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“These are not our Father’s words!”: Kill Shakespeare‘s Defense of the Meta-Text

By Jason Tondro

Kill Shakespeare, written by first-time comic authors Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery, with art by industry veteran Andy Belanger and colors by Ian Herring, was the most important Shakespearean comic to be published in 2011, when its initial 12-issue monthly run was collected under a single cover. The premise of the tale—that all of Shakespeare’s characters exist in one fantastic world alongside Shakespeare himself, whom villains like Richard III, Lady MacBeth and Iago plot to assassinate but Hamlet, Juliet, and Falstaff struggle to save—evokes a toybox atmosphere in which creators play fast and loose with legendary characters in a spirit of fun (at best) or profit (at worst). When its first issue debuted in April of 2010, reception was mixed. Predictably, those with a professional interest in Shakespeare took umbrage with the book, accusing Del Col and McCreery of misreading the source material, either paying insufficient attention to the text or else willfully altering it. Some of the charges boiled down to simple accusations of laziness and a desire not to engage with Shakespeare at all but, rather, to appropriate him for his marketing cachet. Kill Shakespeare, so these critics insisted, was good copy and sold comics; the book had no other purpose and was of no real value to Shakespeare scholars and performers. Those critics who defended the book generally did so while recognizing its sense of fun; they dismissed the misreadings as real but ultimately unimportant in a tale that was more about telling a good story than being faithful to Shakespeare or aspiring to the title of literature.

Neither of these readings is correct. Kill Shakespeare is not an idle gaud, a pleasant distracting story with no aspirations to art. Neither is it a lazy misreading of Shakespeare, an arrow shot (solely) at the target of marketability and high sales. Rather, it is a meta-text that engages with its own critics and addresses its alteration of Shakespeare in its own pages. Even as critics blasted Del Col and McCreery for the changes they wrought upon Hamlet and his fellows, Juliet and Falstaff were debating free will, the importance of character growth and change, and questions of loyalty to one’s creator. Falstaff, Rosencrantz, and other characters who seem to have radically changed from their original presentation are exactly the same people who insist that, if we were to remain always the same, we would be much less interesting, and that it is precisely because Shakespeare’s characters reflect on their decisions and alter the course of their own lives that we find those characters so appealing. The characters of Kill Shakespeare—and, by extension, the text itself—argue that they and we are not made unchanging, and our capacity for growth, self-analysis and authority is precisely what makes us admirable.

This tension, between the unchanging Shakespearean text and the evolving meta-text, is climactically addressed at the end of Kill Shakespeare. The character of Shakespeare has wandered off to adopt a mundane disguise, anonymously mingle among his own created characters, and bring a little bit of William in the night. Hamlet has been left behind to read Will’s parting words as a kind of epilogue, a letter which Romeo Montague dismisses as “blasphemy”, shouting, “These are not our father’s words!” In one sense, Romeo is wrong, since the letter Hamlet is reading is, in fact, Sonnet 71 and so the most authentic example of Shakespeare’s “words” in the entire comic. But in a larger sense, as a literary critic, Romeo is right: Kill Shakespeare is not Shakespeare. The characters of Hamlet, Falstaff, Juliet, and the rest are not presented exactly as Shakespeare presented them, and Romeo’s outrage makes him a spokesman for every critic of this text and others like it that take liberty with their source material. The crime is made only more serious by virtue of Shakespeare’s unique standing. Where do the authors get off impersonating Shakespeare, a legendary creator figure who is the center of so much study, performance, and thought? When Hamlet chooses to defend the letter he becomes, in turn, a stand-in for the authors themselves, defending not only this comic but an entire genre of continuation and re-appropriation.

The debate between Romeo and Hamlet is only the final salvo of an exchange that begins nearly three hundred pages earlier, a controversy that touches on every major character in the tale, and so some brief summary of KS may be useful. Kill Shakespeare ostensibly begins between Acts IV and V of Hamlet. Exiled from Denmark, Hamlet is in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when his ship is attacked by pirates. But rather than be captured, Hamlet is transported magically to another world where he is met by Richard III. Hamlet finds himself in the land where all of Shakespeare’s plays are true and occurring at more or less the same time. Lear and Titus Andronicus lurk in their own kingdoms on Richard’s nebulous borders; Macbeth and his seductive wife are troublesome allies of Richard himself. None of it makes much sense historically, but that doesn’t seem to be the point.

