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Shakespeare Manga: Early- or Post-modern?

By Svenn-Arve Myklebost

The act of adapting a play into a comic book1 is distinct from other types of transmediation, such as the most typical occurrence: novel into film. A play, and especially, one might argue, a play by Shakespeare, consists mainly of dialogue, while settings, costumes, gestures and so on remain free for all to supply and perform as they see fit. Adapting a Shakespeare play, then, should be merely a case of abbreviating and possibly rewriting the text and putting it in word balloons emanating from the right characters. In some, very limited, sense this is exactly what happens in the series of fourteen Shakespeare manga adaptations published by SelfMadeHero from 2007 to 2010.2 There are all kinds of reasons, however, for suspecting that the process and its outcomes may be much more complex:

1) Shakespeare was an adapter who has been adapted and interpreted more often than any other author. His plays in their early modern incarnations are therefore but one point in a long history of interart and intertextual reconfigurations. The extent to which Shakespeare has saturated the English language and Anglophone culture in general can hardly be overstated. For these reasons it is often not entirely clear what is being treated to adaptation. “Shakespeare” is a synecdoche whose full ambit of meanings is not known to any one individual. 2) Shakespeare’s plays are complex, multimodal works that count among their influences an early modern way of thinking about the verbal and visual arts, about theatrical genres, about history and what we today call ideology. The frames of their conception are of a nature which is much harder to reconstruct than people often think. 3) Adaptation is a term fraught with inaccuracies and difficulties which may in fact obfuscate some of the processes it is meant to describe. 4) Comic books and mangas have not been sufficiently studied as a form which adapts—especially when the “originals” are theatre plays. 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. As a picture of the Zeitgeist, Manga Shakespeare seems to fit the bill very snugly indeed.3 It may therefore seem reasonable to approach comic book adaptations of canonical texts in a mode attuned to a postmodern sensibility. But is this the only applicable reading strategy? May it be fruitful to read the Shakespeare mangas from an early modern perspective rather than a post-modern or post-structural one?

The question around which this article revolves is one of aesthetic identity. More specifically: what constitutes the aesthetic identity of a so-called manga adaptation of Shakespeare?4 As my introduction indicates, I believe that part of the answer may be gleaned from looking at the historical frame surrounding the plays’ conception. Of special interest for the present article is the verbal-visual architecture of Shakespeare’s plays and the varying manners of its expression.

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.” But this is true only up to a point. When Shakespeare and others started writing for the indoors stage of the Blackfriars theatre, for example, their plays became more directly visual in their nature. The Tempest, with its shipwreck scene and descending harpy (both tricks of stage mechanics), is perhaps the most salient example from Shakespeare’s canon. At the same time, Lukas Erne has argued that Shakespeare wrote not just for the stage, but for a class of readers which may have been fairly well educated. The versions of the plays that were read were in many ways different from those that were staged; they were longer, for one, and the way they transmitted a sense of the visual was also different.5 The way Shakespeare’s plays and poems create images, however, is far removed from other arts of fiction, such as the novel (which was not yet invented in England), as they consist of dense visual metaphors, regular occurrences of ekphrasis and, sometimes, descriptions of people’s physical appearance (the similarity of twins, the rotundity of Falstaff), but rarely of landscapes, buildings, scenes. Those stage directions we have say very little about settings and places, and the majority of them (including act and scene divisions) were added after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.

Early Modern Visual-Verbal Culture

Nevertheless, it is possible to reconstruct some of the visual identity of Shakespeare’s plays, even beyond their manifestations on various stages. People in early modern England had a peculiar relationship with the visual arts, a relationship that changed profoundly during the period when Shakespeare was active as author and playwright. On the one hand, large swathes of the population were illiterate (or nearly so), such that they could only efficiently be communicated with through speech and pictures, but not through writing. For this reason, works such as John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, which depicts the violence acted out upon Protestant martyrs, was illustrated with woodcuts featuring simple explanatory speeches (in banners that flow from the mouths of the persons pictured) as a means of Protestant propaganda, directed towards those who could not follow Foxe’s main text. On the other hand, the actual visual culture in England remained somewhat unsophisticated, at least from a technical perspective, in comparison with the way painting and sculpture were practiced on the continent. In the sixteenth century, the most proficient painters operating within England were portraitists and court painters, from Holbein (who was of Dutch origin) in the early years, to the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard whose popularity reached its zenith in the 1590s. Only a relatively small circle of people had access to such art, and most playwrights and, indeed, playgoers were probably not members thereof.

