Menu Close

Visual Statements in Shakespearean Adaptations: Illustrating Romeo and Juliet for Children

By Cara Byrne

From Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) to Langston Hughes’ The Dream Keeper (1932) to Margaret Atwood’s Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut (1995), for centuries authors who primarily write thematically mature and critically praised works for adults have reached out to child audiences through picture books. And while all of these authors wrote and approved how their children’s books were illustrated and packaged, other well-known authors’ adult works have been adapted long after their deaths and without their explicit consent. William Shakespeare’s canon is one of the best examples of this re-appropriation for children. His verses have been integrated into Disney’s Baby Einstein educational DVD series, and his characters have been transformed into finger puppets so children can act out Macbeth, demonstrating that Shakespeare’s canonical status has encouraged authors, toy manufacturers and artists alike to borrow elements from his famous comedies and tragedies and produce them for children. Though Shakespearean adaptations geared specifically for children have been around for hundreds of years, beginning with Charles and Mary Lamb’s nineteenth century collection Tales from Shakespeare, there has been a notable resurgence of “Shakespearean” picture books during the last twenty years. In particular, adapters are reimagining Shakespeare’s most famous tragic teenage romance, as more and more illustrated versions of Romeo and Juliet are being produced and made widely available to children. These books often include introductions sharing Shakespeare’s biography, the important contributions he has provided to English theater and literature, and the still-relevant thematic messages in his plays. In prose, the picture books often present arguments for why five- to ten-year-olds should be well acquainted with the Bard’s works, but it is in the different illustrator’s visual depictions of Shakespeare’s plots and characters for children that readers see distinct and unique interpretations of Shakespeare’s drama. While film, stage, and musical adaptations of Shakespeare’s work have received scholarly attention, these picture books’ critical potential has been brushed over, and few children’s literature or visual rhetoric scholars have conducted studies about how Shakespeare’s works are being textually and visually re-imagined for children.

With these concerns in mind, I argue for the importance of analyzing specific visual components of Romeo and Juliet adaptations for children. By studying a collection of picture books published during the last several decades, I examine how each illustrator makes “visual statements” instead of “visual arguments,” differentiating some of the visual conventions illustrators use to elicit a particular understanding of the play and a precise emotional response from their young audience. Drawing from recent theory in visual rhetoric, as well as comic studies, I demonstrate how defining and critiquing children’s illustrators’ visual statements creates a more comprehensive way to understand the complexity of visually adapted children’s texts. While I introduce six children’s adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, I will study two picture books in particular: Lois Burdett’s Romeo and Juliet for Kids (part of her “Shakespeare Can be Fun!” series) and Michael Rosen and Jane Ray’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. These adaptations bring into question diverse critical concerns, including their pedagogical value and their innovative approaches in revamping Shakespeare’s verse, but I look primarily at the visual conventions to demonstrate how children’s book illustrators make distinct visual statements through their adaptations. As it is an adult’s vision that creates these works for children, understanding visual statements in picture books can help us work through the complicated issues of textual ownership and visual rhetoric present in these ever-growing works for children.

Differentiating Between Visual Arguments & Visual Statements

When studying adaptations of literary texts, English studies scholars have a large body of theoretical concepts and terminology at their disposal to describe authorship and linguistic aspects of a work. However, when reviewing criticism about visual adaptations of literature, one finds that most scholars write about film or stage adaptations when expanding their scope from traditional pieces of print fiction, whether novel, poem, or short story. Postmodern literature and adaptation theorist Linda Hutcheon explores how adaptations are both products and processes in her A Theory of Adaptation (2006), specifically drawing upon W. J.T. Mitchell’s ideas about medium (34). Even though Hutcheon cites scholars interested in visual rhetoric, she does not employ similar methodologies when studying visual objects. Instead, she is more interested in redefining adaptation to include video games, roller coasters, and music which have been adapted from literature. She argues that, “[a]udiences need to learn—that is, to be taught—how to be knowing audiences in terms of medium” (125). Hutcheon coaxes her reader to think about “adaptation” more broadly, but she leaves it up to us to develop the tools necessary to analyze particular visual adaptations. One way to answer this call and become part of a “knowing audience” of a largely visual adaptation, like a children’s book, is to analyze the visual devices artists use in their illustrations and to determine whether these illustrators offer readers a visual statement or a visual argument.

“Visual argument” is a highly contested term, especially for those who have allegiances to traditional, Aristotelian definitions of argument, rhetoric, and persuasion. Many scholars have encouraged caution when applying words like “rhetoric” and “enthymeme” to a visual instead of a written or oratorical piece (see Valerie Smith). However, David Birdsell and Leo Groarke argue against a separation of Aristotle’s ethoslogos, and pathos from visual images, defining visual arguments as similar to verbal arguments, for they believe that images also possess “rhetorical advantages” and can even be “more forceful and persuasive than words” (103). By defining visual arguments as “arguments conveyed, in some essential way, through images,” they contend that images act in the same way words do, and when words and pictures are used together, one may be presented with “two powerful means of conveying arguments” (108). In Birdsell and Groarke’s understanding of visual argument, the text and the images in children’s books and comic books both function separately as rhetorical mechanisms. Both are capable of pathos, both are able to provide an interpretable argument, and both have the capability to mislead the viewer (111). However, they admit that visual evidence can easily be mistaken as a visual argument when the visual component of a work is specifically used to bring attention to the stronger verbal argument of a text. Others, including J. Anthony Blair, agree, stating that visual and verbal components often work together in creating a strong argument, but without clear evidence or propositional claims, an image itself cannot be an argument. When studying children’s literature, as well as advertisements, cartoons, and film, it is often difficult to separate the linguistic from the visual argument. Rather than distinguishing the verbal elements from the illustrations in order to claim that the drawings themselves are argumentative or to describe how these images offer clear propositional evidence, it is more useful to analyze how the images can be read as statements (or claims), addressed specifically to children, the presumed audience of these books.

