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Historical Avant-Garde: How Marcia Williams Recreates Shakespeare’s Theater in the Comics Medium

By Russell McConnell

Scholars of Shakespearean adaptation overwhelmingly tend to celebrate and encourage radical modes of adaptation that transform Shakespearean drama to suit modern interests and tastes.1 The medium of comics has indeed made productive and fascinating contributions to the world of Shakespearean adaptation, and has tended to pursue innovative and interventional re-envisioning of the literature that it adapts.  A more neglected feature of comics adaptations, however, has been their ability not just to transform and modernize Shakespeare, but also to draw upon the unique features of the medium to reconstruct a historically accurate experience of early modern drama.  Although intended for young children, Marcia Williams’ Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays (1998) and Bravo Mr William Shakespeare (2000) are sophisticated works of comics art that are extremely attentive to the precise historical conditions of the early modern theater, not only in their depiction of the physical playing space of the Globe but, crucially, in their reconstruction of an early modern imaginative experience of attending a play in the London public theaters.  Williams’ work shows how the comic medium, in addition to its capacity for taking us into an endlessly unfolding future of radical and subversive Shakespeare, can also take us back to a historical theatrical experience that it is singularly well-equipped to create.

The State of Shakespearean Adaptation at the Present Time

In recent years, the dominant trend in Shakespearean adaptation studies has been joyous enthusiasm about how artists of the modern age are able to transform Shakespeare’s plays in ever more radical ways.  This enthusiasm represents a break from more traditionalist attitudes about adaptation that emphasize fidelity to an original text – a fidelity that binds actors, directors, readers, writers, and playgoers to a conservative practice of reading and performance.  Sometimes their complaint can be vividly poetic: Thomas Clayton refers to Jonathan Miller’s 1986 production of The Merchant of Venice as “reconstituted from the remains of Shakespeare’s Merchant surviving amputation” (519).  For Clayton, radical adaptation is not merely distasteful or misguided, but is akin to cruel mutilation.  This view stands in opposition to the emphasis on transformation and newness that tends to characterize modern adaptation studies.

The particular focus of my argument is Shakespearean comics, a mode of adaptation that may be seen as particularly offensive to certain traditionalist defenders, who sometimes perceive a special danger in the addition of visual elements to Shakespeare’s text.  Jay L. Halio, for example, argues that “the visual aspects of a production […] can so distract or distort that we find the connections between Shakespeare’s original and the current production too distant – so far removed, in fact, that we are compelled to reject the production altogether” (29-30).  Undoubtedly the most famous attack on literary comic book adaptations is that of Delmore Schwartz in his 1954 essay “Masterpieces as Cartoons” – a general assault on Albert Kanter’s Classics Illustrated series.  Schwartz maintains that comic-book adaptations of literary works will eventually render children unable and unwilling to engage with true literature, and he reserves particular vitriol for the series’ treatment of Shakespearean drama (53).

Such views, however, retain little currency now.  Modern Shakespeare scholars who study adaptation overwhelmingly tend to celebrate, rather than condemn, this tendency to break from strict fidelity to the source text, taking an attitude of pleased acceptance the addition or subtraction of material and the transformation of language and setting.  Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, in 2000, begin with the uncontroversial observation that “Adaptation as a material, performance practice can involve both radical rewritings, and a range of directorial and theatrical practices” (3).  From here they expand their conception of what constitutes adaptation to such an extent that they eventually regard even criticism itself as “a form of adaptive undertaking”; likewise textual editing can “seek to stabilize or destabilize texts” and therefore “literally adapt Shakespeare” (17).  Their outlook is cheerful and their stance reassuring: “Adaptation is,” they argue, “only an extreme version of the reworking that takes place in any theatrical production” (7).  Writing two years later, Douglas Lanier defends and promotes the practice of Shakespeare scholars studying adaptations, insisting that “what is often dismissed as Shakespearean kitsch ought to be taken seriously as on object of study” (3).  He identifies “Popular appropriations of Shakespeare” as “an important means by which notions about Shakespeare’s cultural significance is [sic] created, extended, debated, revised, and renewed” (19-20).  This list of verbs captures the spirit of newness and change that Shakespeareans praise and celebrate.  Stephen Purcell likewise celebrates the ever-expanding variety of Shakespearean adaptations, describing and celebrating the trend of “Popular Shakespeare,” which is “at once ubiquitous and elusive, spanning fringe productions, mainstream theater, the mass media, and indeed culture at large” (5).  Consistent with the values of the field, Purcell regards this multifariousness and elusiveness with positive pleasure.  Popular Shakespeare is uncontained, sprawling throughout culture, and signifying all over the place.  Purcell takes the theme of newness and transformation to a greater extreme than most, insisting that Popular Shakespeare “represents […] an interrelated assortment of shifts, in what the name of ‘Shakespeare’ means to us today” (5).  On this view, adaptation is not to be accepted and admired on the grounds that whatever adaptors do, the original Shakespeare remains safe and untouched; rather, adaptation is exciting because our very conception of what “Shakespeare” means may be transformed by it.