Figure 1: Woodcut from Actes and Monuments depicting the burning of Cranmer. Note the “word balloon.”

A much more ubiquitous mode of visual dissemination was the emblem book. There is ample evidence that emblems and emblem books influenced Shakespeare’s language, and—quite possibly—his stagecraft.6 This is particularly evident in The Tempest, but can be seen also in plays like Twelfth Night, in which Viola sits “like Patience on a monument” (2.4.114). The allegorical figure of Patience, to which this play refers, was a common sight on funereal monuments as well as in emblems.

The emblem has a tripartite structure, with a verbal and a visual track that run together throughout the books.7 There is a title, the inscriptio; an image, the pictura; and a poem, the subscriptio. The image presents a riddle of sorts, its iconography coded according to certain precepts that can be found in the combination of the title, the image and the poem. Emblems were almost always moral instructions, but they had intellectual and philosophical aspects to them ensuring an appreciation that went beyond the merely didactic. Charles Moseley describes them as devotional foci, for example (11). Emblem pictura were always endowed with iconographically significant elements, whose meanings were not always general, but needed explication in the poem. Despite this allegorical richness, emblems were not artistically significant, that is to say, stylistically and technically they were of a lower quality than art produced in places like Italy and the Netherlands.8

Figure 2: This emblem by Geffrey Whitney has strong parallels with Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Towards the end of Shakespeare’s career, the visual culture of England had moved towards both greater sophistication and greater variety, and this is reflected also in the plays of the time, but it is my contention that Shakespeare always thought about the way his art could create images, even beyond such concerns as stage tableaux, blocking and scenery.

An historical account of the image/word debate shows that it is an issue which has occupied the minds of scholars and artists for many centuries. Very simply summarised, it was Simonides’ remark that “poetry is a speaking picture and painting a mute poem,” alongside Horace’s dictum, “ut pictora poesis,” (“as is painting, so is poetry”)9 that much later spurred Leonardo da Vinci on to produce the collection of essays, advice to painters and debates about the merits of the arts that history was to name Paragone. Here, da Vinci concluded that painting is the superior art, something which in its turn, even later, provoked Lessing to write his Laocoön, whose conclusion was the opposite: that poems are “better” than the plastic arts.10 This is a debate which was very much alive during the time when Shakespeare composed his plays and poems. At this time, the notion that “the sister arts” (painting and poetry) were both analogical and equal held sway, and this influenced the way Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote; the overflow of ekphrasis and visual metaphor in poems such as Venus and Adonis is a Shakespearean idiosyncrasy, but one based on widespread classic ideals. The most famous Shakespearean example is not from a play, but from his other epic poem, The Rape of Lucrece, wherein Lucrece recalls “a piece / Of skilful painting made for Priam’s Troy” (1366-7). E. H. Gombrich cites Philostratus’ commendation of “the artist who surrounds the walls of Thebes with armed men ‘so that some are seen in full figure, others with the legs hidden, others from the waist up, then only the busts of some, heads only, helmets only, and finally just spearpoints…,'” and writes that “it must have been this passage which inspired Shakespeare to describe in The Rape of Lucrece a painting of the fall of troy,” because it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare ever saw such a painting (211). For Shakespeare and many of his English contemporaries, visual art was something you found in verbal art.11

Shakespeare’s culture, moreover, was one for which imitatio and copia were central concerns. These terms bring to mind mimesis and imitation, which in many ways hits the nail on the head, but their early modern application was rhetorical. In classical rhetoric, imitatio denotes the finding and formulation of convincing arguments, while copia applies to the copious invention of variation of expression.12 The terms therefore exist in the intersection between creativity and reproduction, which is where we find what we call adaptation. In order to be a skilled inventor of efficient and beautiful language, one must study one’s artistic forebears diligently, even slavishly, and these forebears would include painters and sculptors, or—at the very least—descriptions of paintings and sculptures. T. W. Baldwin’s Shakespere’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke documents how such classical precepts and their later humanist incarnations were taught in grammar schools like the one Shakespeare himself attended in his youth.13 Whether Shakespeare got his Renaissance schemata and models from his curriculum or whether he picked them up from contemporary writers and playwrights is of less importance. What matters is that such structures are readily discernible in his plays and poems. This early modern sensibility or philosophy of art (which was much more varied and loosely organised than I make it sound here) naturally does not transfer unchanged into present-day interpretations and readings of Shakespeare, be they scholarly or manga adaptations. The influence of accumulated history is too great. Nevertheless, it remains interesting to see what happens when the attitudes, assumptions and structures of a model such as Shakespeare’s works, including those they have picked up over the years, collide with the attitudes, assumptions and structures that pertain to reconfigurations such as the Manga Shakespeare series.