Blair, in his 1996 article, provides a useful articulation of visual statements when looking at the arguments made by advertisements, political cartoons and famous paintings. He challenges that if one cannot decipher and clearly articulate the artist’s message, one may be moved by a visual statement, but not presented with a visual argument. In differentiating images that excite particular feelings from those that make a concrete argument, Blair closely analyzes emotionally riveting paintings. Goya’s “The Third of May” and Gericault’s “The Raft of Medusa” demonstrate the difference between a visual statement, which Blair says conveys passions, positions, and messages, and a visual argument, which is concretely supported by definable and clear propositions. Blair states: “[m]any works of art that convey a message, that communicate points of view, emotions or attitudes, do not provide or constitute arguments. Expressing a proposition, even forcefully and dramatically, is not arguing for it” (27). Goya’s work provides a heartbreaking picture of soldiers murdering a group of helpless people, but Blair argues that because the image “gives no reasons for favoring the loyalists or opposing Napoleon,” the work only provides a visual statement, not a visual argument. Gericault’s work also demonstrates human misery in a shipwreck, but because the message only reads of a moment of intense emotion and not an argumentative stance (such as “a need for life-boats” or “a justification of […] cannibalism”), Blair finds it too provides the viewer with a gut-wrenching visual statement. Instead of advocating that all powerful and striking images hold an argumentative message, Blair contends that, like a compelling verbal argument, a visual argument needs certain explicit traits leading its viewer to a particular stance. This is helpful when considering adaptations for children that present scenes of violence or characters exhibiting strong emotion. One may consider illustrators to be making an argument about what motivates the characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but Blair would reason that they are actually presenting visual statements, encouraging an emotional response from their viewer, which may lead to an interpretation, but does not express the illustrator’s argumentative stance about the scene. Many images allude to an argumentative position through using sophisticated symbolism and visual conventions, but Blair states that for a work of art to be an argument, it “has to satisfy the condition that we are able to identify its premise(s) and its intended conclusion (whether expressed or not)” (28). He concludes a visual statement is made when an image expresses emotion and renders a moving image, but “tenders no conclusion” (28).

When thinking about Blair’s distinction between a visual argument and a visual statement in light of children’s book adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, it is not always easy to define the messages illustrators present to viewers. Children’s literature theorists have studied how images affect children for many years, yet some critics like David Lewis argue that “the workings of picture books are still poorly understood” (xii). One of the first children’s literature scholars to bridge the connection between pictures and words in picture books was Perry Nodelman, whose 1988 Words about Pictures stresses that scholars should think more carefully about the role images play in works for children. He states that pictures’ “mere presence changes the texts they accompany. Their intrusiveness has a strong effect on narrative even apart from their subject or their mood. Illustrations in picture books can, in fact must, operate as punctuation: they demand we pause before we go on to the words on the next page” (248). Nodelman explains that pictures do not merely sit idly in picture books, but rather they make us stop while reading the text and even have the power to change the messages the author provides textually. Contemporary scholars and illustrators, including Molly Bang, have listened to Nodelman’s call, looking at how visual adaptations can change a child’s reaction to the story. Bang demonstrates that by illustrating Little Red Riding Hood through bold geometric figures in primary colors, she evokes particular emotions, like danger and calm, by playing upon a viewer’s connotative understanding of these most basic visual components (8). However, even as an image in a children’s book is emotionally moving and changes the meaning of the text, Blair reminds us that for an illustration to be argumentative, “enough information has to be provided visually to permit an unambiguous verbal reconstruction of the propositions expressed” (34). Authors like Bang may desire a particular reaction from children, but this reaction is distinct from an arguable position.

In utilizing Blair’s definition, I argue that scholars of children’s literature, comics, and visual rhetoric alike can benefit from reading children’s book illustrations as visual statements instead of visual arguments, for this type of reading opens up new avenues for studying how images are pedagogically-motivated and can change how a child relates to an adaptation. For even though the adaptations I present have incredibly diverse images of Romeo and Juliet, we as viewers do not have enough information from the images alone to perceive a clear visual argument. While we can take away a particular emotional stance and can even begin to critically analyze and find an argument in the images, the illustrations themselves cannot constitute as visual arguments, for like the nineteenth century paintings Blair describes, they only provide a visual rendering of the adaptation, about which we can then make our own judgments. These visual statements do give us insight into how adults are asking children to feel about Romeo and Juliet and even about Shakespeare himself in some cases, but in having children illustrate Juliet’s suicide (like Burdett) or visually rendering Romeo and Juliet in an intimate pose (like Ray), these illustrators’ pictures affect our emotions instead of convincing us of a discernable stance.