Transforming Shakespeare to suit the specificity of particular cultural contexts is especially important for Sarah Annes Brown, Rober I. Lublin and Lynsey McCulloch in their collection Reinventing the Renaissance, which aims to “reveal the multiplicity of ways in which early modern English drama has been deployed in order to address the needs of specific artistic, historical, and social moments” (1).  This interest in, and valuing of, adaptations that push ever towards the new is a consequence of the editors’ primary interest lying not in Shakespearean drama itself, but rather in the practice of using adaptations of it as “a special window into the workings of culture, for these fresh responses mark developments in the society that creates and consumes these new works” (1-2).  In light of this attitude, the giddy whirlwind of Shakespearean transformation that Purcell describes, the activity that transforms the meaning of “the name of ‘Shakespeare’” itself should not be distressing, because an original or historical Shakespeare is not the object of study anyway.  On this view, Shakespeare’s texts serve as prominent subject matter that various communities and subcultures may make their own.

The theoretical underpinnings of the current attitude towards adaptation make a point of rejecting “fidelity” as a worthwhile or meaningful criterion.  Linda Hutcheon’s much-cited A Theory of Adaptation argues for a specific understanding of adaptation as

  • An acknowledged transposition of a recognizable other work or works
  • A creative and an interpretive act of appropriating/salvaging
  • An extended intertextual engagement with the adapted work (8)

Hutcheon concludes her study with the encouraging declaration that “The adaptive faculty is the ability to repeat without copying, to embed difference in similarity, to be at once both self and Other” (174).  Julie Sanders is similarly drawn to poststructuralist notions of textual (non)identity, to the extent of refusing to recognize “adaptation” as an entirely distinct and coherent category in itself, in opposition to a pure original.  She argues for the “need to recognize that adaptation and appropriation are fundamental to the practice and, indeed, to the enjoyment of literature and the arts more generally” (2).  Similarly, Margaret Jane Kidnie argues that a play “is not an object at all, but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users” (2).  Kidnie’s theorization aims to liberate Shakespeare, to enable new visions of the plays, not only severed from any particular text, authorial intention, or mode of performance, but severed even from any permanent, stable identity.  Consistent in all these discussions is the high regard in which adaptation studies holds innovative adaptation that transforms Shakespeare into exciting new forms – new forms that speak to modern ideas and specific cultural moments.  Gary R. Bortolotti and Linda Hutcheon conclude their collaborative article, “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and ‘Success’—Biologically,” with a suitably high-flying and inspirational quotation from Terry Pratchett’s novel Witches Abroad: “‘Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time.  And they have evolved.  The weakest have died and the strongest survived and they have grown fat on the retelling’” (454).

Back to the Past

If radical transformation of Shakespeare is what one desires, the medium of comics definitely provides it.  The Manga Shakespeare series, for example, has produced versions of fourteen plays, and in doing so draws upon an extraordinary range of genres and settings, although it largely retains Shakespeare’s (abridged) language.  In this series, Romeo and Juliet are teenagers in modern-day Tokyo; King Lear is an aging Native American leader in 18th-century America, imperiled by colonizing Europeans who represent a new political order; and Macbeth stalks across a post-apocalyptic landscape and does battle with a four-armed mutant Macduff.   In a similar vein, Romeo and Juliet: The War by Max Work, Stan Lee and Skan Srisuwan, transfigures Shakespeare’s original setting, placing the action in a science-fictional future, populated by cybernetic humans, and modernizes the play’s language as well.  Undoubtedly the most popular and notorious in this vein of bold transformation is Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery’s series Kill Shakespeare, which cuts characters loose from their original contexts and allows them to interact with one another – often violently.