Shakespeare, Adaptation and Manga

So, what is comic book adaptation, and how can we make sense of what it does to Shakespeare, or what Shakespeare does to it? Matthew Bolton has amply demonstrated (in this very journal) that the field of comics is one that challenges some of the assumptions traditionally made by adaptation scholars. He refers to the distinction Kamilla Elliott makes between the schools of adaptation.  For some scholars the arts must remain separate, while for others they can always meld together, at least metaphorically. She traces these distinctions back to eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about painting and poetry, and in her words, “categorical differentiators recommend separate spheres for poetry and painting; interart analogizers foster sibling incest and sibling rivalries” (1). This debate, of course, is the one described above, with its roots in Ancient Greece and with reverberations that still sound in adaptation theory today. Ultimately, the distinction Elliott describes may not apply to the study of comic book adaptations; because these two perspectives—the two sides of the coin labelled ut pictora poesis—may in fact amalgamate successfully in our circumstances.

Adaptation is a word fraught with further complications and problems. Its very meaning seems to be that something, let us call it a piece of fiction or a piece of art, has been captured and moulded so that it fits into a new context. This is not exactly what happens. Margaret Jane Kidnie’s conception of adaptation, elaborated in Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation, is that the thing that adapts—transforms—across history and cultures is the overall picture or idea of Shakespeare, while single instances of adaptation are not instances of change, but of difference. Thus, the borders between what is thought of as the “work” and what is thought of as “adaptation” are always moving (164). My approach is based on a similar attitude, but I would prefer that the word adaptation be done away with completely. Even as a figure of speech, “adaptation” remains a somewhat misleading term and it is also one whose application is not always the same. I have seen fruitful discussions about Shakespearean interart derail into much less fruitful discussions about whether the work in question is an “adaptation” or an “appropriation,” for example. At the end of the day, a professor of theatre studies is likely to use the word slightly differently from a film scholar whose usage in its turn may vary slightly from that of a professor of literature and so on.

Adaptation studies are also plagued by the problem of what to do with the “original,” a problem which is especially insistent in connection with Shakespeare, since arguably there are no originals—no manuscripts or similar objects that might place a version of a Shakespearean text safely in the realm of the authoritative.14 The word “model” is both more versatile, because a model can be both a point of departure as well as a copy (such as Shakespeare’s plays are) and more precise than “original;” from here on out, therefore, this article speaks of configurations of models rather than adaptations of originals.

The Shakespeare mangas can be thought of as some of the most recent in a series of configurations based on Shakespearean models. In some respects, they imitate quite closely some traits of the early modern sources, such as the order of the action (the swapping of the first and second scenes, common in the performance history of Twelfth Night, does not occur in the manga), the events themselves, and—to a fairly large extent—the shape of the language. In many other respects it is easy to see that the model for the configuration has been the-plays-in-culture rather than in their Renaissance conceptions. The play we know as Othello, for instance, was called The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice in the Quarto (possibly around 1603) and Othello, the Moor of Venice in the First Folio twenty years later. The mangas make no attempt at creating a veneer of seventeenth century authenticity; the plays in the series are named according to what is more familiar today.

Every book in the series comes with a few paragraphs printed on the back cover, ostensibly explaining what the series is about. It may be instructive to take a look at this self-description, which is of course directed towards the marketplace:

[Title] is part of Manga Shakespeare, a series of graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Drawing inspiration from trend-setting Japan and using Shakespeare’s original texts, this series—adapted by Richard Appignanesi and illustrated by leading manga artists—brings to life the great Bard’s words for students, Shakespeare enthusiasts and manga fans.

From a formal point of view, one of the advantages of talking about models rather than originals is that it is possible to discuss plot and characters on the same level as structure and medium; the model that is Shakespeare’s characters, plot and language would mix with the model that is a manga. The result would be a form of transhistorical, transcultural and transmedial synthesis of various schemata. This is no simple matter, even if it were true, but looking at the self-description cited above there are hints that the identity of these so-called mangas might be even harder to grasp. SelfMadeHero have hedged their bets to such an extent that it is difficult to ascertain whether the product in question is a graphic novel, a manga or something else merely inspired by “trend-setting Japan”.15 Whatever the mangas do with their configuration of the models, it is something different from theatrical performance. The verbal track of a comic book is not just Shakespeare’s words superimposed on pictures of people and places, nor are the words audibly spoken by people supplying animated gestures and movements. Due to their placement in word balloons and captions, words tend to take on graphically inflected meanings on comic book pages.