Critically analyzing the visual statements of different Shakespearean adaptations can help us gain a better understanding of what is at stake when visually representing Shakespeare’s work for a particular audience. Hanno H.J. Ehses studies how visual statements are made through widely circulated images by examining the signs and symbolism present in posters that were used to advertise different theatres’ productions of Macbeth. One of his primary goals is to discuss how different classifications of figures of speech can be retooled in order to describe images, and he, following Roland Barthes, makes an important differentiation between the denotative (which he describes as direct, literal, referential) and connotative (indirect, suggestive, multifunctional) codes of an image. He states that even though all of the posters clearly relate to and signal Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “and are denotatively interchangeable in announcing the play,” the posters are “connotatively quite different:” “It follows, then, that any act of signification […] must consciously take into account the breadth and complexity of connotations” (169). Even though the visual artifacts that Ehses studies largely advertise and index Shakespeare’s play, there are other important implicit functions that make each poster distinct. For instance, one poster features a lion-like Macbeth roaring at the viewer, symbolizing his strength and sinister nature, while another poster presents a skeletal reflection of Macbeth, pointing to his eventual fall. By comparing different posters of Macbeth, Ehses is able to analyze and present the differences in the ways advertisers represent and symbolically interpret the play. In conducting a similar study with several scenes in children’s adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, one may begin to see the subtle, but intrinsically important rhetorical moves that individual illustrators make in their pictures. These unique visual statements alter a child’s understanding of the story of Romeo and Juliet, as well as demonstrate the distinct messages that authors want both the child and adult to take away, and the images do so by operating as a type of hermeneutic apparatus.

Illustrating Romeo and Juliet for Children

While the authors who adapt Shakespeare’s work for children may implicitly argue for the bard’s significance by integrating some biographical detail, an introduction describing his influence, or even his name in their works’ main titles (for example, Bruce Coville’s picture book is titled William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), their choice of illustrations communicate diverse messages or statements about how the child should relate to this figure “William Shakespeare” and respond to his stories. In analyzing Romeo and Juliet adaptations for children, one can appreciate the complications in illustrating this violent and sexually charged love story for young children, beginning with the most famous adaptors who believed that all children should be familiar with Shakespeare and his work. Charles and Mary Lamb published their first edition of Tales from Shakespeare, a collection of twenty of Shakespeare’s plays adapted into short, illustrated stories, in 1807. In describing their intentions, nineteenth-century Lamb biographer and literary critic Alfred Ainger states that the Lambs “wished to interest young persons in the story of each drama, to supply them with a clear and definite outline of the main argument.” Yet, as Ainger continues, they went beyond a general plot synopsis, for “they sought to initiate the young reader into the unfamiliar diction of the dramatist, and by occasional slight changes in it to remove difficulties and clear up obscurities.” The Lambs adapt Shakespeare’s prose into a form that helps children access what the adaptors consider to be the “main argument,” or the main plot of the plays, giving children an opportunity to experience the famous tales without Shakespeare’s complex language (see Felicity James and Jean I. Marsden). However, in changing the content, language, and plot of the plays while still maintaining Shakespeare’s association to the story, the authors make clear rhetorical and authorial decisions in the ways they reword these canonical works for children.

Just as the Lambs provided children with simplified Shakespearean stories, they decided to visually represent the tales by hiring artist Gertrude Demain Hammond to illustrate one or two scenes in each of their stories. By placing these visual images alongside their prose, the authors reaffirm their vision of Shakespeare’s characters and give their readership a direct path to imagine what Romeo and Juliet look like. Hammond’s illustration of Juliet and the nurse reflects how the Lambs describe Juliet: passive, immature and in the hands of others when it comes to her fate (See figure 1). In fact, the image does more than provide evidence or support the prose: it makes its own visual statement by showing the viewer what is important to the story and by setting a particular mood and tone for the text. In choosing which scene to illustrate, Hammond does not pick scenes of violence or sex, but instead emphasizes a moment where Juliet hovers closely to her nurse, clinging to her arm and gazing at another figure. While studying the Lambs’ stories is of essence for those interested in how Shakespeare’s work, specifically his prose, word choice, and poetic language, has been adapted for children, thinking about the ways in which illustrators, like Hammond, have sketched different Shakespearean characters gives the reader additional insight into the way these illustrations function as interpretive devices.

Figure 1: Hammond’s Juliet and Nurse

Since the Lambs first printed their collection of Shakespearean stories for children, there have been many authors who have adapted Shakespeare’s work for a young readership and have created complex visual statements. For instance, in 1995, early elementary school teacher Lois Burdett began publishing a series of children’s books called “Shakespeare Can Be Fun!” in which she takes the bard’s popular plays and adapts them for school-aged children. In the foreword to Burdett’s book, Romeo and Juliet for Kids, Shakespearean actor Colm Feore explains how grateful he is to Burdett for her series, for he believes that she creates clarity and simplicity in Shakespeare’s often complicated works:

[y]es, it takes some time and care to learn [Shakespeare’s] clues and explore his mysteries, but that’s what a lifetime is for. One of the saddest things I have ever heard in the theatre is, ‘Well, it’s Shakespeare. I’m not meant to understand it.’ Rubbish! […] [Burdett] has found a way to blow the dust off ‘Old Bill’ and let her students revel in their understanding. (3)