The ability of the comics medium to rise to the challenge of adapting Shakespeare has started to receive serious notice from scholars, and a small but growing subfield of Shakespearean comic book studies is underway.  The dominant line of discussion in this area shares the forward-looking emphasis of Shakespearean adaptation studies, in its emphasis on the ability to transform Shakespeare’s work into new formats, and subject it to new perspectives.  As Svenn-Arve Myklebost articulates the trend, “There is an overwhelming notion that there is something inherently postmodern about comic book adaptation, in its multimodal, slippery, often self-reflexive, potentially subversive reconfiguration of the source material” (2).  Affirming and celebrating this sentiment is Jason Tondro’s spirited defense of Kill Shakespeare.  Tondro argues that the work is “a meta-text that engages with its own critics and addresses its alteration of Shakespeare in its own pages” (2) and that its “alterations to the plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s plays” are “revisions that create new tensions in characters divorced from their original settings” (16).  According to Vance F. Neill, comics artist Gareth Hinds’ 2008 adaptation of The Merchant of Venice “connotes industrialization and modernity,” and “promotes the idea that it is in fact a modern play that is relevant to contemporary society” (50).  Margaret Roper, in her discussion of multiple comic book versions of The Tempest, praises the Classical Comics and Manga Shakespeare adaptations, citing them as demonstrations of the fact “that the adapters of Shakespeare’s plays in graphic novels do not merely repeat the works but using the combination of images and text produce radically different and unique interpretations” (27).  I have contributed to this body of work myself, with a discussion of how the Manga Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice re-codes its characters with fantastical ethnicities in order to convert the play from a depiction of anti-Semitism to a depiction of non-specific, ahistorical “othering” (McConnell 161-82).  According to this general view of Shakespearean comics adaptation, radicalness and difference are what adaptors should be pursuing, and what readers and viewers and listeners should be celebrating.

There exists, however, another potential approach within Shakespeare comics criticism, one enabled by some exciting trends in the comics themselves.  This approach emphasizes that although it is certainly true that Shakespearean comic books have the power to thrust us forward into a brave new world of radical imaginings, they may also have the power to thrust us back in time, paradoxically using the modern format of the comic book to enable a historical or traditional mode of engagement and understanding.  A hint of this view can be found in the work of Myklebost who, even as he identifies the dominant trend in comics adaptation as being firmly directed towards the avant-garde, nevertheless looks to the past for much of his methodology, seeking to read “contemporary manga as if they were early modern art works,” and therefore drawing upon such central early modern discursive concepts as imitatio and copia (25).  An interest in the traditional and historical may also be readily witnessed in the artistic choices of some comics artists, who are less interested in placing Shakespearean characters into modern-day Japan, colonial America, or a post-apocalyptic wasteland, than they are in placing them into vividly realized historical settings.  This tendency is most clearly in evidence in the excellent Classical Comics series.  While one may raise an eyebrow at horned helmets in Macbeth’s medieval Scotland, one might also praise the vividly realized early modern Verona in Will Volley’s illustrations of Romeo and Juliet.  Additionally, to turn to a different series, we might admire the historical and geometrical accuracy of Hyeondo Park’s illustrations of Roman buildings in the Manga Edition of Julius Caesar.  But while this kind of treatment may be historical, it is not in any strict sense Shakespearean, having less to do with any early modern English drama than with a concern for architectural detail in non-English locations that Shakespeare, and most of his audience, had almost certainly never seen.2 What Marcia Williams demonstrates is that there is another way to be historical, one which is crucial to our understanding and appreciation of Shakespearean drama, and with which the medium of comics has a truly extraordinary capacity to engage.  I refer to the history of the early modern stage itself.  In my view, the most interesting and important aspect of this history is what it can tell us about the personal, imaginative experience of going to see a play in early modern London.

The experience of playgoing in Shakespeare’s day was an intensely imaginative one, most famously discussed by Shakespeare himself in the Prologue to Henry V.  Here the Chorus appeals directly to the audience, asking doubtfully, “Can this cock-pit hold / The vasty fields of France?  Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” (Shakespeare Prol. 11-4).  The answer being clearly in the negative, the Chorus makes demands upon both the audience’s good nature and on its imaginative capacity, urging them to “let us […] / On your imaginary forces work,” to “Think, when we talk of horses that you see them,” because “’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there” (17-8, 26, 28-9).  Later in the play, at the beginning of Act 3, immediately prior to Henry’s invasion of France (and therefore to a substantial leap across time and space) the Chorus renews this appeal: “Still be kind / And eke out our performance with your mind” (3.0.34-5).  The necessity for such imaginative elaboration comes from the inescapable bareness of the stage in the public playhouses of early modern London.  As Andrew Gurr observes in his authoritative study The Shakespearean Stage, because of the bareness of the stage and the proximity of the actors to the audience, the players “lacked the facilities for presenting the pictorial aspects of illusion” (180).  Mariko Ichikawa elaborates on the consequences of this fact: “the absence of scenery on the stage and the lack of curtains between the stage and the auditorium made fluent scene changes possible.  A verbal reference to the scene’s place-setting could establish the scene’s locality” with the consequence that “the audience would have had to exercise their imagination, co-operating with and bringing to life what the dramatist had indicated in the briefest and most perfunctory manner” (Ichikawa 154).  While there was some room for the visual in Shakespearean theater, this visual dimension, as Gurr and Ichikawa (this time writing together) argue, was mainly a matter of the motions of actors:

Whereas a modern audience at a cinema could expect a gesture to ‘yonder mountain’ to be accompanied by a picture of the real thing, Elizabethans would see the speaker’s gesture as an indication of where it was assumed to be, but would also know that the reference directed them to imagine something that was not there. (Gurr and Ichikawa 1).