Figure 3: Page 89 from Li and Appignanesi’s Twelfth Night. Copyright SelfMadeHero 2009.

The scene depicted, which will be in focus for a while, is from Manga Shakespeare‘s imitatio of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The mangaka is Nana Li, an Asian expatriate currently residing in England. Viola is in disguise (cross-dressed) as a boy page under the name Caesario. She is in the service of Orsino, the duke of Illyria, unhappily in love with him, but unable to act on her infatuation due to her false identity. In addition, she acts as a go-between for the duke and the object of his desire, Olivia, the countess of Illyria. Here, Viola-as-Caesario laments the fate of her father’s daughter, which is a roundabout way of talking about her own situation without revealing that she is in fact a woman.

Looking at the way the word balloons are distributed on this page, it is easy to read into them a melancholic mood, not just because of their semantic meaning in the context of the plot, but from their placement in a diagonally descending pattern. This is not an imitation of pitch or tone as it could be expressed by an actor; the downwards movement translates into a notion of sadness in the mind of the reader without taking a detour into the realm of audible sound. These are, and the distinction is important, word balloons, not speech balloons. There are grounds for claiming that Viola’s facial expression together with the words spoken (or printed, to be precise) contribute as much to the mood as does the placement of the word balloons, but there is no denying that the diagonal is meaningful. Stéphane Mallarmé does the same thing in this excerpt from Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard, wherein words like “l’Abîme” and “inclinaison” provide connotations not entirely unlike “pined,” “melancholy” and “grief” in Viola’s lines.

Figure 4: Excerpt from Stephane Mallarme’s Un coup de des jamais n’abolira le hasard.

It is also worth noting the abridgement that seems to take place. In the model play (in one of its model-like incarnations, the most recent Arden edition), there are more words. “And what’s her history?” asks Orsino, to which Viola replies:

A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment like a worm i’th’ bud
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed? (2.4.110-115)

For comparison, the manga Viola says (here slashes are meant to denote jumps between word balloons): “A blank, my lord. / She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm in the bud, feed on her damask cheek. / She pined in thought, and with a green and yellow melancholy, sat smiling at grief. / Was not this love indeed?” (89). One important difference between these two configurations of Shakespeare’s language is that the Arden edition has iambic pentameter (with variations) while the manga does not. The line breaks cannot, due to issues of available space, come at the places they do in the Arden edition at any rate, but this is not the main reason. The manga has a rhythm which is dictated by its form. Its rhetoric is created, not just by the placement of the word balloons and their semantic content, but by the selection of words. There is a strong emotional point made by singling out some words for presentation in one single word balloon, such as the final “was not this love indeed,” whose letters—if you look closely—have grey outlines that add to the affective effect.

The issue of selecting words pertains also to choosing them vis-à-vis the model. Richard Appignanesi, the series adapter, must have had a difficult task at times. In combining a certain grammatical flair with a healthy lack of apprehension towards “changing” Shakespeare’s language, he has been able to glue two lines together using one single word taken from the line between them: “…with a green and yellow melancholy, sat smiling at grief” (89).16 There is a big question tied to abridgement, especially when the source is Shakespeare’s words. Is to abbreviate to butcher and reduce Shakespeare’s language, or is it an act of constructing something for which the available building blocks are limited to those words that Shakespeare once wrote? And how can we be sure what words those were? This is interesting, because even if everybody agrees that Shakespeare in performance may be shortened, it is not obvious that this is allowable for Shakespeare in print.17 If we accept Erne’s thesis, Shakespeare himself was perfectly happy with the existence of different versions of his plays designed for different uses, but what Shakespeare might have meant is of little importance to the purists of today, even if they think otherwise. Maybe there are other forces at work which might mollify the completists and interest those who are more open-minded?

Figure 5: Repeat of Page 89 from Li and Appignanesi’s Twelfth Night. Copyright SelfMadeHero 2009.