While Feore acknowledges the limits to a child’s grasp of some of Shakespeare’s morose themes and nightmarish plots, he believes Burdett’s updating of Shakespeare’s work has enabled her students to embark on a lifelong journey to appreciate and comprehend Shakespeare. Instead of keeping Shakespeare’s work trapped in an ivory tower or in the unreachable realm of the theatre, Burdett attempts to show Shakespeare is for everyone, no matter one’s literary taste, literacy or education, including young children. Furthermore, Burdett desires for her readers to participate with the stories and find ways to bring elements of Shakespeare’s play to life. Her Romeo and Juliet for Kids includes activities children can complete after reading and looking through the book, from “[planting] some herbs that Friar Laurence might have grown in his garden” to “[creating] a tableau (a ‘frozen picture’) of a particular scene” (64). Burdett encourages children to actively engage with Shakespeare’s play by presenting the comedies and tragedies in a sing-song adaptation of Shakespeare’s verse and by constructing their own creations based upon the stories, supporting her unwavering belief that all children should be exposed to Shakespeare’s plays at an early age. Yet, what is unique about her series compared to other children’s books is how it is illustrated: instead of having a professional illustrator draw the images to accompany her poems, as Coville and the Lambs elected to do, she has her students (ages four to twelve-years-old) illustrate the different scenes. Even though the drawings are by different students (all identified by their first and last name and age), the images are largely similar: the cartoonish, frequently smiling characters are outlined in bold black lines and colored in with bright, primary colors, providing a unique juxtaposition to the often bleak events in the plot (See figure 2). The drawings themselves seem to further Burdett’s claim that Shakespeare’s plays are acceptable for children, as child illustrators have concretely displayed their critical understandings of Shakespeare’s complicated works. They present Burdett’s ideology and messages visually, creating a strong visual statement of a child’s connection to Shakespeare.

Figure 2: Burdett’s Romeo and Juliet for Kids cover

During the last twenty years, a collection of illustrated adaptations of Romeo and Juliet has been published, including Burdett’s Romeo and Juliet for Kids, as well as Bruce Coville’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1999), Nina Laden’s Romeow and Drooliet (2005), Barbara Kindermann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (2003), and Michael Rosen’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (2004). The adaptations all transcribe and illustrate some of the most famous instances in the play, including the balcony scene when Juliet and Romeo express their love to each other after meeting at a masquerade ball, as well as when Romeo finds Juliet after she has taken a dram of poison that makes her appear dead. Beyond including these culturally well-known moments, the authors and illustrators take artistic and adaptive license when presenting the rest of the story. And while there are few similarities between the ways in which each adaptation retells Shakespeare’s play, especially as some adaptations omit death from their picture books, there are many similarities in how illustrators present Romeo finding poisoned Juliet at first glance. When comparing five adaptations’ illustrations of this scene, Romeo often looks onto Juliet in a relatively sparse setting, with all of the attention focused upon the two characters as they are reunited. By illustrating the scene in which Juliet appears dead, the artists get around visually representing death: instead, they introduce the child to dramatic irony, showing a character in a death-like sleep. Some do go on to illustrate either Romeo or Juliet’s suicides or their dead bodies, but some do not show images of the star-crossed lovers’ deaths and instead feature their heavenly forms or change the story and illustrate Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after. Just as the authors’ adaptation of the plot indicates to the reader what the author considers appropriate for young audiences, the illustrators’ visual interpretations reveal a great deal about their approach to the narrative. The different illustrations of this scene make distinct visual statements, for some artists focus on the intensity of Romeo’s grief, while others place the focus on Juliet’s deceptive body, asking the child to either mourn with Romeo or feel the dramatic tension of the trick. By studying the differences in their pictorial representations (or lack thereof) of Shakespeare’s dark themes or plot, one can begin to elucidate the illustrators’ motivations and intentions as to how they would like their audiences to react to the story. Some of the authors make their intentions explicit at the beginning of their books, but many others do not justify or explain why they chose to adapt Shakespeare’s work for a young audience. Looking to the visual statements can help us better understand the motivations behind each author’s adaptation of Shakespeare for children.

Few of the adaptations hold allegiance to the more mature side of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Rosen’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (2004) includes many of the most famous lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (from “Blister’d be thy tongue for such a wish” to “The sun for sorrow will not show his head”) and keeps intact all the deaths, sexual references, and physical altercations in Shakespeare’s play. The work also takes a visually mature approach: illustrated by renowned children’s book illustrator Jane Ray, the book is a standout among many of the more generically drawn versions of Shakespeare’s plays. With Ray’s beautiful, Indian-inspired illustrations, it is difficult to look away from her vivid depictions of the play – from the picture of the apothecary, surrounded by symbolic elements, including animals and stars, to the bloody and gruesome image of Juliet stabbing herself in the final act. Even the cover of the book alludes to the ultimate destruction of the two young lovers, as they appear motionless with closed eyes, while also representing their sensual connection as their heart-shaped lips come together (See figure 3). Ray offers morose and emotionally fraught visual statements, demonstrating the most tragic elements of Shakespeare’s play and illustrating death and violence in graphic detail.

Figure 3: Cover of Rosen and Ray’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

In the scene where Romeo finds Juliet in a deathlike state, he intimately holds her head and a tear drips down his cheek. Unlike some illustrators who either portray Romeo as stoic or Juliet as physically distant from Romeo, Ray shows an intimate connection between the two. She focuses solely upon their faces, and they appear as if they are about to kiss (See figure 4). Ray sends a visual message about the intensity of the two lovers’ relationship; Juliet appears beautifully posed and pristine when a distraught Romeo finds her, but when she wakes up, she looks disheveled and in great pain. Unlike Ray’s intense visual statements depicting the crazed and passionate nature of the couple’s relationship, the characters in Burdett’s book are often illustrated as removed from other characters and without much emotional depth. Eleven-year-old Kimberly Brown illustrates Juliet smiling in her death-like sleep as Romeo lays his head upon her bed, placing the focus on Juliet’s state and only subtly indicating to the child reader that Romeo is upset, for one cannot see his facial reaction (See figure 5). The visual statements in Burdett’s texts are much lighter, as Juliet and Romeo are often presented smiling, even in death. Ray, on the other hand, pushes the reader to interpret the scene by focusing on Romeo’s intense grief, not on his ignorance of the ironic twist that Juliet is alive.

