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No Fear Shakespeare

November 5, 2008

I’m thirty-one years old, and I finally started to get Shakespeare when I was around thirty.

Remember back in high school?  They insisted you read Shakespeare, but didn’t think you could do it, so they had the Old English on one page and the “modern English” on the opposite page?  The words on the left made so little sense; they were like another language.  (A friend of mine, who grew up bilingual, failed freshman English because of Shakespeare.  This had a huge affect on the way I perceived the writing.)  We had to read four plays, one for each year, but as I said before, our high school had a program where you could opt out of “regular” English and take semesterized classes instead, on topics from Mass Media to Mythology.  So really, you only had to read two.

The first of these was Romeo & Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers who fall in love so quickly it’s annoying.  At the time, we only had the Zeffirelli which, omg, got kind of nakkie.  It wasn’t until a year after I graduated that Leo DiCaprio + Claire Danes (see what I did there?) gave us Gen X/Yers the context we’d desperately needed.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?  Context.  Context and language.  If you can’t really grasp either of these, you can’t get Shakespeare.  Yet for some reason, thirteen- to nineteen-year-olds are supposed to grasp the hell out of this because it’s supposed to be The Pinnacle of Literature & Culture.  The hell.  Did we get context?  No.  We got “Here’s the text with a simplified translation on the right side.”  We were given explanations of references as we went along, and the usual “Uh…that’s a sex joke.”  Basically “Read this (preferably aloud) and you will be More Cultured.  Also, please try to pass the test that comes afterward or you cannot go forth in this world.”  Really?  My then-fourteen-year-old friend went to summer school because of Romeo & Juliet.  She works on Wall Street now.  She makes more than I ever will.

So yeah, I’m all for No Fear Shakespeare.  I think that dumbing down things sucks, but I also don’t expect a fourteen-year-old to GET Shakespeare, not when it’s thrown cold at them like that.  However, I am NOT for the No Fear Shakespeare graphic novel version of Romeo & Juliet, or as I like to call it The Depressing Adventures of Goth Girl & Scoliosis Boy.  I feel it failed in every respect: it was boring, the art didn’t fit, the language was TOO dumbed down.  

First off, everyone’s off a bit.  I mean, this is SHAKESPEARE.  It’s all about the language.  So cutting out the language part doesn’t work.  There’s no sense of it here.  But it’s not TOO modernized, so it just stays in word limbo.  It’s not a pretty place.  In fact, it’s downright dull.

Speaking of dull, let’s talk about the art.  I feel bad saying anything too negative about Matt Wiegle’s art because I actually LIKE it, just not for this.  The thing’s in black and white.  Okay, I UNDERSTAND it, because R&J is a tragedy, but I don’t LIKE it, because this is a story about love and violence–I want to see it bursting in color, or at least some red somewhere.  But no.  Next is Romeo himself.  Okay, maybe “Scoliosis Boy” is a little mean, but OMG, they’re constantly talking about what a hottie Romeo is!  The guy is supposed to be extremely pretty, but Wiegle draws him as a hunchy everydude.  So that doesn’t work for me.  Also, Juliet looks like the little sister of Sally from Nightmare Before Christmas.  So, hunchy everydude + gothy chick = very 2000s work (see also: schlub + hot chick), but the language and the clothes and such don’t fit.  Isn’t working for me.  Also, no one is very expressive.  Hm.  Oh, and the children don’t look like their parents.  And there were a couple of characters I couldn’t tell apart.  

Oh, and then there were the actual words, where one specific word might be defined or it might not.  Give the kid a chance to look at a dictionary, my God.  Also, Benedicte isn’t defined but other, more common words, are.  

Fortunately, where Romeo & Juliet bugs me, Hamlet succeeds.  I actually like Wiegle’s art more, but Neil Babra does more: everyone’s distinctive (but where are Fortinbras’s eyes???) and expressive.  There’s this one part, where Polonius is talking to Ophelia and warning her away from Hamlet, where Babra draws Hamlet standing inside a crowd so that it looks like he is in a prison.  Now THAT is a good idea.  The language stays true to the original (compare the graphic novel’s “To be or not to be, that is the question” with the “The question is: is it better to be alive or dead?” on the No Fear Shakespeare website).  The work might take sides (the queen is pretty obviously innocent in this one) but it doesn’t go full out with all the debatable points (Ophelia isn’t visibly pregnant or anything).  There’s so much more going on here, which is meant to and does spark the imagination, you know, like Shakespeare’s supposed to do.

When it comes down to it, getting teens to read Hamlet if they’re having problems with the original work is a pretty good idea.  But for Romeo & Juliet?  Watch Shakespeare in Love instead.  Talk about context–and I don’t mean “He was in love with a chick who was a guy who was a chick!”  I mean the part where they’re performing and the audience gasps and cries and doesn’t have hundreds of years of interpretation, parody, etc.  Once upon a time, these works weren’t ubiquitous.  They meant something.  They should continue to mean something.  No Fear Shakespeare needs to get that point across but so far they’re one for two here.

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