When I first read this manga I failed to notice that the reference to Patience was not included.18 This, I believe, was because there is in fact a reference to Patience there, but it is part of the visual track rather than the verbal one, and it is more immediately obvious than the words: on the railing against which Viola leans there is a small ornamental sculpture in the likeness of a crying woman (whose “tears” seem to be a result of wear and humidity). In the second panel of our example this sculpture is subject to a close-up (or what Neil Cohn calls a “mono”19), which naturally tends to focus our attention on it. A quick comparison reveals that it bears scant resemblance to the early modern conception of the allegorical figure of Patience.

Figure 6: From Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593).

Where the latter is endowed with a yoke, folded hands, and thorns under her feet, the manga Patience rests her hands in her lap, unencumbered by iconographic odds and ends. The overall impression is one of melancholy rather than patience, but that does not in fact matter. This reference is aimed at qualified readers such as me; readers who will project into this sculpture the reference to the Renaissance funereal monument or emblem, whether it directly resembles it or not.20 The mangaka has provided a space for me to do so, so it is not as if it is entirely my invention; it is an invitation, and an example of how the verbal and visual tracks of manga can go together almost seamlessly. The unqualified reader, on her hand, will experience an effect similar to that of the qualified reader. Even though she is not aware of the reference to an allegorical figure in the model play, the image of the sculpture will weave itself into her reading of the manga also. She will experience an effect that arguably has something in common with that produced by renaissance emblems.

Effects of this type can be arrived at even more subtly, to the degree where it becomes difficult to distinguish between allusion and entirely subjective meaning production. In the early nineteen eighties, John H. Howard was commissioned by Oval Projects to produce an unabridged comic book configuration of Twelfth Night. It is worth showing here for the sake of demonstrating how dissimilar one sequential narrative can be from another despite sharing the same model.21

Figure 7: Patience on a coffee table (48; panel 3).

In Howard’s conception of the conversation between Orsino and Caesario/Viola, the most striking thing is how devoid it is of clearly symbolic images, so frequent in the manga. Howard’s visual-verbal allusions exist on a different level. In one panel, he deftly suggests both Viola’s actual female identity and her identification with the early modern emblem. The former is arrived at by her depiction with downcast eyes, lashes clearly visible. Long eyelashes is a feminine signifier that Caesario lacks elsewhere in the comic. The latter is a result of the former and of her placement when she speaks of Patience; the net effect is something like Patience sat on a coffee table. Despite a certain degree of caricature and use of isometric perspective, the characters of Howard’s comic stay physically and visually within the realm of the nearly naturalistic. It has the flavour of the Ibsenian stage, where household objects, postures and blocking supply symbolic detail, without the visual pyrotechnics frequently observed in manga.

Japanese and English Gender Pretenders

Finally, there is one more issue signalled by the example of Caesario/Viola’s melancholy musings: the act of cross-dressing. On the Shakespearean stage, Viola’s part would have been performed by a young man, a boy pretending to be girl pretending to be a boy. Early modern theatrical gender identities of this kind have been the focus of much critical attention. Keir Elam, for instance, writes that “Viola-as-Caesario represents not so much an androgen, half male and half female, as an indeterminate middle ground where the genders of the boy actor playing the role, the female character and the male (or ‘eunuch’) disguise are superimposed” (27). From an early modern point of view the matter is complex. On the one hand it was considered natural and right that males play female roles, not because everyone accepted boys in female attire—indeed the puritanical movement that finally succeeded in closing the theatres during the interregnum were vehemently opposed to it—but because it was considered even less decorous to let females act on stage. On the other hand, the gender aspect of Shakespeare’s play remains disturbing, even in the light of what was an established practice; Olivia does fall in love with a girl disguised as a boy, while Orsino falls in love with a boy who turns out to be a girl. Acceptable gender relations are only reinstated at the very last moment.

In a discussion revolving around Shakespeare’s relationship to what is a Japanese form of expression, it is inevitable that one compares English historical gender issues with those of Japan, especially, perhaps, the kabuki theatre. It is a form that incorporates visual narrative techniques “reused” in manga as well as “double suicides (shinjû) that resulted from the prohibition of marriage between people of different castes,” a familiar topic indeed (Boussiou 20). More importantly, kabuki, as well as the Noh tradition, are sites of theatrical gender-bending with clear parallels both to Shakespeare as well as to manga. The difference is that while men still play female roles in what is a carefully preserved stage tradition in Japan, there is no such direct line between early modern stage practices and the Western theatre of today. Nor is there a tradition in Western comics for problematizing or playing with gender identities, unlike in Japan where various mangas have utilized this to create comedy, drama and tragedy for many, many decades. Among examples of mangas on gender confusion and related topics we find Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (ca. 1953), Ikeda Riyoko’s Rose of Versailles (1972-74), Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 (1987-96) and in 1978 Kumi Morikawa produced a shôjo manga Twelfth Night. It has often been pointed out that the girls’ manga genre known as shôjo is practically readymade for a play such as Twelfth Night,22 and modern kabuki theatres have been known to perform the play also.23