Figure 4: Ray’s Romeo finding Juliet
Figure 5: Burdett’s Romeo finding Juliet

Several other recent picture book adaptations of Romeo and Juliet also present unique visual adaptations of this scene. Like Burdett, Bruce Coville has also published a series of children’s books based on Shakespeare’s plays, but a different professional illustrator provides the drawings for each of the adaptations. Coville’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1999) is illustrated by Dennis Nolan, who offers 28 pastel-hued illustrations of the play. In Nolan’s depiction of the same scene, Romeo peers over Juliet, with little emotion except curiosity on his serious face. Half of Juliet’s placid face is shown as she lies beneath Romeo’s gaze. The image does not encourage much of an emotional response from the reader, nor does it make any sort of argument for how the reader should interpret Romeo’s feelings during this instance (See figure 6). Instead, the moment is glazed over, as the reader is given a relatively passionless scene compared to either Ray’s or Burdett’s visual interpretations. The illustration is lifelike, but the forms are colored in such muted tints that the images are not as attention-getting as some bolder color choices used by other authors.

Figure 6: Nolan’s Romeo finding Juliet

For instance, Nina Laden uses primary colors, including bright blues, golds, and greens, throughout her animal-themed adaptation, Romeow and Drooliet (2005). In the book, which is both illustrated and written by Laden, dog Drooliet Barker and cat Romeow Felinis fall in love, fighting against the inherent rivalry between their species. Laden’s lighthearted tone helps deliver an anti-bullying message, overshadowing any message of Shakespeare’s importance. Compared to the other picture books, this adaptation takes the most liberty with Shakespeare’s text and cites his name the least, indicating that Laden’s use of the original play is more about deploying a culturally infamous story than necessarily educating children about Shakespeare, as Burdett and Coville try to do. Instead of poisoning herself to escape marriage, Drooliet pretends that she is hit by a car and lies in the street. This is the most striking, morbid image Laden illustrates, even though a pristine-looking Drooliet smiles with her eyes closed, while Romeow worriedly holds her (See figure 7). When her faked death excites sadness in all of the animals, she comes back to life on the next page and peace is quickly restored among the rival families. While the story maintains certain elements of Shakespeare’s plot, like the secret marriage and the first mock death of the Juliet character, Laden’s text diverges far from Shakespeare’s, especially as the dogs and cats find a way to live in peace and the two lovers end up vacationing on a beach for their honeymoon. By illustrating the characters with dramatically expressive faces and bold, colorful illustrations, Laden appears to be making a visual statement sending the message that despite how angry and sad the animals appear in one scene, they can quickly and successfully overcome their difficulties through the power of friendship and forgiveness. After all, at the end the book, they all look exuberantly happy. Ladin’s illustrations show children that despite experiencing conflict and sadness, a peaceful resolution is sometimes possible, even between sworn enemies (dogs and cats).

Figure 7: Ladin’s Romeow finding Drooliet

Kindermann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (2003), illustrated by Christa Unzner, shares more similarities with Rosen and Ray’s text than with Laden’s or Burdett’s, but Unzner is also selective in what she chooses to represent pictorially. Unzer’s illustrations are visually intricate: they are filled with splotches of paint covering her delicate sketches, all in a neutral color palate. She also hides additional images and words taken directly from Shakespeare’s play in her sketches, offering veiled textual messages amongst her deeply symbolic images for those who closely study her drawings. For example, when Friar Laurence gives Juliet the vial of poison that will make her appear dead, Unzner illustrates Juliet at the center of the page, holding a chalice with a slight smile as Friar Laurence, looking concerned, stands at a distance. While the water-colored image portrays a confident Juliet, a subtle pencil sketch on top of the central image shows a close up of Juliet’s face as she drinks from the overwhelmingly large cup. This sketch presents Juliet with a sense of unease juxtaposed with the main picture of a smiling, confident Juliet (See figure 8). The pencil sketch on top of the main drawing complicates the central image, giving the characters visual and symbolic layers. These sketches also appear in the scene in which Romeo finds Juliet, as Unzner illustrates both Romeo’s pencil-drawn panicked motions as he rushes towards Juliet, as well as his shocked facial expression as he views her deathlike face up close (See figure 9). Unzner’s work provides a key example of how beneficial conducting a close reading of visual statements can be, for each one of her elaborate drawings elicits a particular reaction, all building upon one another without making a single claim. The illustrated worried expressions surrounding Juliet prior to her drinking the vial bring a sense of unease to the scene, even when the central figure looks happy, and the condensed and hurried brushstrokes that create Romeo’s motion symbolize his panic and urgency when he finds her poisoned body. Uzner’s illustrations are similar to Ray’s in her visual creativity and ability to visually promote a negative emotional response, but Unzner is conservative when illustrating violence and death, for her focus is more on the unstable romantic relationship between Romeo and Juliet than the brutal outcomes of their union. Her approach towards adapting this text requires one to study the images and look carefully for the hidden visual statements among the main illustration.

