But, soft! What light... 'clash!', 'raargh!'

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
When Japanese comic books meet Shakespeare, things get messy, finds Tom Deveson

Manga Shakespeare series

Adapted by Richard Appignanesi


Illustrated by Emma Vicieli

Romeo and Juliet

Illustrated by Sonia Leong

SelfMadeHero pound;6.99 each

www.SelfMadeHero.com 13-plus

Words, words, words" - Hamlet's reply to Polonius's question "what do you read?" -has been updated. Manga Shakespeare has recast the play into nearly 200 pages of black and white cartoon drawings, many faces portrayed with the characteristic large eyes and snub noses of the heroes and heroines of Japanese comic books. For no obvious reason, the story has been catapulted into the future, after a disastrous global climate change has produced a "war-torn cyberworld". The cover promises the use of "Shakespeare's original texts".

Well, apart from some intrusive noises - "huff huff", exhales the Prince after his first soliloquy, "clash" and "raargh" punctuate his final duel - the words are indeed sliced from those we find in standard editions. But the selection has been made in the interests of plot and at the expense of poetry. Cornelius and Voltemand, those superfluous ambassadors to Norway, are kept in, but 80 per cent of "To be or not to be" is cut.

Teenage boys will be bewildered by the lack of explanation of phrases such as "assay him to any pastime" or "unction of a mountebank", whatever compensation may be offered by Ophelia's pouting lips and conspicuous bosom.

Love stories can take place anywhere, and in Manga Shakespeare's version of the greatest love story of all, Verona becomes the modish Tokyo district of Shibuya; the Capulets and Montagues are two feuding Yakuza (mafia) families. Images of fashionable dark glasses and towering skyscrapers jostle uneasily with swordplay on the street and mention of "Lammas Eve" in the text. But the perennial love of Romeo - here he's a rock idol - and Juliet is probably powerful enough to survive such transformations.

It's harder to forgive the butchering of Shakespeare's language that accompanies it. Shakespeare, above all writers, creates his own universe through his flow of imagery and the deep movement of his rhythms. Here, when Romeo sees Juliet appear at her window, he merely asks: "What light through yonder window breaks?" The magical opening invocation, "But, soft!", is left out, and the truncated line limps. As Mercutio dies, plenty of blood spatters the page but his thrillingly poignant pun on becoming "a grave man" has disappeared. All the computer screens and motorbikes and electric guitars are a very inadequate substitute

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