Figure 8: 2nd Repeat of Page 89 from Li and Appignanesi’s Twelfth Night. Copyright SelfMadeHero 2009.

The English Shakespeare mangas are not Japanese, and they are not designed for a Japanese audience. Nevertheless, if we look again at the Caesario/Viola image, we see that the figure depicted could very well be an example of what is known as a bishônen. The bishônen is a “beautiful boy,” a girl’s manga character staple which, according to Mark McLelland, says “nothing about how gender is, but much about how it ideally should be: negotiable, malleable, a site of play” (88). More specifically, the bishônen is part of a genre known as shônen-ai: mangas about gay—or sexually liminal—young men and boys. As McLelland explains, the protagonists of this genre are sites into which its predominantly young female readership projects their own struggles with sexuality in a society which is much more restricted than the one glimpsed in these mangas. The drawing style hence places Li and Appignanesi’s manga in the shôjo genre (with overtones of shônen-ai), something which seems to be a conscious decision made by the entire SelfMadeHero team, as an attempt to create not just Shakespearean authenticity, but manga authenticity also. Producing manga for a certain type of reader does not just conform to a system of demographics created in a different culture; it also helps establish such a system for the growing Western manga industry.


This article has only had space and time for hinting at what possibilities exist in reading contemporary manga as if they were early modern art works. While it is possible to perform such analyses in much more detail, what is of importance now is to identify what theoretical challenges such a reading throws up. There is no doubt that one can read visual allegories and emblem structures in Shakespeare plays such as Twelfth NightThe Tempest and Two Noble Kinsmen (Kwang Soon Cho, among others, has done so in much more detail than I have had room for here, and my forthcoming PhD thesis also has a chapter on this topic), and on a more general level, Shakespeare’s writings seem to have thrived on the “intermedial” artistic sensibilities of his time, as suggested by my quick summary of the debate on the relative merits of painting and poetry and the role of the visual and visual-verbal arts in English renaissance society. One easy conclusion to make, therefore, is that in Shakespeare’s writing there lies a verbal-visual kernel which can be unpacked in contemporary forms such as manga, whose history and ambit of styles and themes makes it especially suited to configure the Shakespearean model. The notion that Shakespeare wrote for audiences rather than spectators, and the possibility that he wrote “literary drama” seem to buttress the claim that Shakespearean visuality needs not be primarily theatrical. Furthermore, the proliferation of illustrated editions, Shakespeare painting, 18th century caricatures, and countless other examples of visual Shakespeare configuration through the years since his death, seems to confirm the idea that Shakespeare’s art is endowed with a special visual potential that artists cannot help but respond to.24

Ultimately, however, it is reductive to say that the manga form “unpacks” the inherent visuality of Shakespeare’s verbal art. Manga is a form which may have a lot in common with early modern schemata of words and images, but it is also a contemporary form whose aesthetic and cultural identity is strong enough to make it into something much more than a receptacle for a Shakespearean “content,” and despite conjoining verbal and visual elements, a manga does not read quite like an emblem. Manga, even European manga, alludes to and evokes a tradition of form whose traits, themes and history include very many things that are, perhaps, theatrical (kabuki, noh), but decidedly not Shakespearean. The ease with which the mangas seem to reiterate four hundred year old theatrical plays is as much a result of manga’s narrative flair as it is a conjunction between post-modern and early modern models.

Does manga utilise its stock techniques, character types and topoi to explain aspects of Shakespeare’s renaissance art to present-day audiences or does it turn those Shakespearean aspects into something they have never quite been before? The answer could be, such as so many other things, one that resembles Wittgenstein’s famous trick figure of the duck-rabbit: the manga does both these things but it is forever impossible to see both at the same time. Or it could be this: that in attempting to combine Shakespearean with Japanese models, the end result is something which evokes both but ends up being neither.