Figure 8: Unzner’s Juliet Taking the Vial
Figure 9: Unzner’s Romeo finding Juliet

Visual Statements & Interpretation in Burdett’s & Ray’s Adaptations

Even though each of these adaptations could easily be further studied for their unique visual statements and the ways in which their illustrators interpret Shakespeare’s weighty and challenging stories for their immature audience, both Rosen and Ray’s and Burdett’s picture books maintain the closest allegiance to Shakespeare’s plot, though the illustrators visually represent the story in completely divergent ways. Analyzing Rosen and Ray’s and Burdett’s works alongside each other demonstrates the large rhetorical disparities between how one can illustrate an adapted work for children. While both would likely define their books as educational and as successful in adapting Shakespeare’s play for a younger audience, their visual statements are incredibly different. By allowing her school-aged students to illustrate the book, Burdett’s graphic choices help other children relate to the stories and see themselves in the text. Rosen and Ray, on the other hand, use more mature and more graphically violent and sexual images in their book, creating a much more complicated tone by keeping some of Shakespeare’s sophisticated and adult themes. When analyzing the illustrators’ visual statements and rhetorical moves guiding a child reader’s response to their characters, it is helpful to employ some of the same theories used by those who study other forms of graphic fiction, including comic books. The visual statements seem to operate as interpretative devices, encouraging certain readings and not others. In order to understand how this works exactly, I will conduct a closer examination of Burdett’s and Ray’s adaptations. And to do this type of visual rhetorical analysis, I will turn to Scott McCloud’s discussion of visual modes.

McCloud’s definition of visual modes and icons relates to visual statements, for he believes that the ways an illustrator uses particular icons help readers pick up on visual cues that in turn change their relationship to a particular character or act. McCloud argues, “when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face—you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon—you see yourself” (36). The more lifelike the character is drawn, the less the viewer will see him or herself and the more the viewer will see someone else. Furthermore, he states: “I believe this is the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons […] The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled…an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don’t just observe the cartoon, we become it!” (36). When children watch animated cartoons or read comics, they begin to identify with the characters, even projecting themselves into a particular character’s place in the narrative. This changes the way the child approaches the text, from viewing a picture as being outside of his/her experience to seeing it as intrinsically part of him/herself. Thus Burdett’s students’ drawings, with their simplistic and cartoonish semblances, are more relatable than Ray’s illustrations. Since Burdett has a different child illustrating each page, the characters’ appearances change; sometimes Juliet’s hair is long and brunette, while other times it is short and blond. These changes aid in a child’s ability to see him/herself in the character, for the character is proven to be an imaginative figment of different children’s imaginations. The images’ inconstancies themselves lend to a child gravitating towards the image they relate to the most, ultimately choosing the image that reflects how they see themselves or how they themselves would illustrate the work. Ray does not allow for this affordance; her characters are drawn in more lifelike detail than Burdett’s students’ simple drawings and are given particular stylized features that lead viewers to a particular interpretation. And while Ray’s characters still retain more cartoonish features than a photograph would, they appear to be racially distinct: Romeo’s skin color is much deeper than Juliet’s, and this difference is more pronounced in some scenes than others. These racial and facial characteristics lend to a different visual statement: Ray alludes to the fact that the conflict between the Montagues and the Capulets may come from discrimination based upon culture or race.

An illustrator’s application of lines, whether clear and bold or broken and thin, also changes one’s ability to find connotative meaning in a work (McCloud 125). Even though both Burdett’s students and Ray draw clearly outlined figures, the ways in which they use lines speaks to the visual statements that they are making. Burdett’s students all use thick black lines around their images, which provide rigidness to the characters’ movements and constrain their facial features, also limiting the characters’ emotional responses. This adds a very rational and calm mood to the chaotic story. Burdett’s images also often lack backgrounds; the characters and their props are typically the only images set upon the white page. Ray, in contrast, uses shading and vibrant backgrounds. Even though her characters and settings are often clearly sketched and outlined, she adds vividly colorful backgrounds that add both depth and detail to the scene and the character’s state of mind, similar to the multidimensional quality of Unzner’s water colored images overlapped by additional pencil sketches. Prior to drinking the vial that will put her in a deathlike sleep, Juliet is drawn by Ray as appearing to be on the brink of insanity: her hair appears tangled and wild, and her eyes have deep brown lines beneath them, showing that she is both restless and deranged. If one looks carefully behind Juliet’s right shoulder, s/he can see a smiling human skull and wild looking creature with skin peeling off of its face. These demonic images are disturbing and scary, but Ray’s use of them reaffirms her visual statement throughout the text: these characters are making risky, often senseless and destructive decisions while playing with their own mortality, and the viewer should feel a sense of fear and anxiety over what might happen next.

Blair states that artists who make visual statements “wish us to feel or identify with the terror or fear or horror their paintings convey” (28). Ray’s illustrations are gripping because of her candor in representing the violence present in Shakespeare’s play. While she adds partially-hidden, demonic background details, like the skull, to otherwise calm illustrations, she also adds explicit images of death and destruction. She draws Romeo holding Mercutio after he is stabbed, complete with bright red blood dripping from Mercutio’s nose and mouth. It is clear that Ray wants the viewer, even if the viewer is a child, to be confronted with the consequences of the characters’ actions, even if they appear as bloody and disturbing. Burdett’s students, on the other hand, do not show this same degree of destruction or mortality. There is little blood, and characters are only shown as being dead through their eyes being closed. In fact most of the children’s illustrations show the characters smiling, even when they have died, are involved in violent fights or are making solemn decisions. Eight-year-old Anika Johnson illustrates the scene after Mercutio has been stabbed by Tybalt, drawing Romeo holding Mercutio’s stab wound with one hand—covering any sign of injury—and embracing Mercutio’s head with the other. Mercutio leans stiffly towards Romeo with open eyes and a small smile. By eliminating the blood and anger from this scene, Burdett clearly edits and limits what she wants her child reader to see.

