The other day, while putting away some graphic fiction in the young adult section, an illustrated version of Macbeth caught my eye. Its cover announced that the play was available in three versions—the original, plain text, or quick text. The one I held was the original and I was intrigued to see that it promised to be the unabridged original play in full color. When I was a boy, (and I’d rather not say how many eons ago that was) the old Classics Illustrated series gave me my first taste of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dickens, and other greats. They opened up new worlds for me before I heard from anyone that these writers were challenging and hard to grasp. I was just a boy seeking new adventures and willingly paid my fifteen cents (almost a third of my weekly allowance) for the thrill. But however remarkable those texts were, they never delivered the full work. That had to be left for future discovery. Could this new Classical Comics series fulfill that high goal? The answer, at least for Macbeth, is a resounding yes.
The book starts with an illustrated “Dramatis Personae” that helpfully introduces each character’s image. The authors also provide a brief introduction to the play’s action to help the reader understand both the time period and the political turmoil that is the play’s unspoken “back story.” Then, with a flash of lightening, we’re on the heath with the three witches and the play’s opening question, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” In that very instant you know you’re in for a treat—Shakespeare’s words married flawlessly to a cinematic flow of brilliant illustrations in vivid color.
One might ask what makes a graphic novel better than watching the play on DVD. I would offer that the reader controls the pace. Didn’t quite catch a line? One can re-read. Didn’t understand the action? One can study the picture. And happily even the meaning of unfamiliar words is often revealed in the illustration’s context.
Each act and scene has a title, making the play’s progress easy to follow. Shakespeare’s use of dramatic technique is handled simply but clearly. When a character is speaking aloud, the lines are in solid bubbles. If a character is speaking only to himself, the bubble is wavy. If a character is thinking, but not speaking aloud, the bubble is curly. If a character is whispering or speaking to another, but not heard by all present, the bubble is dotted. Musical notes in the bubble reveal lines that are meant to be sung. This technique allows for a closer study of the play’s soliloquies. The soliloquy moves frame by frame with various cinematic angles or close-ups. So, instead of just “hearing” a character think, the reader sees clues in the illustration to what the character feels. Thus, a series of frames gradually reveals Macbeth’s growing fear, desperation and submission to evil in the “Is this a dagger?” soliloquy.
The same is true in all the play’s famous scenes. We see Lady Macbeth’s bloodthirsty ambition, Banquo’s loyal devotion, and the gatekeeper’s drunken description of hell itself. We admire Macbeth’s courage, but fear his growing descent into reckless evil. Later, when his wildest fears begin to be realized, we still hope for his return to the better man he was. This is so poignantly revealed in the way the illustrations portray Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. His trap is set, he knows the doom is of his own making, yet he faces what is to come with all the dignity he can muster.
Macbeth is always a tough play to stage. Over the years I’ve seen four or five sort of satisfying versions. Staged versions often have to leave out something. Director’s insights or points of emphasis might eliminate scenes or important lines. There are two film versions, one directed by Orson Welles and the other by Roman Polanski. Both are very good, but also heavily influenced by the director’s vision. There are several filmed staged versions on DVD. There are excellent recorded versions. Verdi even wrote an operatic version. This slight book might seem humble in such company, but I would have to rank it right up there with the best. It’s true the reader may miss a great actor’s interpretation of a line, but Jon Haward’s illustrations and Nigel Dobbyn’s coloring and lettering help the reader to grasp the character’s core, to see the action, to reveal the motives, and to catch the play’s sweep.
There are many stunningly illustrated passages, but one of my favorites is a scene often left out of staged versions. In it, the witches are scolded by their queen Hecate for revealing so much to Macbeth. In a scene of wild fantasy and demonic maneuvering, they plot a way to draw Macbeth in closer and thus seal his doom. This scene occurs right after Macbeth has seen the ghost of Banquo, the friend he had murdered to seal his hold on the throne. In the final frame of that scene, we see the images of the three witches behind Macbeth leering at his climatic realization that he is “…in blood stepp’d so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” That one frame brilliantly ties both scenes together.
In addition to the play’s full text, there are end articles on Shakespeare’s life, the historical background behind the play, and an insightful history of Shakespeare’s version of the events and the political reasons he may have altered key facts. There is also a fascinating article on how the pages of this book were prepared and how the lines were worked into the illustrations. The book illustrates the difference in the three different versions—original text, plain text, and simple text. I must confess, the book made me long to be a teacher again. How wonderful it would be to have a resource like this to introduce young readers to Shakespeare’s glories.
Check the WRL catalog for MacBeth: The Graphic Novel