great choice of setting) and this manga’s choice of a cyber-Denmark has potential but isn’t exploited. A great deal more could have been done with electronic surveillance – the play is full of people watching other people – but the opportunity was lost. Still, cyber-Denmark is probably preferable to the option of manga-styled characters in Jaco-bethan clothing, which would have seemed odd at best, and Kurosawa already took the corrupt company option in The Bad Sleep Well.
The interactions between manga tropes and the text were perhaps what I enjoyed most. Hamlet’s ‘Lady, shall I lie in your lap?’ exchange with Ophelia is a new (or old?) spin on the lap pillow which seems to be a standard move in manga’s mating game (though, sadly, the scurrilous ‘country matters’ were cut). Similarly, sprays of flowers and petals appear behind Ophelia, in what looks like a standard technique from the shoujo toolbox. Standard, that is, until we reach her madness and death, at which point the flowers become Serious Business.
These interactions aren’t the product of the art, or the setting, but of the idea itself, the idea of Hamlet in manga form. But the form will always be a limitation too: like a movie adaption, a comic book is never going to be as visceral an experience as watching a live performance. Vieceli’s Hamlet is quite good, and I enjoyed it despite not being much of a manga reader, and despite the truncation of the text, but it could never be as carnal, as bloody and as unnatural as I like the play.