The characters of this world revere Shakespeare as a kind of god, even swearing “by Will” when they would otherwise cite the divine. Shakespeare is the creator of this world and all who dwell within it, a feat he apparently performed through the use of an omnipotent quill pen which acts as the McGuffin of the piece. Richard wants the quill so he can use it for further conquest. Lady MacBeth, who in KS is curiously possessed of awesome magical powers, just wants to destroy this symbol of male potency that she, as a conspicuous symbol of female agency in the book, forsakes. Rebels against Richard, including Falstaff, Juliet, Othello, and others, do not want the quill so much as they want the help of their Shakespeare in ousting Richard’s unjust rule. Hamlet is the catspaw in all of this, initially the dupe of Richard and Lady MacBeth, and it is he who is tasked with the mission to kill Shakespeare. True to character, he does not rush blindly and boldly into this task as, famously, Othello would. Instead, he interrogates the mission and the facts he has been given, slowly unraveling the various conspiracies working upon him and enduring subplots comedic, romantic, and tragic by turns, until he finds Shakespeare in a hidden forest grove. There, although resolved not to kill his maker, he finds the poet to be a drunken, disconsolate, and disheveled man unworthy of the worship given to him. Hamlet departs, but the rebellion escalates anyway. Richard lures Lady MacBeth’s military forces, led by Coriolanus, away from their mistress, and it looks like Juliet and the others will be massacred before Hamlet returns to Shakespeare and persuades him to take action. In a climactic battle, Richard’s forces are defeated, Richard himself is slain by Shakespeare wielding the quill of creation, and Lady MacBeth escapes to a sequel.

Initial misreadings boldly presented at the beginning of KS and properly singled out by critics when the first issue was published alienate those readers who seek fidelity to Shakespeare. Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is completely opposite to the one we see in his play. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is very clear about his opinion of his fellow schoolmates, assuring his mother in the closet scene that he trusts them as he would “adders fanged,” (III.iv) and famously chiding them for trying to “play” him as if he were a musical instrument (III.ii). And although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ineffectual spies, spies they remain, coming at Claudius’ command and apparently working in all sincerity to divine the reason for Hamlet’s odd behavior. Their failure is one of intelligence and perception rather than loyalty to the prince.

But in KS, this is not so. Instead, once aboard the ship bound for England, Rosencrantz assures Hamlet that, were the prince to return to Denmark “with sword now and cast down your uncle,” just as Claudius fears Laertes is doing when the young man returns from France, Ros and Guil would be loyal to the prince. (KS #1: 11) This insistence could be dismissed as another lie, a trap placed by Rosencrantz in an attempt to vindicate the execution order he has in his pocket, except for the actions of both men in the pages that follow. Hamlet not only accepts the offer of armed support, but comforts Ros by saying that he has always known his “dear friends” are loyal and will never betray him “for gold nor promises of power.” This is the sort of thing Hamlet might say to Horatio, but surely not to adders fanged. Rosencrantz even reminds Hamlet that the prince is the rightful heir to the throne—a very good reason for Hamlet’s distemper which Ros apparently forgot to mention to Claudius when asked. The scene climaxes when Rosencrantz reveals the execution order and throws it overboard, but this is not a casual gesture. It is done to make a point, both for Rosencrantz and for the text itself. When he destroys the letter that, in Hamlet, is responsible for the death not of the prince but for Rosencrantz himself, Ros stakes claim to his own authority and steps off from the pages of his source material. From this moment, the play Hamlet cannot end as we know it to end; there is no reason for the Ambassador from England to appear and reveal that the king of his nation has executed the two spies, because the letter commanding that execution has not been written, and the reason for that letter’s creation has been destroyed. Rosencrantz makes this gesture in the context of his debate with Hamlet, who in KS is tortured by his accidental murder of Polonius. Rosencrantz urges him to return to Denmark with bared steel and claim the throne, but Hamlet is uncertain. He cannot see which choice is the right one. In his indecision, he has lost the name of action, but Rosencrantz has shifted from student to teacher. As he throws the letter overboard, he argues, “That is how one makes a difficult choice, Hamlet… One lets go.” (figure 1) By letting go of his source material, of the document which leads to his own death, Rosencrantz argues for self-determination and agency. It avails him little. Nine pages later he is killed by the pirates before an outraged and impotent Hamlet.

Figure 1

Rosencrantz rewrites the end of his own play, destroying the letter of assassination and urging Hamlet to “let go”. From Kill Shakespeare #1 (page 13), art by Andy Belanger.

When a reader familiar with the text of Hamlet begins Kill Shakespeare, it is easy to admire the decision to begin the story during Hamlet’s exile, during which we already know he has many adventures and after which his demeanor is much changed. This would seem a natural place for a fantastic interlude. But this seeming fidelity to the source material is a lie, and when that same knowledgeable reader bumps up against Rosencrantz’s out-of-character relationship with Hamlet, his destruction of the letter, and his death by pirates, all the good will sown by apparent fidelity to Hamlet turns to displeasure. It is easy to see why the first issue of the comic earned hot words from Shakespeare professionals.