[1] I use “comics,” “comic book” and “manga” more or less synonymously, pace Aarnoud Rommens, who claims that “Western discourse often ‘annexes’ manga in the overall European/American comics production by representing it as a mere genre within comics’ constellation, thereby denying the fact that manga is a medium in its own right” (n.p.). I believe it is perfectly viable to speak of manga as a type of comic without implying hierarchy. The formal differences between Western and Eastern comics that Rommens maps in his article are at any rate differences which are becoming less and less prominent as the two keep influencing and counter-influencing each other.

[2] The series editor, Emma Hayley, spells SelfMadeHero like this, without spaces, and puts Manga Shakespeare in italics. See Hayley.

[3] For more on the post-modern or post-structural aspects of comic book adaptation, see Bolton.

[4] “Aesthetic identity” is meant to describe the two-way street between a work of art and its moment in time; mainly how the artwork manifests itself—what it is—but also why it does so in a particular manner.

[5] See Erne.

[6] See Meek.

[7] Comics scholars as well as cartoonists often speak of verbal and visual tracks. See for example Manivannan, who reproduces Alan Moore’s usage of these terms.

[8] For more on Shakespeare’s relationship to emblems, see Mosley and Cho. For a critical overview of the Early Modern attitude to the verbal and visual arts, see Gent. For more on Shakespeare’s use of allegorical figures, see Kiefer.

[9] See McCormick’s introduction to Lessing (xii) and Laird on Horace’s Ars Poetica (139).

[10] See Lessing and McCormick. The claim that poetry is better than painting is implicit throughout Lessing’s book.

[11] Beyond emblems books, and popularly distributed engravings the main outlet for imaginative imagery was church art, but the whitewashed post-reformation churches of Shakespeare’s England were not always richly decorated.

[12] “There is nothing more admirable or more splendid than a speech with a rich copia of thoughts and words overflowing in a golden stream” (Erasmus 11). See also Laird 140-41.

[13] See also Bullogh.

[14] The First Folio of 1623 was assembled seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The quartos that were in print during his life time are all more or less corrupted, although it is difficult to know why or to what extent.

[15] The editor of the series, Emma Hayley expands her approach to creating Manga Shakespeare in an essay of the same name, wherein the text adaptor, Richard Appignanesi is quoted. Instructively, the mixed attitude discernible in the self-description cited above is reflected by the contrast between the terminologies applied by Hayley and Appignanesi; he speaks of Japanese-style graphic novels, she speaks of manga (275).

[16] I have not been able to ascertain whether this was done with the assistance of the textual consultant Nick de Somogyi (Hayley 269).

[17] “The abridgment of the text was necessary because it needed to work with the medium,” says Hayley. “The point of this beautiful medium [i.e. manga] is not to have pages of talking heads but to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’, combining visual poetry with textual poetry. To use the full text would have meant ignoring the nature of manga” (Hayley 269; my emphasis).

[18] In the model text, Patience appears in the line (2.4.114) whose mere ghost appears as “sat” in the manga.

[19] In Cohn’s usage a “mono” is a panel containing only “a single entity” (40). In manga it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain where the panel borders are and exactly what constitutes an “entity” (is a sculpture an entity?), so Cohn’s nomenclature should be applied advisedly.

[20] The terms “new” and “qualified” reader, established by Stuart Sillars in The Illustrated Shakespeare 1709-1875, are applied throughout this discussion. Finer distinctions are not needed, nor sustainable.

[21] In fact, the manga and the comic probably share the same model in name only. Differences between the texts indicate that Howard and his editor were working from a different Twelfth Night than the SelfMadeHero team.

[22] See Ryuta 111.

[23] According to the article “Kabuki Meets Shakespeare,” on the Trends in Japan web site, “Ninagawa Yukio, a theater director known for his Japanese productions of Shakespeare’s works, has fused the two classical styles together. The result is a unique staging of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Twelfth Night. Titled Ninagawa Twelfth Night, the production was performed in July at the Kabukiza in Ginza, one of Japan’s best-known Kabuki theaters” (n.p.).

[24] See all three books by Sillars in the works cited.

Works Cited

Appignanesi, Richard. Twelfth Night. By William Shakespeare. Illus. Nana Li. Ed. Emma Hayley. London: SelfMadeHero, 2009. Print.

Baldwin, Thomas Whitfield. William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke (2 vols.). (1944) Illinois: U of Illinois P, 2007. Web. Aug. 6 2010.