Myklebost, in his discussion of Shakespeare Manga, presses on this point, insisting that “The theatrical mediation of the plays was not primarily a visual experience; spectators would go to hear a play rather than see it and are therefore more accurately called ‘audiences’” (4).

This fascinating quality of the early modern stage—its visual bareness and consequent need for imaginative elaboration by the audience—provides an opportunity for comics artists to create truly historical adaptations of Shakespeare.  Again, I do not mean “historical” in the sense of depicting historic settings, but rather in the sense of reconstructing the physical and imaginative experience of attending a play in a public theater in London in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Just such a recreation is the great achievement of Marcia Williams in Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays (1998) and Bravo Mr William Shakespeare (2000).  These works are not just an accessible presentation of Shakespearean stories for children (although they do serve as an excellent example of that) but also a vivid depiction of the cognitive experience of Renaissance playgoing.

Enter Marcia Williams

In an essay titled “Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!” in which she discusses her project of Shakespearean adaptation, Williams recalls that as a child she found reading the plays “truly boring” (29), in part because of the text that was used to introduce her to them: Charles and Mary Lamb’s popular Tales from Shakespeare.  Although she concedes the work’s popularity, observing that “[b]y 1900 it had been reprinted 74 times and translated into several languages” (31), she questions its continued relevance: “But why is it still being sold today?  Is it what I should have been given to read in the mid-twentieth century?  Should we expect a book, published in 1807, that is a retelling, not an original work of literature, still to talk to the twentieth-century child?” (29).  Thus Williams implicitly sets herself up as the successor to the Lambs, presenting Shakespeare to a new generation of young children.  She regards the theatrical experience as primary in engaging with, enjoying and understanding Shakespeare, and regards adapted children’s versions and even full printed texts of the play, as precursors or supplements to what she considers the real thing, arguing, “What I had always felt lacking in other retellings was the feeling that these were plays to be performed, not stories for silent reading” (33).  This emphasis on performances proved to be the key to the project.

Williams’ creative breakthrough came when she went on a tour of the new Globe Theater in London, still under construction at the time, where she acquired an understanding of early modern rehearsal practices and of the rowdy, bawdy audience that a typical performance would attract (33).  She was determined to incorporate this vibrant, living theatrical experience into her work:

There was no curtain between Shakespeare and his audience.  The line between stage and life blurred as the audience partook of the performance, some from the stage itself.  As Shakespeare wrote, ‘All the world’s a stage.’  That is what I wanted to capture a sense of, between the covers of my book.  (34)

A key feature of these adaptations is the inclusion of Shakespeare’s audience is in the text, placed around the margins of the page, commenting upon the action of the play – and occasionally upon entirely unrelated topics.  These figures appear in early modern dress, and represent a wide demographic range—male and female, young and old, rich and poor—demonstrating the broad popularity of the early modern theater (Figure 1).  The depiction is accurate: the very large audience that the theater attracted3 tended to represent a very broad social range.  The penny admission at the Globe was cheap compared to most other entertainments; the only other diversion that could compete with it on price was bear-baiting (Gurr 215).  Yet this fact did not result in an audience of commoners; as Gurr maintains, “the privileged and underprivileged audiences were not mutually exclusive; rather the rich went to hall and amphitheatre playhouses alike, the poor more exclusively to the amphitheatres” (215-6).  In Williams’ work, the positioning of the audience on three sides of the page around the main body of panels, approximates the physical space of an early modern theater like the Globe.  Insofar as Williams’ page can therefore be said to be a visual representation of the physical space of the Globe, she may be seen as literalizing (and perhaps anticipating) Catherine Labio’s argument that “there is an architectural unconscious of the comics page, an extradiegetic mirroring of domestic architecture that gives the page its basic structure and accounts in significant measure for the readability, emotional power, and popularity of the genre” (Labio).  Yet the true power of Williams’ work goes well beyond the representation of physical space.