But the changes are not without dramatic effect and purpose. When he exits the stage at the end of Act IV, Hamlet declares “my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth.” All scenes of dramatic paralysis and indecision are behind him now; although he is exiled, his mind is made up, and he will see justice done upon Claudius regardless of the ghost’s merit or nature. While that change is perfectly within Hamlet’s character considering all he has seen and done to that time, it is not the popular conception of Hamlet, who is infamously indecisive. Del Col and McCreery’s Hamlet regains that well-known indecision when he first agonizes over the death of Polonius but, more importantly, is unable to save his boon companions and loyal friends from death in the pages that follow. The Hamlet of Kill Shakespeare is an Act II Hamlet, not an Act V Hamlet, exile to England notwithstanding. And this change makes dramatic sense, since Hamlet is not at the end of his journey in KS, but is at the beginning of a new one that will last for hundreds of pages. The indecision which plagues Hamlet in KS pays off over the issues that follow, as the uncertain prince questions and interrogates the world in which he finds himself. A Hamlet whose thoughts were bloody would not make it past the third issue of Kill Shakespeare, because he would kill his creator as quickly as possible, asking no questions, and would probably die in the process.

Other than accusations of infidelity to the plays, made by virtually every actor and scholar who read Kill Shakespeare even if that reader went on to enjoy the book, the most repeated criticism is that Del Col and McCreery simply did not read the plays, are lazy, and chose Shakespeare as their topic because of the Bard’s marketability. Reviews of the book were posted on Comic Book Resources, Bleeding Cool, and other online magazine sites, often citing “well known Shakespeare scholar” Kimberly Cox, whose colorful rant against KS provided quotes such as “I just threw up in my mouth.” Cox’s authority as a reviewer is based on two characteristics. First, she is a performer of Shakespeare and has all the knowledge that an acting professional with a deep interest in the plays would have; second, she is inevitably described as “Frank Miller’s girlfriend”, associating her with the controversial author of influential books such as The Dark Knight Returns as well as the shameless propaganda piece Holy Terror.

After calling the book “a giant stinking turd”, Cox notes that the language of KS is not iambic pentameter, which she insists, “can be easily done if you know what to do” (Johnston). But Cox’s real point cannot be that the authors failed to use the proper language, since if such a trick really is “not so difficult” then it would also not be worthy of praise. Instead, her real complaint is that the authors were simply lazy. They did not read the plays. “They thought they could bullshit their way through,” she writes, and “never bothered to do their homework.” This charge is without merit. A critic can accuse Del Col and McCreery of gross appropriation and revision, and the language of the comic is sometimes jarring, but the use of Shakespearean characters, plots, and themes is complicated and thoughtful, even if a reader might disagree with the argument. The presentation of Iago, for example, is especially well done; in a world where every villain seems possessed of either an army or fantastic magical powers, Iago is instead a man with nothing but his wits and a keen desire for self-preservation and promotion. A double agent working for both Richard and Lady MacBeth, who repents of his ways but still can’t help lying to Othello’s face, Iago gets his comeuppance even at the moment of his clearest self-realization, the very moment when he understands he, like Rosencrantz, can seize control of his own destiny and “just let go.” He is a wonderfully sympathetic and charismatic villain, exactly as we wish him to be. This is only one example of the close reading of Shakespeare’s plays which manifests throughout the text, from long sequences like a re-enactment and reversal of the balcony scene to the cameo appearance of a man-eating bear straight from Winter’s Tale. (figure 2)

Figure 2

A creative reversal of the balcony scene has Juliet climbing up the ivy to woo her Hamlet. From Kill Shakespeare #8 (page 17), art by Andy Belanger.

On the subject of language, however, critics have more traction. There are two specific trends in the language of Kill Shakespeare which grate on the reader and break immersion in the story. The first is the occasional use of lines or titles from the plays, primarily as dialog. In the seventh issue, for example, Iago has met with Lady MacBeth and is giving his report on Hamlet’s movements when she assures him that she has taken “measure upon measure” to ensure that the Prince of Denmark kills Shakespeare. (KS #7: 4) These winks to the audience almost always fall flat. It is cleverly done when Juliet and the others rendezvous at a pub called “Midsummer Night’s Dram” (#6: 4), but this moment and others like it are exceptions rather than the rule. The second major flaw of the language is the use of “thee” and “thou” throughout. Most of the time (but not always) these words are used in a grammatically appropriate way, but it is one of the few real gestures to Elizabethan speech patterns in the book and by far the most common and repetitive; rather than evoking Shakespearean diction, it just sounds labored. The choice to use these pronouns smacks of an early decision that, once implemented, could not be changed after the project had begun even when the failure became obvious. After all, Kill Shakespeare is a major work that took a year to publish and is three hundred pages long. The writers could have learned this lesson from the 1995 Hollywood production of The Scarlet Letter, in which Demi Moore utters “I love thee” and other wince-worthy dialog, but once the first issue of KS had hit the stands, Del Col and McCreery were locked into this linguistic equivalent of a running gag until the entire series had run its course.