Bolton, Matthew. “Fidelity and Period Aesthetics in Comics Adaptation.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 6.1 (2011): n. pag. Dept of English, University of Florida. 5 Mar 2012. Web.

Bouissou, Jean-Marie. “Manga: A Historical Overview.” Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Toni Johnson-Woods. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Volume VII. Major Tragedies. London: Routledge, 1973. Print.

Cho, Kwang Soon. A Study of Emblems in Shakespeare’s Last Plays. Diss. Michigan State U, 1990. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1990. Print.

Cohn, Neil. “A Visual Lexicon.” The Public Journal of Semiotics I.1 (2007) 35-56. n.d. Web. Nov 10 2009.

Elam, Keir. “Introduction.” Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Ed. Keir Elam. London: Arden-Methuen, 2008. Print.

Elliot, Kamilla. Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

Erasmus, Desiderus of Rotterdam. On Copia of Words and Ideas. (De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia). Trans. Donald B. King and H. David Rix. Milwaukee: Marquette UP, 2007. Print.

Erne, Lukas. Shakspeare as Literary Dramatist. Cambridge: CUP, 2003. Print.

Foxe, John. The Unabridged Acts and Monuments Online or TAMO. Sheffield: HRI Online Publications, 2011. Web. 13 Mar 2012.

Gent, Lucy. Picture and Poetry 1560-1620. Leamington Spa: James Hall, 1981. Print.

Gombrich, E.H. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Haley, Emma. “Manga Shakespeare.” Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Toni Johnson-Woods. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Howard, John H, adapt. Twelfth Night. (1985) By William Shakespeare. Illus. John H. Howard. London: Can of Worms Press, 2005. Print.

“Kabuki Meets Shakespeare.” Trends in Japan. Web Japan. 2005. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

Kidnie, Margaret Jane. Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation. London: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Kiefer, Frederick. Shakespeare’s Visual Theatre: Staging the Personified Characters. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

Laird, Andrew. “The Ars Poetica.” The Cambridge Companion to Horace. Ed. Stephen Harrison. Cambridge: CUP, 2007. Print.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoön. 1766. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

Manivannan, Vyshali. “Interplay Amidst the Strangeness and the Charm: Under-language and the Attenuation of Meaning in the Film Adaptation of Watchmen.” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies. 5.4 (2011). Dept of English, University of Florida. 30 Mar 2011. Web.

Meek, Richard. Narrating the Visual in Shakespeare. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

McCormick, Edward Allen. “Translator’s Introduction.” Laocoön. 1766. By Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

McLelland, Mark. “The ‘Beautiful Boy’ in Japanese Girls’ Manga.” Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Toni Johnson-Woods. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Bruges: La Novelle Revue Française, 1914. Poetry in Translation. n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2012.

Moseley, Charles. A Century of Emblems: An Introductory Anthology. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1989. Print.

Potolsky, Matthew. Mimesis. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Rommens, Aarnaud. “Manga Story-telling/showing.” Image [&] Narrative 1 (2000): n.pag. Web. 10. Nov. 2010.

Ryuta, Minami. “Shakespeare for Japanese Popular Culture: Shojo Manga, Takarazuka and Twelfth Night.” Kennedy, Dennis and Yong Li Lan (eds.). Shakespeare in Asia: Contemporary Performance. Cambridge: CUP, 2010. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Rape of LucreceThe Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition. Eds. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells. Oxford: OUP, 2005. Print.

—. Twelfth Night. Ed. Keir Elam. London: Arden-Methuen, 2008. Print.

Sillars, Stuart. Painting Shakespeare: The Artist as Critic 1720-1820. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. Print.

—. Shakespeare, Time and the Victorians. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print.

—. The Illustrated Shakespeare 1709-1875. Cambridge: CUP, 2009. Print.

Vinci, Leonardo da. Paragone. Trans. Irma A. Richter. London: Oxford UP, 1949. Print.

Whitney, Geffrey. A choice of emblemes, and other deuises, for the moste parte gathered out of sundrie writers, Englished and moralized. And diuers newly deuised, by Geffrey Whitney. A worke adorned with varietie of matter, both pleasant and profitable: wherein those that please, maye finde to fit their fancies: bicause herein, by the office of the eie, and the eare, the minde maye reape dooble delighte throughe holsome preceptes, shadowed with pleasant deuises: both fit for the vertuous, to their incoraging: and for the wicked, for their admonishing and amendment. Leyden: Christopher Plantyn, 1586. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 May 2009.

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