Laura Tosi describes Williams’ work as a “recreation of an original performance at the Globe” (143). But in spite of the considerable historical accuracy of the book’s depiction of an early modern stage performance, we must not mistake it for an entirely literal re-envisioning.  For one thing, there are never more than about a dozen audience members depicted on any given page, so that Williams is only presenting a few isolated responses, singled out of an audience that would routinely have comprised over 2,000.  Much more importantly, while the margins of the page do indeed contain an audience, this audience is not positioned around a literal stage; rather, it is positioned around a series of panels that depict key moments in the dramatic story; the original text is so heavily abridged that the text consists of a series of short quotations.  This sequence of panels that the audience responds to does not constitute a physical playing space but rather a narrative progression through the principal incidents in each play, in a series consisting primarily of what comics theorist Scott McCloud calls “Scene-to-Scene transitions” – that is, panel transitions that transport the reader “across significant distances of time and space.”4 The audience members who regard the action and comment upon it are not positioned next to particular areas of the stage but next to particular panels, each of which depicts a discrete narrative incident.  Thus although Williams might be said to be producing a “recreation of an original performance” in a sense, she is doing so in a distinctly non-literal manner, and what we see on the page constitutes not a depiction of the early modern theater performance but a speculative and playful depiction of an early modern audience’s imaginative experience of Shakespearean drama.

Tosi specifically discusses the audience comments in Williams’ version of Hamlet, which include one spectator complaining, “What a gloomy start” while another replies, “Well, Denmark is gloomy, stupid” (Mr William 8), arguing that the humor of these audience comments “is used to (partially) ‘tame’ the disturbing potential of the play: the murders and tragic deaths are effectively ‘framed,’ visually as well as verbally, by the audience’s deflating comments” (Tosi 143).  The comments are indeed often deflationary, ensuring that the sometimes-grim content of the plays never becomes too upsetting for young readers.  The opening page of Williams’ Hamlet features the ghost of Mary, Queen of Scots commenting, “Typical Danish ghost” and Queen Elizabeth I gazing curiously across the page at her deceased rival, asking, “Did we behead that person?” (Figure 1).  In addition to the deflating function discussed by Tosi, this audience commentary serves to signal conventional reactions to a play (for the benefit of young readers who might not necessarily know, for instance, that a tragedy is expected to be gloomy) while simultaneously encouraging readers to have their own reactions that do not necessarily conform to convention, and to understand that there is room in literary and dramatic engagement for a healthy degree of irreverence.

A key to understanding the importance and usefulness of Williams’ devices, and to my case that her depiction is of a certain kind of audience experience, is Alan C. Dessen’s concept of unlocalized space, which offers an invaluable account of how theatrical space worked in the early modern theater:

[…] before the emergence of scenes and sets the pre-1642 actor entered to a neutral, unlocalized space.  If the locale was for some reason important, that actor then, whether through dialogue, properties, costume, or distinctive actions, brought that ‘place’ with him or somehow signaled the place-activity he had left behind him offstage.  In short, the locale did not precede the actor; rather, the actor created or signaled the locale.  (148)

One of the features of the comics medium that makes it uniquely well-suited to the adaptation of Shakespearean drama is how enormously congenial it is to this quality of early modern theatrical performance.  The point is not necessarily an obvious one, even among comics theorists: those who praise the artistic merits and possibilities of comic books sometimes aim their praise in a precisely opposite direction.  In The Power of Comics, Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith do not emphasize the ability of comics to depart from the specificity of setting in favor of spatiotemporal fluidity; instead they emphasize the ability of comics to imitate the intense specificity of visual detail that is possible in modern theater or cinema:

Most of the mise-en-scène elements present on stage or screen can be depicted in a comic book panel: background details, color, ‘lighting,’ distance, angle, and ‘movement.’  Comic books also have some unique elements of composition: visualized sound, the blending of the pictorial and the linguistic, the art style.  (Duncan and Smith, Power 141)

This is surely true.  But at least as important as the fact that comics can achieve the fully realized and detailed mise-en-scène effect is that they are also able to not do so when a different effect is required.  Comics possess a potential for powerful minimalism as well as for fully saturated detail and can in the blink of an eye (or, rather, in the transition of a panel) move from one extreme to the other, or to some more intermediary state.  Duncan and Smith sometimes observe this possibility too, arguing that while characters are usually the focus of the reader’s attention in a comic book, “the details depicted behind and around those characters are essential for establishing setting and mood” (141).  They further observe a key feature of comics that corresponds with the idea of unlocalized space in the early modern theater: “Once setting is established by background details, a vague sense of that setting persists in the reader’s imagination, and details tend to become sparse or drop out altogether” (141).  Just as the early modern stage will often establish the setting with a verbal cue and then let the reader’s or spectator’s imagination maintain the locale from there, so comics can give a visual cue for the setting (if one is needed) in the equivalent of a cinematic “establishing shot,” and then let the reader’s imagination maintain that setting even in the absence of background art that specifically depicts it in subsequent panels.  This capacity of the comics medium coincides perfectly with the nature of performance on the early modern stage: as Ichikawa observes, the audience “did not have to keep the locality in mind throughout the scene: the scene’s locale might become vague as the scene proceeds, and even a change in locale could take place during the scene” (Ichikawa 154).