To be fair, most critics of Kill Shakespeare read only the first issue, with its bold misreading of Hamlet and Rosencrantz, while the longer and more explicit defenses of the meta-text occur later. Quite simply, KS gets better as the issues move on, especially because Del Col and McCreery are wise enough to give artist Andy Belanger vast creative freedom with the layout and presentation of the page. An example from the seventh issue illustrates the point; the script given to Belanger encourages him to “really play with the layout,” to “have fun with this set-piece” and to “go nuts.” There are no directions as to what the panel borders, backgrounds, and other layout should be. Given such a head of steam, Belanger literally frames all the panels, making them into elaborate mirror pictures that, in turn, reflect additional mirrors. He unites pages sixteen and seventeen into a single double-page spread, using background mirrors to guide the eye from panel to panel across the center of the spread and beyond. (figure 3) It is Belanger who adds the theatrical red curtains, accenting this mirror funhouse as a “play within a play”, which makes perfect sense since this sequence follows one in which Hamlet is forced to re-enact the Murder of Gonzago on stage with Feste and Toby Belch. And, as in Hamlet’s direction of the Murder of Gonzago in his own play, when Claudius is forced to realize the horror of his own crime and his own guilt, Hamlet and Juliet come to their own moments of self-realization here, within the mirror funhouse, where light is hard to come by but truth is all too handy.

Figure 3

Artist Andy Belanger uses red curtains to establish the theatrical nature of this play-within-a-play, mirrors to frame each panel, and background mirrors to guide the eye across the page break and up from the tortured Hamlet of panel 4 to the entrance of Juliet in panel 5. From Kill Shakespeare #7 (page 15).

It is, indeed, in this sequence from the seventh issue that Del Col and McCreery make their revisionist agenda most plain. Hamlet and Juliet have both entered a labyrinth of mirrors, a kind of Elizabethan funhouse; the Prince is fleeing the stage for the same reason Claudius did—shame and guilt—while Juliet is pursuing Hamlet, whom she has slowly come to love. Separated by the mirrors of the funhouse but able to hear one another, the two unpack their hearts with words. At first, Hamlet’s unpacking is absolutely true to his play as we know it: he bemoans the death of his father, his own hesitancy in the revenge plot, and his accidental murder of Polonius. But then on page eighteen he changes his tune, apologizing to Juliet for initially lying to her and, one wonders, apologizing to us for the shock which revisions inevitably entail. “My father was not a wise King,” he begins. “He was rash, suspicious … and so he waged war on all our neighbors to destroy them.” This, apparently, is an explanation for Old King Hamlet’s rivalry with Norway, and although it casts the dead King in a decidedly ambiguous light, it is still just an elaboration of the play, rather than at odds with it. But Old King Hamlet’s paranoia grew, Hamlet goes on, “and this is how he taught himself to fear his blameless brother … and eventually his son.” The text that follows, coupled with Belanger’s depiction of a King suspicious of his own kin and waiting for betrayal, paints a very different picture of the court of Denmark than that we get from Shakespeare. In the world of Kill Shakespeare, Hamlet loved his father in defiance of the evidence; when he defended his father’s memory to Gertrude in the closet scene, his words were hollow and false. Gertrude’s affection for Claudius, and indeed Claudius’s murder of his brother, become justified, a self-fulfilling prophecy which a paranoid King first conceived and then forced into birth.

Hamlet’s confession and revision of his own play is answered by Juliet, who narrates her love affair with Romeo but accepts the blame for Romeo’s death, claiming “I also made my love believe that if our hearts were to be thwarted then this world held nothing for Romeo and Juliet” (# 7: 19). That is, Juliet claims that she persuaded Romeo that, if they could not be together, they should die. And because Romeo believed her, when he found her in a sleep so deep that he mistook it for death, he took his own life. Romeo does, as we have mentioned, survive these events and return in the pages of Kill Shakespeare, but in the mirror funhouse with Hamlet, Juliet does not know this and insists Romeo is dead, “killed by the callowness and selfishness of my youth.”

