A Manga Merchant Of Venice – Shakespeare would approve.

Published On October 9, 2009 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

Manga Shakespeare: The Merchant Of Venice

by William Shakespeare, adapted by Richard Appignanesi, illustrated by Faye Yong.

Self Made Hero

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It perhaps seems strange at first – this idea of Manga adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. But the bard was always a populist writer, crafting entertainment for the masses rather than the high culture it is sadly seen as today by most. And thus a comic adaptation makes a certain amount of sense. A Manga adaptation even moreso with it’s visual language especially appealing to a younger audience who find Shakespeare inaccesible and difficult. Our school days were marked by reading Shakespeare in class, bored beyond belief as one child after another butchered and tortured the words in flat monotone. It kills the work for most children. And the only way it actually achieves the original intent is when it’s appropriated by popular culture once more. Readers of my age may remember studying Romeo & Juliet and only ever being excited by it when the teacher let us watch the Zeffirelli film version. A few years ago Baz Luhrmann redid it in beautiful hyper technicolour and managed to make it sexy and exciting once again. So if we want to introduce readers to Shakespeare the idea of adapting him using Manga is inspired.

But only if it’s well done.

And thankfully this Manga adaptation of The Merchant Of Venice captures the drama of the play beautifully. I had visions on getting this book that it would be some butchered, cut down, modernised text to go with the Manga visuals. But that fear is dispelled almost immediately as Antonio steps forth and speaks with Shakespeare’s words. Certainly it’s been cut down and made to fit the 200 pages but it’s an intelligent and sympathetic adaptation, keeping every nuance, every emotion and getting over every moment of drama and comedy.

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(Love. It’s always about love. But what price is Antonio prepared to pay to see Bassanio happy?)

For those that missed Merchant Of Venice when it was butchered by your classmates at school, the basic story goes thus;

Bassanio, a gentleman of Venice, with all the looks but none of the money, is in love with beautiful Portia, a rich heiress whose late father has set her multitudinous suitors a simple test of character to prove themselves worthy of his daughter’s hand (and her not inconsiderable) wealth. Needing money to make the right impression and win Portia’s hand, Bassanio has to borrow from Antonio, a merchant whose fortunes are tied up at present in his goods across the seas. With no cash flow, Antonio approachs Shylock, the Jewish money lender for a loan. Shylock, angered and bitter at Antonio’s treatment of him and his kind, makes a simple loan, interest free, but whose sole terms demand the forfeiture of a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan cannot be repaid. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter is in love with another of Venice’s Christian gentlemen and will be moved to elope with him (and a goodly part of her father’s fortune). Shylock, thus angered, finds the perfect opportunity for revenge when the seas prove to be too much for Antonio’s fortune. A pound of flesh is required…..

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(Shylock and Antonio make that famous deal, a pound of flesh is promised and both Shylock and Antonio are tainted by their words.)

It’s meant to be one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Yet there’s an awful lot of intense drama in Merchant of Venice. And with Shylock we have one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. His initial cruelty and sinister nature is tempered through the book as we see the good Merchants merciless baiting of him. And his torment at losing his daughter fuels his hatred of his tormentors until, by the end of the tale, there’s more than a hint of sympathy for dark Shylock and the good gentlemen of Venice are somewhat tainted by their words and cruel actions. Like most great works, light and dark are not always what they initially seem. And this adaptation does an incredibly good job of getting over the spirit of the play very well indeed. The initial reluctance on my part on seeing that the characters had been recast as Light Elves and Dark Elves proved groundless, since the fantasy appearance is supported ably by the strength of Shakespeare’s words and story.

The art by Faye Yong is a huge improvement on the last time I saw her work in Murphy’s Law. It’s tighter, darker and far more suited to the tale than I would have thought. She illustrates her pages with style and dynamism, and utilises the stereotypes of the Manga image to convey every emotion necessary and there’s even room for some well placed chibi/super-deformed characters to emphasise the comedic moments.

Based on this first exposure to Self Made hero’s Manga Shakespeare I can see myself eagerly coming back for more. It’s a modern, updated and most importantly, immediately accesible way to disseminate the bard’s works to a younger generation. Hopefully we have teachers across the land adopting these texts to hook our children into something truly wonderful. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who has used them, or anything similar in the classroom, since I really feel they could prove an incredible asset to learning. And anything that encourages reading of some of the greatest works of literature is to be applauded and encouraged.

Richard Bruton.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton

– Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he’s written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard’s day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children’s graphic novel library in the country.

11 Responses to A Manga Merchant Of Venice – Shakespeare would approve.

  1. Tim says:

    I really like these adaptations, provided they use Shakespeare’s language. There are a couple of other graphic adaptations (I think there’s a graphic novel series with Hamlet, Mackers and R&J, if I remember) where they modernize the language – at which point I wonder what the point is.

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