Accordingly, some of the panel backgrounds in Williams’ work contain little or no scenic detail, while others include substantial detail.  Thus in Williams’ version of Romeo and Juliet, the balcony scene (Figure 2) features a fairly detailed balcony, some convenient greenery for Romeo to climb, a starry night sky, and even Juliet’s pet cat regarding the whole exchange with a doubtful expression; the rest of the page, however, depicts a whole series of scenes—Romeo’s meeting with Friar Lawrence, Romeo and Juliet’s wedding, the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt and the fight between Tybalt and Romeo—all in a quick series of single panels.  The panels depicting these various scenes have almost no background detail to distinguish them from one another, except that the scenes with Friar Lawrence have the characters standing on grass, while the latter scenes have the characters standing on stone-brick streets (Williams, Tales 7).  These “onstage” panels do not depict a literal early modern stage performance (the players would not have laid out a sod carpet for Friar Lawrence and then rolled it back up again for the Verona street scenes) but rather an envisioning of the play’s story, of what might appear in the mind’s eye of the spectator, as the Chorus in Henry V describes.  Therefore it is fine for some panels to exhibit virtually no scenery at all, the scene requiring no more specific localization than “a street” or “a public place” while others are more fully fleshed out.  In Williams’ depictions, the space represented in the panel is only as specific as it needs to be for the action of the scene, just as in an early modern production in which a series of scenes might take place in “a street in Verona.”  We need not necessarily suppose that most of the main characters of Romeo and Juliet just happen to pause for conversation at the corner of Via Leoni and Via San Sebastiano in groups of two or three at a time, before departing and being replaced by the next group, in a perfect sequence, without ever running into one another; we need only suppose that all of these scenes happen in the moderately unlocalized space of “a street.”

One example of a failure to accommodate unlocalized space in a comic book occurs in the Classical Comics edition of The Tempest (2009).  Although Classical Comics is an excellent series, producing some of the best work in comic book Shakespeare, illustrators John Haward and Gary Erskine make a decision that damages the effectiveness of their adaptation.  The book is a beautiful creation, full of brightly colored and lavishly detailed backgrounds.  If it were a film, it would undoubtedly receive praise for its production values.  Yet this quality causes problems, given certain textual ambiguities.  Perhaps most significant is the exchange among Adrian, Sebastian, Antonio and Gonzalo regarding the appearance of the island:

ADRIAN           The air breathes upon us here most sweetly.
SEBASTIAN       As if it had lungs and rotten ones.
ANTONIO          Or as ’twere perfumed by a fen.
GONZALO          Here is everything advantageous to life.
ANTONIO          True, save means to live.
SEBASTIAN       Of that there’s none, or little.
GONZALO          How lush and lusty the grass looks! how green!
ANTONIO          The ground indeed is tawny.  (2.1.46-55)

The bare early modern stage is crucial to the effect of the dialogue.  Adrian and Gonzalo declare the island to be beautiful and lush; Sebastian and Antonio declare it to be foul and barren.  If there are elaborate sets and backdrops (or, in a comic book, detailed background art) that objectively establish the true appearance of the island, then this passage would make little sense: in light of the explicit and detailed setting, one or the other of the two positions is evidently false, while the other is evidently true.  On a bare early modern stage, however, the disagreement has no objective visual resolution: the island appears pleasant to the good characters and unpleasant to the wicked characters, and there is no visual court of appeal by which the audience may decide between the two descriptions.  The magic of Prospero’s island is inextricably bound up in the everyday (but no less wonderful) magic of theatrical illusion, as the true nature of the island is impossibly poised between beauty and ugliness in the minds of audience, even as it presents itself contradictorily to the characters in the play.  In Haward and Erskine’s version, however, Antonio and Sebastian are shown to be simply and obviously incorrect, and perhaps delusional, as their description of a brown and ugly island is simply at odds with the verdure around them – and, indeed, throughout the book.  Williams’ willingness to vary the specificity of localization in her drawn spaces exhibits her sensitivity to the requirements of the dramatic action, and helps to showcase the impressive ability of comics to accommodate the particular requirements of Shakespearean drama, when they are in the hands of a skilled and thoughtful illustrator.5