These alterations to the plot, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s plays are not the work of lazy writers who need to be admonished to “do your research”. They are, rather, revisions that create new tensions in characters divorced from their original settings. Hamlet has no Horatio in whom to confide first his doubt and then his hard resolve; he has no corpse of Ophelia across whom he can shout his boasts of love; he has no Laertes to be both rival and surrogate brother, a man he has wronged but whom he wishes to appease. All of these characters provide opportunity for Hamlet to display his inner turmoil and they provide opportunity for the conflict which drives the action of his play. But these characters are absent from the pages of Kill Shakespeare, so characters from the rest of Shakespeare’s canon must fill the gap and, because Hamlet has left all those other people and problems behind, new problems must be invented to suit the new supporting cast. Hamlet’s revisionist history of his relationship with his father, and his suggestion that Claudius is, in fact, blameless and that Hamlet’s revenge is misguided, allows him to share with Juliet a sense that they are both victims of foolish self-delusion. As these confessions take hold, both Hamlet and Juliet find companionship in their shared errors and shared self-understanding. When Hamlet learns that Romeo lives, he at once tries to do right by him just as he would have tried to do right by Laertes, were he ever to return to Denmark and complete the action of his play. Certain that he can never compare to an idealized and legendary love, he reintroduces Romeo to Juliet and tries to step aside. Refreshingly, it is Juliet herself, another conspicuously feminist character in the text and a far more sympathetic one than Lady MacBeth, who reclaims her own sovereignty when it comes to choosing her lover.

Indeed, it is always the sympathetic characters of Kill Shakespeare, its protagonists and heroes, who embrace change and revision, and it is always the villains of the piece who insist on loyalty to their past and to their maker. When Richard and Shakespeare meet in battle, Shakespeare tries to convince the misshapen king to lay down his arms. Richard’s response, “I am as I was made to be,” is a claim of fidelity to his maker and to an inner nature that cannot ever be changed. (#12: 4) When Iago and Hamlet wrestle at the last, Iago defends his actions with, “I have always been a serpent” (#12: 8). Don Jon, who in his original play confides “it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain,” is perfectly true to form in Kill Shakespeare, a caricature of evil capable of awful acts of cruelty without earning a shred of sympathy from readers.

But change is embraced by Hamlet, Juliet, and their ilk. Far from being an infamous coward, the Falstaff of KS is a valiant man who, while wise enough to flee overwhelming odds, is not averse to drawing his sword and slaying Richard’s men when the fight is fair. And it is Falstaff who defends change when he tries to persuade Juliet that Hamlet is more than the “frightened boy” he appears to be. (#5: 9) “Were we not made by Will to experience life and grow,” he argues, invoking two important themes at once. First, Falstaff argues that it is natural and, therefore, good to change. Change is positive; it is growth. But also relevant to our reading is the role of Shakespeare in this growth; Falstaff makes a point to invoke Will and thereby argue that growth and change are an indelible part of these characters as Shakespeare made them. Falstaff argues that Shakespeare’s characters, even in their own plays, grow and change, and that it is therefore natural and expected for them to continue to do so when removed from those plays. Hamlet, Juliet, and Falstaff were not made static; if they were, we would not be so captivated by them. If Del Col and McCreery were to drop those same characters into a continuation like Kill Shakespeare without continuing that policy of growth and change, preserving them forever in the moment they were last seen, that would be a disservice to Will. This is the error that Richard, Iago and Don Jon make; they are Shakespeare loyalists—not loyal to the character of Will Shakespeare, whom they hunt and hate, but loyal to an obstinate and unchanging vision of what Shakespeare made. They insist in word and action that Shakespeare’s characters can never change, and if Will made them evil then evil they must always be. Their vision is ultimately hopeless, and Falstaff and Rosencrantz preach the rejection of that vision even to their death, until their cause is taken up by Hamlet and Juliet, who come to see wisdom.

In presentation, the character of Shakespeare himself in KS is spiritual heir to Neil Gaiman’s influential version of the character in Sandman, as portrayed in three issues over the long run of that series. Gaiman’s is a Shakespeare of conflicting nature and priorities, at once both a humble working man who worries about putting food on the family table and a divinely-inspired legend imbued with supernatural creative power. In “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Gaiman shows a Shakespeare whose choice to become a poet for all time has led to blindness towards his own child and the concerns of love and family which once were enough for him. “The price of getting what we want,” Morpheus clarifies, “is getting what you once wanted” (“Midsummer” 19). With his Faustian bargain, Shakespeare has gained immortality through his art, but lost those things which once satisfied him: home and family. As a result, Shakespeare’s performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream is a triumph, welcomed by its audience and its patron, but in that night the seeds are sown for Hamnet’s abduction by Titania and his removal from the earthly world. Rather than mourn his son, Shakespeare uses it as grist for the creative mill and a future masterpiece. But by the end of his career in “The Tempest,” Shakespeare has come to understand the bargain he has made and he has wearied of it. He is eager to lay down the pen.

McCreery and Belanger pick up where Gaiman leaves off, in spirit and tone if not in chronology. Characters from The Tempest are conspicuously absent in this text; in a book that has plenty of magic, witchcraft, spells and monsters, Prospero, Ariel, Caliban, and his mother would seem to be a natural fit. None of those characters appear. Nevertheless, Shakespeare himself has wearied of his creative life and retreated into isolation, cynical and jaded. He does not appear until the ninth issue, when Hamlet finally enters the “Globe Woods,” a magical forest. It is here where artist Andy Belanger again stakes out his creative space in the book through its gutters and panel borders, much as we have already seen in the mirror funhouse scenes of issue seven, before eventually revealing his take on William Shakespeare.

