Doubt thou the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love
– wrote Hamlet in a letter to Ophelia (Act II Sc.2)
Hamlet: Staged on the Page is a sumptuous production of the play. Nicki Greenberg’s graphic novel is a work of art which adds a great deal to Shakespeare’s words.
All the characters have tails which express their emotions as much as their faces and each is uniquely drawn to complement their personality. Hamlet’s head is an ink blot, Polonius is a dancing, gibbering monkey, Ophelia is fox-like, and Queen Gertrude has three rows of breasts, although their low position makes them udder- like. When Hamlet says “were she ten times our mother,” he imagines five rows of breasts on a Rorschach ink blot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend much of their time as conjoined twins and more than once Hamlet wrenches the two apart.
Characters’ swords and daggers end in ink nibs or paint brushes and kill with ink. When someone dies they are reduced to a puddle of ink in which their face floats, hence Horatio cradles Hamlet’s face, not his head, when he dies. In the culmination of Hamlet’s tirade to Ophelia (III.1) he wrenches off her face and flings it away. As Ophelia blindly feels for and finds her face she says,
O woe is me –
T’have seen what I have seen,
see what I see! (Act III Sc.1)
When Claudius and Polonius reappear to discuss and berate the two, Ophelia drips, bit by bit, into a puddle of sorrow. In the last scene, Horatio’s tears and cradling of Hamlet’s face say infinitely more than his words of sorrow,
Now cracks a noble heart.
Good night sweet prince,
And flights of angels sling thee to thy rest. (Act V Sc.2)
This is cleverly followed by the arrival of a flight of ravens – Prince Fortinbras of Norway and his entourage.
The backgrounds are meticulously rendered to set the scene. Clockwork cogs decorate the main hall of the castle because “time is out of joint”. In Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III.1), he takes off his face and it spins with vacant eyes in multiple cogs before zig-zagging wildly just out of reach. When Ophelia sings and dances in her madness, the cogs become as warped as her mind.
Botanical references are strewn throughout. Ophelia hands flowers to the King, Queen and Laertes as each plant grows riotously across the page (IV.5). What she actually passes to each character is a broken, dripping, ink rendering, nothing like the garden she has plucked it from. She often drags a string of carnivorous plants with her, which are in danger of eating her alive and dramatically highlight Ophelia’s plight,
Earlier, Hamlet’s “unweeded garden/ That grows to seed” (I.2) are thistles which Hamlet cuts his hand on. Later “Denmark’s a prison” for Hamlet and thistles grow as the bars (II.2). When Hamlet tells his mother not to “spread the compost on the weeds/ To make them ranker” (III.4) morning glory and safflower grow along the bottom of the page. The final illustration is a botanical of Ophelia’s flowers, which includes the thistle, nettle and other weeds that grow among Hamlet’s tormented words.
As well as pen and ink, Greenberg uses beautiful collage. Each scene begins with a stage with collage curtains pulled back to show the action. A double page prior displays a tableau with much of the background rendered in collage. As in a textual version of the play the list of players explains their connections for those new to the story and Greenberg provides a unique way of listing acknowledgements through the Supporting Cast and Crew at the end.
The only problem with the book is its size – Quarto and 3.5cm thick. It is very heavy and not made for easy carrying or reading in bed. As long as you’ve got a table handy, this work of art is worth its weight.
A version of this review first appeared in Fiction Focus 2011 vol.25, no.1, p.5