- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

Igniting a young person’s interest in Shakespeare and blasting through the Bard’s formidable language often requires a mighty spark. Maybe it comes from penciling on a mustache and playing Macbeth for one’s classmates, sitting through a vibrant performance by a local theater company or popping in a lively cinematic interpretation such as Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.”

But are there better ways to reach today’s youngsters? Could trendier, more contemporary storytelling formats make the works even more accessible? (The Bard’s words already have made it onto Second Life and into podcasts.)

Many are arguing “Yes” — including John Wiley & Sons, the publishing house responsible for CliffsNotes and the For Dummies series. Its entry into the restyled Shakespeare field is a series of manga or graphic-novel interpretations of the Bard’s classic works.

The books are the brainchild of Wiley senior acquisitions editor Greg Tubach, who watched manga’s popularity surge in recent years and wondered if the form might be an effective (and profitable) means of presenting Shakespeare to modern-day audiences.

Wiley wasn’t the first to introduce the mix of manga and the Bard to the marketplace; several U.K.-based publishers beat the company off the blocks. Also, more traditional comic-book versions of the classics have been around for decades. This said, Wiley has a strong brand name and wide reach in the U.S. and stands to popularize this particular blend as never before.

So far, the company has released four works: “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Each includes an introduction, a highly abridged version of the original text and dozens of vivid, Japanese-comic-book-style drawings (the ones in which the characters have eyes the size of small lakes).

Larry Olson, vice president of marketing for Wiley, says that because of manga’s popularity, these books might get youngsters fired up about Shakespeare in a way more traditional texts or performances cannot. Also, because of their shortened passages and stimulating visuals, they might reach a wide range of ages and be especially helpful for visual learners (who account for as much as 30 percent to 65 percent of the students out there).

“The more students can appreciate the work in a different way, the better,” Mr. Olson says, “and that’s the sort of feedback we’re getting from teachers and professors.”

Writer and longtime college professor Adam Sexton is a believer — and not just because Wiley hired him to adapt the Shakespearean texts for its 200-or-so-page manga editions. When he was just 8 years old, a neighbor lent him a comic-book adaptation of “Julius Caesar” by Classics Illustrated.

“I was so taken by it that I pulled ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ down from the bookcase in my parents’ living room and actually forced my two brothers to perform the assassination scene from the play,” Mr. Sexton says. “When I was in eighth and ninth grades and the teacher assigned Shakespearean plays, I wasn’t as resistant to it. That’s when I really fell in love with Shakespeare.”

Yali Lin, the 24-year-old illustrator of Wiley’s “Romeo and Juliet,” says books like these would have been a great help during her studies. Born in China, she first encountered Shakespeare as part of the required high school English curriculum in the U.S. The texts were hard to parse, she says — “especially because English is my second language. I already had difficultly adjusting to the new language, and then older English — that’s even harder.”

Wiley and those in its camp argue that what the company is doing is really nothing new. These are plays that never were intended to be read as printed words on a page; they were meant to be staged, restaged, interpreted and reinterpreted.

“I was really working within the tradition of Shakespeare productions pretty much as far back as they were written,” says Mr. Sexton, who learned the art of Shakespearean adaptation from cinematic interpretations ranging from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 take on “Hamlet” to Kenneth Branagh’s more recent films.

Purists aren’t convinced, though. Some have taken issue with the books’ shortening of key speeches and scenes, arguing that this dilutes the force of the author’s message and merely gives readers an outline of the plot rather than a comprehensive understanding of the work. If illustrated versions are all youngsters can grasp, perhaps they are not really ready for Shakespeare, the naysayers argue.

Other skeptics are concerned that the excerpted versions will eclipse the original texts.

“If you want to use them as an introduction or a taste, that’s fine,” says Leila Christenbury, English education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. “But they cannot be equated with seeing the play.”

She believes the United States as a whole has “an affinity for superficial knowledge of the classics” and is often unwilling to stick out challenging works from beginning to end, preferring to get just the gist of the story for “cocktail-party knowledge.” Couple this tendency with teenagers’ crowded schedules, she says, and you’re likely to get a bunch of students who toss the original texts (even if they’ve been assigned) in lieu of the more exciting abridged versions.

“There is still a bias against study aids as being cheating,” Mr. Olson says. “For somebody that has that orientation, we’re never going to change their mind.”

On the other hand, for students who think Shakespeare is boring and teachers who are desperate for new ways to engage them, Shakespearean manga might sound like a lover calling from just beyond the balcony: But soft! What light through yonder classroom breaks? It is the East, and this graphic novel is the sun.

On Monday at 7:30 p.m., Mr. Sexton and Miss Lin will be at the Folger Shakespeare Library to discuss the process of adapting a Shakespearean play for manga. Tickets are $12. For more information, call 202/544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.

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