Plays are meant to be performed, not read. But a) not everybody lives near a theatre that performs Shakespeare’s plays, b) living near a theatre does not mean you can necessarily afford to see all the plays you love, and c) even if you live near the Globe, you’re still out of luck if you have a hankering for Romeo and Juliet and the theatre is running Othello.
So adapting Romeo and Juliet into graphic novel form is a pretty cool idea.
Admittedly, I approached the book with caution. Visual media – any media – are all about interpretation, and graphic novel format limits the number of possible interpretations of the characters and themes in a way that a live performance doesn’t. (Feel free to correct me if you disagree.) With that in mind, I was pretty impressed. Gareth Hinds kept most of Shakespeare’s dialogue, rather than sum up the narrative in modern language or focus on one character’s perspective. Each act and scene change is labeled discreetly at the top of the page, so there isn’t any confusion on where you are in the play. Interested readers could easily look up the scenes if they want to read the play unabridged. Hinds’s author’s note explains the changes he made to the geographical layout and city structure of Verona, and to the costumes of the characters, who range from the very traditional Elizabethan period costumes to more modern mixes. Tybalt, for instance, lounges around bare-chested, flaunting his showy tattoos and his six-pack.
The most obvious change from Shakespeare’s original (and most productions) can be seen on the cover: the Montagues are Black, and the Capulets are Indian. The Prince remains Italian. I don’t feel entirely qualified to speak to the overall effect of having the (English-performed) Italian characters cast as Black or Indian; I’m white and may very well miss nuances that are delightful or repugnant to POC. However, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the subject:
- It is such a relief to see POC centre stage and not relegated to minor or non-speaking roles (and, unfortunately, relatively rare, given how some people react whenever anyone dares cast POC in lead roles)
- In fact, white people (as in Anglo-Saxon/Northern European white people) hardly appear at all: Juliet’s Nurse and a couple of Capulet’s servants (one very stupid fellow and one non-speaking damsel of indeterminate social class) are the only pale white characters I noticed
- We get to see POC who aren’t exoticized, tokenized, or expendable, even though this is a white European narrative
- We do see plenty of violent, non-sympathetic characters, but we get them in the context of the FEUD rather than as a result of their race/ethnicity
- We also get to see the young lovers, the main characters, as an interracial couple in which neither of them is white who choose to break with the hatred of their families by falling in love and marrying.
- Capulet wears a turban and there is a portrait of Guru Nanak Dev Ji on a wall in his house. Lady Capulet, on the other hand, wears a bindi. Although Sikh women sometimes wear bindis, the custom is originally and primarily a Hindu one, and there are no other indications of Lady Capulet’s background. So *shrug* it is possible that the artist erred, but on the other hand, I like the idea that he knew what he was doing and chose to depict a couple who follow different religions.
I am, however, going to complain about the fighting scenes. They were confusing: it was unclear what exactly was going on or what techniques the duelists were using. Their stances were largely unrecognizable, and I should be able to recognize them because this is the era and geographical area of swordplay that I’ve trained in. However *shrugs again* most novels aren’t very accurate, and the covers involving swords are usually horrible, whereas this one has a very pretty (and accurate!) rapier, so score one out of two, I guess.
Swordfighting aside, the art was good at conveying distinct characters, from the relatively steady Benvolio to the mercurial Mercutio (couldn’t resist) to the menacing Tybalt, lounging embodiment of simmering violence. Even the servants Balthasar, Sampson, and Gregory are readily recognizable, and likable or contemptible according to their natures.
We get to see the moment when plans/dreams/wishes change. We see an image of Rosalind forming in a thought bubble over Romeo’s head as he scans the crowd for his crush; in the next panel, when Romeo sees Juliet and his (conventional, unoriginal, unrequited, playing-at-love) love for Rosalind vanishes completely (much, I suspect, to her relief), that image of Rosalind shatters like glass with a soft pop! We wee Romeo’s lonesomeness, his isolation (even Mercutio, whom he loves dearly, mocks Romeo more than converses with him), his decency. Romeo and Juliet are shining stars of human decency in this play of violence and malevolence.
Nor is Juliet slighted. In the balcony scene alone her thoughts and emotions are written on her face as much as in the words proceeding in neat bubbles, as she moves from love-melancholy and pondering through keen banter, humour, misgivings, indignation, and confidence. The later pages which show Juliet considering whether to drink of the vial or not reinforce Shakespeare’s emphasis on her courage in taking the draught despite her doubts and VERY REASONABLE fears. We see, visually, the inward change after Juliet marries Romeo: her legal and social status has changed even if her marriage is secret, and this is a very real shift for her. Juliet is amazingly sure and consistently herself despite pressure and bullying from everyone around her. Good grief, her Nurse essentially tells her to be a bigamist (i.e. marry Paris) because Paris is a better prospect than Romeo; her mother wishes Juliet were dead when she refuses to marry Paris; her father rages without listening to a word his daughter says.
Even the servants make the atmosphere of violence plain. When in the opening scene one manservant puns on maidenhead (in this case, makes a rape joke), he is drawn popping a cherry off its stem, a modern parallel to the Elizabethan slang.
So. I still believe that plays are best when performed. But. If you love R&J (or just want to understand it better) and can’t wait until the local theatre runs it again, the graphic novel isn’t a bad way to bide the time before the curtain lifts.
OH! ALSO. If you don’t like Romeo and Juliet, perhaps because you think that the titular characters are rather overdramatic young folk who should have taken a deep breath and calmed down (and maybe gotten over their insta-crushes), here is an important post for you.* (Warning. Some swearing.)
*If you like the play, you’ll probably enjoy this analysis as well.