The Globe Woods is a world-in-miniature, its towering trees enclosing infinite space, its storybook cottage transformed into a haunted and decrepit ruin as quickly as a curtain might be raised or lowered. Much of Belanger’s visual depiction of the Globe comes from the writers’ script, which describes the woods as “darker” and “more tightly packed.” The script invokes a “palpable feeling of menace” and “foreboding”, but how is this to be accomplished? Instead of a traditional panel grid separated by border lines and a white gutter, the trees of the Globe woods become the gutter and characters like Hamlet, Falstaff and Romeo peek out from the branches to speak cramped word balloons surrounded on all sides by a forest crowding and hostile. (figure 4) The characters and the landscape fight for space on the page and it is this visual rivalry which creates the menace and foreboding Del Col and McCreery asked for.

Figure 4

Belanger again makes his most personal contribution through the panel borders and gutters. As the characters go into the Woods, the Globe becomes their world and the pressure to escape the text is represented by trees crowding in and around. From Kill Shakespeare #9 (pages 7-8).

The hostility of forest, trees, paper, and text—all related and blending into one another in this remarkable sequence—is further emphasized when Hamlet is forced to cross the moat-like river which surrounds Shakespeare’s cottage. He is halfway across when a mysterious assailant yanks him beneath the water and, once the vantage point changes, we see him attacked by what the script calls the “paper monster,” an “unholy monster made entirely of paper (think Swamp Thing but with wet nasty paper instead of vines and veggies).”

Figure 5

The Paper Monster, originally described as a single being inspired by DC’s Swamp Thing, made visually memorable by Bernie Wrightson. Belanger re-interprets his instructions to create a mob of faceless texts. From Kill Shakespeare #9 (page 13-14).

If the text of Hamlet’s play has been his enemy, if indeed one-sided loyalty to the text is the bugaboo which this comic seeks to engage, then here it can be no more embodied, though Belanger has not given the writers precisely what they asked for. Instead of a single “Swamp Thing”-inspired creature, Belanger has drawn a faceless mob of paper humanoids with heads, arms and grasping hands—not a single monstrous text but, rather, an assemblage of chapters, books and plays made faceless and mute—while Hamlet careens round them in panels reminiscent of the Phantom Zone, the cinematic panel-prison for Krypton’s terrorist trio in Superman and its sequel Superman II. In those films, Zod and his allies break out of their shimmering, sci-fi comic book panel and into the reality of our world; Hamlet’s trajectory is the opposite: he is being sucked back into the whirling panel, flipping end over end, trapped in the text and the paper of the Shakespeare page. Critically, he does not defeat the paper monster; he does not tear, burn or otherwise destroy the text that is his source and our canon. That would be a different argument, one more hostile to literature, than the one Del Col and McCreery are making. Rather, Hamlet escapes his fate, fleeing the text up and out of the river to Shakespeare’s cottage, where we get our first glimpse of the creator himself.

Belanger continues to play with the thematic connotations of text, paper, and panel as Hamlet enters the cottage and speaks to a Shakespeare hidden in conspicuous shadow, an authorial direction which prolongs the suspense of his revelation. But what is not in the script is the nine-panel grid that serves as Shakespeare’s main prop in this sequence: a window which bears nine panes, set in the front of his ramshackle cottage. As Hamlet approaches the cottage, he is also approaching a comic page; he moves from the wet, soggy, and vaguely horrifying pulp of the 1600s to the glossy panels of his new and current incarnation, not just in paper any more but framed on iPads, Kindles and other glass screens like panes of a window. And Shakespeare moves behind that window-page like a temptress behind a gauze curtain, showing us only his outline until, with a flip of the camera, we are suddenly inside the cottage and the window is behind, framing the author to create a simultaneous splash page and mosaic, a depiction of Shakespeare which is at once whole and broken into pieces, standing before us but projected behind. (figure 6)

Figure 6

Shakespeare as he is initially revealed to Hamlet and to us, an iconoclast’s version of the playwright and poet, drunken and bitter. The nine-panel window behind him features prominently in the pages which precede this one, as Hamlet closes in on his quarry. From Kill Shakespeare #9 (page 19).

The Shakespeare we receive shocks Hamlet as it is intended to shock us. Visually, Belanger has drawn his inspiration from the Chandos portrait, a working man’s Shakespeare distinctive for the author’s visible earring and open collar. (figure 7)

Figure 7

The Chandos Portrait. Scholarship is not in unanimous agreement over the details and provenance of this piece, but it is popularly presumed to be of Shakespeare and would date to his own life. More important for Belanger, it presents a vision of Shakespeare which is at odds with the high-brow reputation of the poet.