The ways in which the illustrators approach the morning after Juliet and Romeo are married and have sex for the first time is also very different. None of the children’s books that I mention above show any full body nudity, and most completely rid their text of this instance of sexual intimacy. In Laden’s text, the characters are married in a church, and in Coville’s book, Nolan illustrates a fully dressed Romeo walking away from Juliet, who is wearing a nightgown (See figures 10 & 11).

Figure 10: Laden’s Romeo & Juliet Church Marriage
Figure 11: Nolan’s Romeo and Juliet

Even though this moment is significant in Shakespeare’s play, the authors and illustrators often skirt around the morning scene, likely because of the difficulty in depicting any allusion to sex to an audience of small children. Burdett’s student, eight-year-old Elly Vousden, draws Romeo and Juliet kissing, while fully dressed, on the balcony (See figure 12). Not only are they outside of the bedroom, but they also appear in long-sleeved outfits and are merely hugging and kissing. Ray, on the other hand, maintains her more mature illustrative style and shows Romeo and Juliet in a nude entanglement; instead of omitting their first night together as a married couple, she portrays Juliet intimately lying on top of Romeo while caressing his face (See figure 13). Burdett’s visual statement is geared more towards the assumption of a child’s naïve understanding of love—only including a hug and a kiss to represent the physical connection between the two characters. Ray, instead, focuses upon the intense lust that exists between Romeo and Juliet by featuring the two in a close embrace and by placing their intense mutual staring in the middle of the page. She continues to make visual statements that align with the rawness of how she interprets the story, for her images are rich and she is unafraid to visually represent the more risqué plot events that other illustrators keep from their young readership.

Figure 12: Burdett’s Romeo and Juliet Embracing
Figure 13: Ray’s Romeo and Juliet Embracing

Shakespeare’s plots are not only filled with sexual affairs and immodest puns; they are also thick with violence, murder, and suicide, all of which are not typically present in contemporary children’s picture books. Like the instances of sex, some authors omit images of violence, physical altercations, and death. While Laden alone removes all death and violence from her book, most of the authors keep Romeo and Juliet’s suicides in their texts. Whether they choose to illustrate these events or not creates distinct visual statements, for visually depicting bloodied dead bodies (as Ray does) instead of illustrating a happy-looking, golden couple (as Burdett’s student Anika Johnson does) affects how the child is brought to feel about the ending the play, even if the textual adaptation presents a similar conclusion. As I mentioned previously, all of the authors show Romeo finding Juliet in a deathlike state. While this image may be disturbing to some children, they can still be comforted with the truth that Juliet is not dead at all—she is only in a deep sleep. It is only after she wakes up to find Romeo dead that she chooses a much more visibly violent death in Shakespeare’s play: stabbing herself with a dagger. The ways Burdett’s student, ten-year-old Erin Patterson, and Ray illustrate Juliet’s death is telling of the divergent visual statements of the two picture books. Patterson’s Juliet, with her long, curly blonde hair and immaculate blue and purple dress, shows little emotion as she victoriously holds up the dagger with which she plans to stab herself (See figure 14). The next time Juliet is illustrated, she is holding Romeo’s hand and smiling—an image that is supposed to represent a beautiful statue built of the immortalized lovers. On the other hand, one of the most disturbing images in Rosen and Ray’s book is that of Juliet stabbing herself with a blunt knife, blood pouring all over her white gown (See figure 15). Instead of making Juliet’s suicide appear as a heroic act or refusing to show the event to the readers, Ray presents a visually disturbing picture, allowing the reader to watch as Juliet experiences excruciating pain at her own hands.

Figure 14: Burdett’s Juliet Wielding a Knife
Figure 15: Ray’s Juliet stabbing herself

When educators or parents choose these adaptations for their students or children, they may not look closely at the illustrations, analyzing the difference between simplistic caricatures and very detailed sketched portraits of the characters explicitly engaging in sexual and violent acts. Yet, the visual statements these adaptors make send very distinct messages to children, even if the stories they are being given are largely the same. By having her students illustrate the book, Burdett acts as a moderator, censoring the more difficult visual images and giving children pictures that they themselves can relate to. Ray’s images are much more visually captivating, yet they are emotionally challenging, which suggests that even though the book is classified as a picture book, the actual audience might be older children, teenagers, and/or adults. In any case, Ray’s viewer is directly confronted with the uglier side of this famous “love story.” And while a child may be more apt to identify with Burdett’s text due to her use of solid lines and cartoon-like illustrations by other children, both of the books employ particular visual devices that excite a child’s imagination. They make powerful visual statements with the same story, yet their visual interpretations offer readers distinct challenges to understanding the bard and his story.


As the most infamous scenes in Romeo and Juliet involve murder, sex, and suicide, adaptors and illustrators for children must negotiate and decide how much of the mature content they would like to pass along to their child readers. Authors like Nina Laden, as her adapted title Romeow and Drooliet may suggest, take great liberty in retelling, eliminating key moments in Shakespeare’s play in favor of violence-free, silly events. Other adaptors, like the Lambs, Kindermann, Coville, Rosen and Burdett, all pay homage to Shakespeare by including his biography in their works and maintaining most of the events in his play, but all change the language and vocabulary to suit their imagined child reader. Yet, as I have argued, while the prose may send more explicit messages about how the authors would like children readers to understand Romeo and Juliet, the images show how greatly different these adaptations are from one another. Textually, Coville and Kindermann’s books, both sharing the same William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet title, are very similar, and, on the surface, both picture books’ pastel, peach-toned drawings appear to show the same events. Yet Nolan’s static character-centered images do not have the same symbolic nor emotional depth as Unzner’s multidimensional, active sketches. Even if one were to compare the faces of each illustrator’s Juliet as she takes the dram of poison from Friar Laurence or Romeo as he fights Tybalt, subtle differences emerge between the visual statements that each illustrator presents to his/her reader.

