A Review of Classical Comics Henry V
This brief review is based on abbreviated (14 pages) pre-publication copies of "the graphic novel" Henry V from Classical Comics. The full Henry V (144 pages) is due to be published on November 5, 2007. The review copies I was sent contain only the Prologue, Act I scene 1, and Act I scene 2; fourteen pages of graphic content. I say "copies" because the play is published in three versions, with identical art work (except for the covers) but three different texts, as distinguished in their advertising matter:
I dispute that "fully appreciate" in connection with the Plain Text version is appropriate, and sounds more like code for "finally understand." I also dispute whether reducing the words to "as few as possible" can be used in connection with "absorb and enjoy." But more on that anon.
The speeches (and those used to reading neat lines of iambic pentameter arranged so orderly, prefaced by speaker identifications, should not forget that that is what they were first intended to be, not printed poetry, but speeches) are laid out in traditional balloons, lettered with neat, clear all caps black-on-white lettering, using bolding for emphasis. The Original Text version truly is the full, original text. It makes one wonder at the bravery of the publisher to attempt Act I scene 2 of Henry V in the review sample copy, because it contains one of the most dense and difficult speeches in all of Shakespeare (lifted liberally by our poet from Holinshed) delivered by the Archibishop of Canterbury on the Salic law. It is hard for us today to appreciate the relevance of the speech's details, though it is enshrined in the play for its justification of English righteousness, which, of course, is its dramatic point, and thus in its day must have gained audience tolerance if not approval. The Lords and gentlemen of a scholarly bent in attendance at the playhouse doubtless found the argument itself fascinating, the groundlings probably continued to crack their walnuts and drink their ale while Canterbury discoursed on Pharamond, the floods of Sala and Elbe, Meisen and the law Salique, Charles the Great, King Pepin, Childeric, Blithild, and Clothair; they appropriately and patriotically stood up to cheer when the King responded rousingly "Now are we well resolved..." Which example helps us appreciate the differences in the three texts. (Perhaps the publishers were craftier than we had at first suspected in choosing this scene).
In introducing your young child to Shakespeare, do you want her to read the original text of this challenging speech, a "plain text" version cast in modern parlance but still containing the key elements, in all their archaic glory, or a grossly simplified version, that gets the plot point across but loses all the inherent elements of poetry and history? Which would you choose?
Compare the original text version, where we have the exact text of Canterbury's speech from 1.2.33-95 (I am using the Globe edition here, from the Open Source Shakespeare, which varies slightly from the published version, for ease in copying):
(still with me?) with the "plain text" version of the speech:
with the Quick Text version:
If the fact that these works are "graphic novels" does not cause you to dismiss them (and I think it should not), the art work being the same, which version would you choose for your impressionable child? What about the child struggling with language skills? What about the indifferent child, who needs encouragement?
Clearly, there is a virtue in each approach, especially for the speech I have quoted at length above. Even the most ardent devotee of Shakespeare cannot truly enjoy Canterbury's Salic speech, even if she can appreciate its dramatic uses. On first reading, unless we have the aid of a good critical edition, we are bewildered by it and hope we do not have to remember its details to make sense of the promised, forthcoming action. If we think the historical details important (and in the ensuing action of the play they are not, it is only the fact that the King's claim is just that matters) we might choose the Plain Text version over the Original Text. If we decide the details don't matter at all, then we might, in fact, choose the Quick Text version, at least for this speech.
And that is the problem. Obviously most of Shakespeare is not as dense or factually prickly as this speech. Beyond the stories--and in Shakespeare the story is hardly the point, he seems content to revise plots, which he did with genius, rather than invent them--it is the language of Shakespeare that engages us wit the plays. Consider another, more famous example, more central to my argument:
The plain text version suffers badly in this comparison. "ascend the brightest heaven of invention," "the swelling scene," "warlike Harry," "the port of Mars," "leash'd like hounds," "crouch for employment." This is the great language of the world's greatest poet. The "creative fire," "true representation," "heroic Henry," "like Mars," "like savage hounds," "at his heels," of the Plain Text version are mundane cliches, the language of everyday common sense, without polish or power. The Quick text version is very much slighter, without poetic pretense at all. The words simply move the story along.
And so the comparisons run. Shakespeare's language is so much more than sense, and action, as far as it is necessary at all, arises naturally from them, almost effortlessly on the part of the poet. It is true you have to work hard to understand the language, but consider the rewards to be gained once you have: "the brightest heaven of invention," rather than "creative fire." It is also true that you almost never have to work so hard as in the Salic law speech, which yields little fruit in any event, though we must admire the versification of it taken over in bulk, as it is, from Holinshed.
I come down on the side of the original text, even for children who might have some language difficulties, and there are few children who won't at first have difficulties with such complex language. The effort to understand, then master it (if that is ever possible) bears such great rewards that depriving children of them seems misguided. It is engagement with Shakespeare's language that illuminates and informs us for life, not his stories. Yes, I know, there are levels of language difficulties, and surely some children will never progress to the Original Text level, but why not let them try? If the quick text version could be used in conjunction with the Original Text version in a judicious way, children, with assistance, could learn to appreciate the language in the context of the action of the play.
Furthermore, in a graphic novel format, the sense of witnessing a play becomes more forceful than it does when simply reading the text. I applaud the publishers for using a "graphic novel" approach to Shakespeare. The art work is excellent, the publication standards high, using rich color on heavy, semi-glossy, heavy paper. The printing is very clear, with bold used to relay emphasis. Locales and dates are given at the head of the scenes, even though these do not, of course, usually appear in the Original Text (meant to appeal to history teachers, one suspects).
What the art work relays is the sense of confrontation, argument, posturing, and a concrete reality that is entirely imaginary when simply reading a text. It is certainly not the same as viewing the play, but more than simply reading the script of the play. This "more" is an exciting advantage in bringing the works to young people who probably have not seen them in performance. There are literary classics that attempt to present Shakespeare to children: the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare (amended by Winston Stokes to add the history plays); Quiller-Couch's Historical Tales from Shakespeare; Harrison Morris' Tales from Shakespeare; Edith Nesbit's The Children's Shakespeare; and others, but these works are completely narrative. They lack the sense of drama that it is possible to achieve in a graphic novel. It is as if the stories, the simple plots, were more important than either the dramatic confrontations or the language. The graphic novel has a strong advantage over them in presenting the action of the plays visually. I reject the argument that translating the plays into a graphic novel in any way "dumbs down" Shakespeare, though certainly modifying the original language cannot help but do so. Nevertheless, there is even a place for modification of the language when introducing Shakespeare to children. I do not think we should be so doctrinaire about this, though one would hope that eventually those introduced to the plots with simpler language would take on the original texts.
Unfortunately the cost of each graphic novel is £9.99, or $20.05 USD at the current rate. I do not begrudge a profit to the publishers for the obvious amount of care and craftsmanship that has gone into the production of these volumes, but if a family wishes to purchase more than one version, say the Quick Text and Original Text versions, for younger and older children, the cost becomes a burden, especially for those home schooling who have so many other related expenses
After the release of Henry V in November, Classical Comics has plans to release Macbeth in early 2008, followed by Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, A Christmas Carol, and Richard III, all by summer of 2008. These are all canny choices on the part of the publisher, and I, for one, eagerly anticipate their publication.