The script suggests dressing Shakespeare in red, but Belanger has wisely corrected this to purple to better illustrate the ironic vision of Shakespeare Del Col and McCreery are aiming for. In the visual language of American mass-market comics, red is a heroic adjective worn by high-flying protagonists, but purple is traditionally reserved for comic book villains and anti-heroes such as the Hulk and Hawkeye, the Joker and Lex Luthor. A purple glow can even be found surrounding Shakespeare in the Chandos portrait, though the extensive retouching and damage to the picture over the centuries makes this problematic.

This is an iconoclastic Shakespeare, drunken and irritable, not “gentle” at all. He even tips his hat to the authorship controversy, urging Hamlet to return to his allies and tell them “that Shakespeare is dead… that he never existed” (#10: 7). Now bitter and angry, he perceives his magical creative powers not as a blessing but as a curse, and he ignores Hamlet even as Gaiman’s Shakespeare ignores Hamnet, his son. The words of Romeo at the end of the book return to haunt our analysis at this moment. “These are not our father’s words,” he says to Hamlet, his invocation of parentage underscoring the kinship between Romeo, Hamlet, and their mutual creator. Shakespeare is their father and creator, and Shakespeare’s initial refusal to aid Hamlet parallels his oblivious ignorance to his own son in Gaiman’s tale, before both versions of Shakespeare come to a greater self awareness many issues later. For Gaiman, that self-awareness ends in retirement from the world and a retreat to home, wife, and daughter. In Kill Shakespeare, that self-awareness ends in self-exile, leading to action and, by the end of KS, to retirement of a different sort. Del Col and McCreery’s Shakespeare walks out of his own book to adopt a mortal disguise and mingle among his creations, for whom he now has new appreciation.

And what disguise might the wizard-creator Shakespeare adopt? Of course it would be Prospero, though this new identity is not revealed before the end of the text. The lure of an autobiographical connection between Shakespeare and the wizard of his final play is a powerful one, encouraged by Prospero’s final in-character epilogue. Gaiman plays with this notion of Prospero-as-Shakespeare in the final issue of Sandman, “The Tempest,” when he ignores Shakespeare’s post-Tempest collaborations and makes it appear that, when the poet lays down his quill after composing this play, he never writes again. A number of scholars have written on Gaiman’s use of Prospero as a surrogate for either Shakespeare or Gaiman himself, notably Annalisa Castaldo and Jim Gordon. In Kill Shakespeare, the autobiographical connection is more ambiguous, hinted at first in the idea that Hamlet and the other characters of this world are all Shakespeare’s children, his Hamnets and Judiths. The Shakespeare we see in this book is not a man at the end of his life, physically and biologically. While no youngster, he is clearly older than Hamlet and shows the signs of a rough life. We can even use the events of the comic itself to date Will, since the character/creator has himself created Lady MacBeth, which the real Shakespeare did not do until he was in his mid-forties. Like Prospero, the Shakespeare of KS is in exile, possessed of awesome magical powers, and served by fairy spirits. In KS he wields a magical quill, the creative tool itself, but Prospero carries around the eventual product of that quill, his books, which he ceremoniously destroys at the end of his play.

Moreover, if we accept that Shakespeare withdraws from the world at the end of KS in order to become Prospero, this goes a long way towards explaining the strange transformations wrought on Lady MacBeth in this text and mentioned earlier in our analysis. For Lady MacBeth has, in Kill Shakespeare, been conflated with the figure of Hecate as she appears in the Lady’s play. There, Hecate is the chief to whom the three witches answer, but in Kill Shakespeare the witches answer to the Lady, who in turn invokes Hecate whenever she works her black magic. (#6: 4) In this revision of the play MacBeth, it is not Hecate who comes on stage at all, but Lady MacBeth as a representation of Hecate, a kind of priestess or votaress of Hecate, and with this newfound mantle she wields incredible power on the battlefield, nearly turning the tide against Juliet and her army at the climax of the comic. Her magic is decidedly wicked, including the conjuration of ghosts which torment Hamlet. Indeed, although this element of the story is never fully unpacked, Lady MacBeth’s ability to conjure up the ghost of Hamlet’s father—and Hamlet’s own recognition of this ghost and his assumption that it is the actual ghost he has before seen—suggest that Lady MacBeth is the instigator of the entire plot of Hamlet. Here, Hamlet’s interrogation of the ghost’s origin is answered for us, if not for him: the ghost is not real. It is a creation of Lady MacBeth, used to drive Hamlet to murder, which led thereby to exile, and ultimately to his arrival in Richard’s domain. And just as she is responsible for acts long before the first page of Kill Shakespeare begins, so Lady Macbeth survives to threaten on the last page. She escapes the final battle with her ire and enmity for Shakespeare and his phallic quill of omnipotence intact. And if Shakespeare retires from the world to become Prospero, then of course Lady MacBeth will become Sycorax, Prospero’s rival for mastery of his island world, Caliban’s mother and Ariel’s jailer. In Kill Shakespeare, Lady MacBeth and Sycorax are double cast, played by the same person, though Sycorax must wait to make her appearance until the creative team behind KS complete their sequel story.