Also crucial to a reading of Williams’ text is an exploration of the “line between stage and life” that she seeks to blur (“Bravo” 34).  In her adaptations of Shakespeare what stands between the stage and life is the “gutter” between the panels depicting the story of the play and the border panel that depicts the audience.  Locating the power of theater in the relationship between stage and audience, and creating an adaptation in which the comics gutter lies between them, is powerfully consistent with Scott McCloud’s argument that the gutter “plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics” (Understanding 66).  In terms of McCloud’s comics theory the crucial question is: what type of panel transition does Williams maintain between the panels that depict the events of the Shakespearean play and the outer border panel that depicts the audience that watches those events?  The transition lacks a temporal gap, as audience members are reacting to the scene as it happens.  It does not even quite possess a spatial gap, given that the transition is not really between two physical parts of the early modern theater, but between an imaginatively elaborated performance and the audience that is paradoxically both perceiving the performance and (in part) imaginatively generating it through imaginative elaboration.  Thus the transition would be best described as Aspect-to-Aspect, with the gutter dividing not different, spatial parts of a literal scene, but rather different aspects of the magical theatrical experience: that of the characters in the play and that of the audience watching them.


Although Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays and Bravo Mr William Shakespeare are explicitly intended for children, they are nevertheless among the most artistically sophisticated of Shakespearean comic book adaptations, particularly in their management and recreation of the unlocalized space of the early modern stage and in their manipulation and depiction of the stage/audience relationship – a relationship in which the audience both observes and creates a story.  Despite their appearance of simplicity, and the fact that they necessarily provide less opportunity than most adaptations for engagement with the complexities of Shakespeare’s language, these works ingeniously configure a relationship between the reader and the text that encourages active engagement with the depicted dramatic events, and beautifully enacts the delicate magic of the early modern theater.6

Williams’ work powerfully confirms that in the world of Shakespearean adaptation, the comics medium has powers that go beyond the ability to create, extend, debate, revise and renew Shakespeare’s cultural significance, and to make his work speak to modern cultural and political concerns.  Because of the special nature of its modes of visualization, the medium is uniquely suited to adapting Shakespeare in what one might call a radically traditional way.  It can enable a mode of viewing and reading Shakespeare that is, in a way, even more historically faithful than a bare-stage performance at the reconstructed Globe Theater, because it recreates not just the physical experience of an early modern production but the imaginative experience as well.  While the Shakespeare comics market is dominated by works in which the main impulse is to push ever towards the shocking, the radical, and the new, Marcia Williams unassumingly takes up the even greater challenge of taking us gently by the hand and leading us back to where Shakespearean drama started, so that we may know the place for the first time.


[1] See for example:

  • Bortolotti, G. R. & Hutcheon, L. “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and “Success”—Biologically.” New Literary History. vol. 38 no. 3, 2007, pp. 443-458.
  • Brown, Sarah Annes, Robert I. Lublin, and Lynsey McCulloch.  Eds.  Reinventing the Renaissance.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
  • Fischlin, Daniel, Mark Fortier, eds.  Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present.  London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation.  London: Routledge, 2006.
  • Kidnie, Margaret Jane.  Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation.  New York Routledge, 2009.
  • Lanier, Douglas.  Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture.  New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2002.
  • Purcell, Stephen.  Popular Shakespeare: Simulation and Subversion on the Modern Stage.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
  • Sanders, Julie.  Appropriation and Adaptation.  2nd edition.  New York: Routledge, 2015.

[2] This is historicism in the tradition of Charles Knight who, in addition to being Publisher of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, produced in 1867 The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespeare.  This text, a fascinating early entry in the history of print visualizations of Shakespeare, includes much historical material that the Bard could not possibly have known, including a gloss on Troilus and Cressida comprising detailed illustrations of the Phrygian helmets that the historical Trojans would have worn – information that would have been, for Knight, the product of cutting-edge 19th-century archaeological research.

[3] “In 1594 the estimates suggest that the two authorised acting companies were visited by about 15,000 people weekly.  In 1620, when six playhouses were open, three of them the smaller private houses, the weekly total was probably nearer 25,000.  Perhaps about 15 or 20 per cent of all the people living within reach of Shoreditch and Southwark were regular playgoers.  Modern estimates of the capacities of the amphitheatres converge on about 2,500 as a maximum figure (de Witt estimated 3,000 for the Swan)” (Gurr 213).

[4] I take this term from Scott McCloud’s seminal work of comics theory, Understanding Comics (1993).  In this work, McCloud defines six different types of panel transition.  “Moment-to-Moment” transitions require “very little closure” and are the comics equivalent of slow-motion.  “Action-to-Action” transitions feature “a single subject in distinct Action-to-Action progressions.  “Subject-to-Subject” transitions “[take] us from Subject-to-Subject while staying within a scene or idea.”  “Scene-to-Scene” transitions “transport us across significant distances of time and space.”  “Aspect-to-Aspect” transitions “[bypass] time for the most part and sets a wandering eye on different aspects of a place, idea, or mood” and depicts no temporal progression.  Finally, “Non-Sequitur” transitions offer “no logical relationship between panels whatsoever” (McCloud 70-2).

