Book Title: Manga Shakespeare: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare (Play), Richard Appignanesi (Adaptation), Ryuta Osada (Illustrator)
Style: Graphic Novel
Target Audience: YA
Genres: Fiction, Literature
Page Count: 208
Format: Paperback (library)
Reading time: 1 hour
Date Finished: 1/20/17
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My impressions: I’ve never seen Shakespeare adapted quite like this, and when I happened upon this series at the library, I had to give it a shot. I selected the play I knew the least about (Othello) and gave it a read. Unfortunately, I had to flip to the back almost immediately to read the plot synopsis, because I was well and truly lost within the first 20 pages. But as I got more comfortable with the style and the story, I found that I sort of liked this manga adaptation, even though the graphic art is really, really different in tone from the story it’s telling.
Othello, I’ve learned from reading, is a play about a Moorish general named Othello who falls in love with a Venetian woman named Desdemona and secretly marries her, upsetting her father and a jealous suitor named Roderigo. In Othello’s company, there are two men he absolutely trusts: his assistant Iago and his lieutenant, Michael Cassio. But Iago is something of a Machiavellian sociopath who enjoys playing people against each other for no good reason, and Iago decides to weave a complex web of deceit to make Othello distrust his wife, to justify the murder of Cassio and to ultimately destroy Othello’s career.
In the stage play, Othello is often considered to be of North African descent and is typically played by a dark-skinned actor (or in some cases, a white actor painted to appear to have darker skin). In this adaptation, he retains the dark skin, but is given the appearance of an angel, perhaps to relay his saintly, overly trusting manner. Iago is portrayed as a youthful, pretty-boy magician with an eyepatch and an array of magical daggers; his rival, Cassio, is a pretty boy as well, but with a collar carrying his name and a large hat partially concealing his animal ears. Roderigo is an actual dog, Emilia (Iago’s wife and the lady-in-waiting) has four arms for some reason, and the Duke of Venice and his Senators are portrayed as a partially nude devil chained to a succubus and incubus. To make things even odder, the Governor of Cyprus, Montano, (who’s traditionally a man) is portrayed as a six-winged demon woman with a short skirt and long striped stockings; I can only presume this was an arbitrary choice to add in a sexy female character where the story lacked one to make things more fun for the artist.
Once I got over the shock of how differently the characters felt from any understanding I had of Shakespeare, I was able to ease into the story a little bit and enjoy sections of it. I’m not so sure that manga fantasy style and Shakespeare are such a good fit for one another; Shakespeare’s plays were often set in historical contexts with references to real times and places familiar to his audiences, and setting the story in a more spiritual realm filled with magic and fantastic creatures doesn’t quite fit the words coming out of the characters’ mouths. It’s also hard to get a sense of the ages of the characters; Iago and Cassio are clearly younger than Othello, but when the story shifts to how Cassio consorts with the “good-time-girl” Bianca (a prostitute), it’d make a lot more sense if he looked like he was in his 20s, not like a little kid.
The writing is adapted from the plays and updates the language while retaining a lot of its stylings, using thees and thous and high-English sounding sentence construction. I’m not nearly expert enough on Shakespeare to judge whether the writer’s done a good job of adapting the play; I can only comment that it feels like a compromise and would have benefited from feeling more contemporary in the service of telling the story more capably.
Would I read more books in this series to familiarize myself with Shakespeare? Maybe. It’s an interesting way to experience The Bard, and I will say it did get me much more familiar with Othello (and likely able to appreciate the play when I see it or read it in other forms). But would I recommend this to teenagers trying to get out of a tough reading assignment? That’s a tougher call. I’d suggest it’s a good way to learn the broad strokes of the story, but its true purpose should be to make that reading assignment a little more accessible when you return to the source material you were assigned.