Will’s departure from the pages of his own comic sets the stage for Hamlet’s reading of Sonnet 71 and the final scene which clarifies Del Col and McCreery’s vision of appropriation and continuation. Romeo interrupts the lines of the letter and openly challenges Hamlet over the validity of his reading. “Why,” he asks, “do you ask us to forget our creator? Shakespeare is eternal. He is beauteous and divine” (#12: 29). Romeo defends the unchanging Shakespearean text and gives voice to every critic of KS who lingers on its misreading of the plays and its alterations to the characters and plots therein. Hamlet however, who has come to love Juliet, who sees his dead father in a new light, and who has forsaken his mission to kill Claudius, now has the opposite view. He defends his current state and the text of Kill Shakespeare, saying “We are as flawed as our maker is. And THAT is beauteous and divine.” In one sense, Hamlet is speaking of character flaws—pride, guilt, shame, recklessness, and other traits which the characters of Kill Shakespeare display both here and in their parent plays. But in another sense, the flaws Hamlet defends are the ones which led critics to call KS a “steaming pile of turd”: the changes which have been wrought to his character and the character of his fictional brothers and sisters. That capacity for change and a willingness to adapt, the capacity to be placed in new situations, struggle, and grow thereby, is what Hamlet here defends.

This tension—between Shakespearean fidelity and its rival capacity for change—is made physically present in the rivalry between Romeo and Hamlet for Juliet’s hand, a rivalry which Hamlet tried to end in issues previous by reintroducing Romeo to Juliet and stepping aside. When he took this action, Hamlet had not yet come to his later understanding of the importance of change and growth; still the melancholy Dane, he presumed—as any Shakespearean loyalist would—that if Romeo and Juliet were brought together, given the sudden knowledge that each was still alive, nature would take its course and their tragedy would instead become a happy comedy. This, apparently, was Hamlet’s goal.

But Romeo, the most strident of the Shakespeare loyalists in the text, ultimately surrenders to Hamlet’s point of view when he refuses to participate in Hamlet’s matchmaking ambitions. Yielding to the argument that change is good, he tells Hamlet “fate has intervened” and, though he still loves Juliet, he will not pursue her. (#12: 31) Romeo and Juliet will not be together after all. Indeed, he blames his loyalty to Shakespeare for this decision, saying “those who truly serve Shakespeare must love him first and always.” Perhaps, to Romeo the drama critic, his love affair with Juliet ended in Act V of his own play, and it would therefore be inappropriate to continue it now. For the Shakespeare loyalist, there can be no continuation. Romeo should be dead, and if he cannot be dead, he certainly must be alone. But his decision to remain a tragic figure necessitates ceding the field to Hamlet.

Fortunately for the text, Del Col and McCreery are wise enough to avoid a situation in which men decide whom Juliet is to love. Refreshingly presented throughout the text as a woman who no longer allows herself to be bossed around by forceful men, Juliet makes it clear upon her return that neither Romeo nor Hamlet have any say in the matter. She will love whom she wishes to love, and Hamlet—her clear and uncontested choice—would be wise to learn from this. Every Jack does not have his Jill—Romeo has chosen his life of solitary loyalty to his creator—but for Hamlet and Juliet, who embrace change, growth, and revision, a happy ending awaits.

Works Cited

Callahan, Timothy. “Kill Shakespeare #1.” (review) Comic Book Resources. 14 April 2010. Web. 30 March 2012.

Castaldo, Annalisa. “‘No More Yielding Than A Dream’: Constructions of Shakespeare in The Sandman.” College Literature 31.4 (Fall 2004): 94-110. Print.

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

Del Col, Anthony and Conor McCreery. “Kill Shakespeare #7: The Play’s the Thing.” Unpublished script.

—. “Kill Shakespeare #9: Is This A Dagger I See Before Me?” Unpublished script.

Gaiman, Neil, Charles Vess. “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 1991. Print.

—. “The Tempest.” Sandman: The Wake. New York: DC Comics, 1996.

Gordon, Jim. “Prospero Framed in Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Wake.'” The Sandman Papers. Ed. Joe Sanders. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2006. Print.

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

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen ed. G. Blakemore Evans with J. J. M. Tobin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. Print.

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