[5] I do not wish to be unfair to Haward and Erskine: they exhibit some sensitivity to this textual problem by depicting the ground that the characters walk on in this scene as a rather muddy brown, ambiguously sprinkled with dark pen-strokes indicating grass, although lacking an accompanying green color.  The problem that they face here is that the overall artistic design of the book is at odds with the bare-stage nature of early modern theatre; it would have been impossible to escape this problem entirely without abridging Shakespeare’s text to remove troublesome passages like this one, and Classical Comics maintains an admirable policy of including Shakespeare’s text in its entirety.

[6] Although pedagogical applications are not a main focus of this article, Williams’ work is worth singling out as being of particular interest to anyone who wishes to get young children interested in the plays, not least because of its encouragement of active engagement rather than the passive receiving of the goods of high culture.

Works Cited

Bortolotti, G. R. & Hutcheon, L. “On the Origin of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse and “Success”—Biologically.” New Literary History. vol. 38 no. 3, 2007, pp. 443-458.

Brown, Sarah Annes, Robert I. Lublin, and Lynsey McCulloch.  “Introduction.”  Reinventing the Renaissance.  Ed. Sarah Annes Brown, Robert I. Lublin, and Lynsey McCulloch.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Catherine Labio. “The Architecture of Comics,” Critical Inquiry 41, no. 2 (Winter 2015): 312-343.

Clayton, Thomas.  “Theatrical Shakespearegresses at the Guthrie and Elsewhere: Notes on Legitimate Production’”.  New Literary History 17 (1986): 511-38.

Deas, Robert, illus.  Manga Shakespeare: Macbeth.  Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Text Adaptor Richard Appignanesi.  New York: Amulet Books, 2008.

Del Col, Anthony and Conor McCreery (writers), Andy Belanger (artist). Kill Shakespeare 1-12. IDW Publishing, 2011. Ebook. 30 March 2012.

Dessen, Alan C. Recovering Shakespeare’s Theatrical Vocabulary.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Duncan, Randy and Matthew J. Smith.  The Power of Comics: History, Form, and Culture.  New York: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2009.

Fischlin, Daniel, Mark Fortier, eds.  Adaptations of Shakespeare: A Critical Anthology of Plays from the Seventeenth Century to the Present.  London: Routledge, 2000.

Gurr, Andrew.  The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642.  Third Edition.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Gurr, Andrew and Mariko Ichikawa.  Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Halio, Jay L.  Understanding Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance.  Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Haward, Jon, and Gary Erskine, illus.  The Tempest: The Graphic Novel.  Original Text Version. Adapted from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Text Adaptor: John McDonald.  Litchborough: Classical Comics, Inc., 2009.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation.  London: Routledge, 2006.

Ichikawa, Mariko.  The Shakespearean Stage Space.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Ilya, illus.  Manga Shakespeare:King Lear.  Adapted from William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Adapt. Richard Appignanesi.  New York: Amulet Books, 2009.

Johnston, Rich. “Shakespearean Scholar (and Frank Miller’s Girlfriend) Blasts Kill Shakespeare.” Bleeding Cool. 12 April 2010. Web. 30 March 2012.

Kidnie, Margaret Jane.  Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation.  New York: Routledge, 2009.

Knight, Charles, ed.  The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespeare.  Vol. 1.  London: Charles Knight and Co., 1842.

Lanier, Douglas.  Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture.  New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2002.

Leong, Sonia, illus.  Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet.  Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  Text Adaptor: Richard Appignanesi.  New York, Amulet Books, 2007.

McCloud, Scott.  Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.

McConnell, Russell.  “Reading Law and Ethnicity in the Manga Shakespeare Merchant of Venice.”  New Readings of the Merchant of Venice.  Ed. Horacio Sierra.  Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.  161-82.

Pantoja, Tintin, illus.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Text Adaptor Adam Sexton.  Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2008.

Park, Hyeondo, illus.  Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Text Adaptor Adam Sexton.  Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2008.

Purcell, Stephen.  Popular Shakespeare: Simulation and Subversion on the Modern Stage.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Sanders, Julie.  Appropriation and Adaptation.  2nd edition.  New York: Routledge, 2015.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of Henry V.  The Norton Shakespeare.  Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1445-1524.

Williams, Marcia.  Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!  Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2000.

—.  “Bravo, Mr. William Shakespeare!”  Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults.  New York: Routledge, 2003.  29-38.

—.  Tales from Shakespeare.  Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 1998.

Posted in Volume 10, Issue 2