For those studying visual rhetoric and visual statements, texts like these demonstrate how pervasive visual statements are in all illustrated books, especially those adapted from a more mature source. In looking closely at the slightest differences in how the characters and events are drawn, one can see the ways in which children’s book authors and illustrators make considerable rhetorical decisions as they choose what to show children from “adult” stories. While Hammond only illustrated a single frame of Romeo and Juliet for the Lambs, this one image visually reaffirms how the adaptors want us to understand Juliet, guiding the reader to interpret her as docile and needing protection. Yet, sometimes the images contradict or complicate the text, leading the viewer to interpret the work in a different way. Burdett’s child illustrators’ cartoonish figures may make a subtle claim that children can and should interact with Shakespeare’s work, but beyond this, their pictures help other children imagine themselves as being connected to the characters in Shakespeare’s play. In comparison, Ray’s illustrations freely depict Romeo and Juliet in all of its bloody horror and its lustful sensuality, keeping the adaptation true to the play’s darker moments, but also advocating for a particular interpretation of the character’s emotional states. Without reading the authors’ adapted prose or depending upon their notes or introductions, one can get a good sense of how these picture books attempt to introduce Shakespeare to children by simply viewing the illustrations and noting the visual statements they make.

Even though I have argued that the illustrations in these Shakespearean adaptations do not carry explicit visual arguments, for visual arguments must have a clear, definitive propositional claim, they do provide nuanced visual statements that operate as hermeneutic devices. As such they are important to consider, especially in light of these books’ audience. In The Hidden Adult, Nodelman argues that one must not forget the role that adults play in both cultivating and purchasing children’s books with specific visual statements. He argues that it is the adult creator and buyer who invent the child’s wants and needs, often ignoring what the actual child desires, for the “children in the phrase ‘children’s literature’ are most usefully understood as the child readers that writers […] imagine and imply in their works” (5). The children offered picture books inspired by Shakespeare’s work are given a particular message about this playwright and his canon, but the argument discretely being made about Shakespeare’s importance or the themes that the adaptors want children to take from their work does not come solely from the words themselves. The illustrations completely alter the child’s relationship to the story and to the mythical figure of Shakespeare, leading the child to distinct interpretations based upon the picture book adaptation s/he is given. We should continue to think about the visual statements that different adaptations make and what they tell us about our assumptions about children and about the original text from which the book is adapted. Whether they present images as disturbing as witnessing blood flowing from Juliet’s heart or as heartwarming as an eight-year-old’s drawing of Romeo and Juliet hugging, these picture books demonstrate the endless ways in which children can be introduced to Shakespeare and his canonical plays, which they will likely study and see, again and again. In this vein, it is through visual statements that children begin to build their interpretations of literature and the canon, their understanding of themselves in the pictures they see, and their connection to the literary and visual world.

Works Cited

Ainger, Alfred. “Introduction.” Tales from Shakespeare. Charles & Mary Lamb. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell [1878];, 2000. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <>.

Aigner-Clarke, Julie, dir. Baby Shakespeare: World of Poetry. 2000. DVD. The Baby Einstein Company, 2000.

Bang, Molly. Picture This: How Pictures Work. New York: Sea Star, 2000. Print.

Birdsell, David S. & Leo Groarke. “Outlines of a Theory of Visual Argument.” Argumentation and Advocacy 43 (Winter & Spring 2007): 103 – 113. Print.

Blair, J. Anthony. “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments.” Argumentation and Advocacy 33 (Summer 1996): 23 – 39. Print.

Burdett, Lois. Romeo and Juliet for Kids. Ontario: Firefly Books, 1998. Print.

Coville, Bruce. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Illus. Dennis Nolan. New York: Dial Books, 1999. Print.

Ehses, Hanno H. “Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric.” Design Discourse: History/Theory/Criticism. Ed. Victor Margolin. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1989: 187 – 197. Print.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

James, Felicity. “‘Wild Tales’ from Shakespeare: Readings of Charles and Mary Lamb” Shakespeare 2.2 (December 2006): 152 – 167.

Kindermann, Barbara. William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Illus. Christa Unzner. New York: North South Books, 2003. Print.

Laden, Nina. Romeow & Drooliet. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005. Print.

Lamb, Charles and Mary. Tales from Shakespeare. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell [1878];, 2000. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <>.

Lewis, David. Reading Contemporary Picture Books: Picturing Text. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Marsden, Jean I. “Shakespeare for Girls: Mary Lamb and Tales from Shakespeare” Children’s Literature. 17 (1989): 47 – 63. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Collins, 1993. Print.

Nodelman, Perry. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008. Print.

—. Words about Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988. Print.

Rosen, Michael. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Illus. Jane Ray. Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2004. Print.

Smith, Valerie. “Aristotle’s Classical Enthymeme and the Visual, Argumentation of the Twenty-First Century.” Argumentation and Advocacy 43 (Winter & Spring 2007): 114 – 123. Print.

Posted in Volume 6, Issue 3: Shakespeare and Visual Rhetoric