Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Merchant of Venice (Graphic Shakespeare) by Gareth Hinds - review

The Merchant of Venice (Graphic Shakespeare) by Gareth Hinds
I'll admit, The Merchant of Venice has never been my favorite play - smug Portia, gloomy Antonio, is it racist or is it a comment on racism: whatever, Shakespeare - but this condensation by Gareth Hinds is skilfully done. He manages to reduce giant long scenes of greeting and farewell to fairly snappy exchanges, while incorporating the famous and beautiful speeches from the play (the quality of mercy; prick us and do we not bleed) in a reasonably organic way. And I personally like the scratchy, sketchy grisaille drawing style - I think it suits the setting - though I know that some people find it a bit drab.

The thing is, though, putting The Merchant of Venice in a modern setting is always problematic. The juxtaposition of real peril - Antonio's trial and potential death - with the lighthearted naughty teasing that takes place between Antonio's newlywed pals comes off as even more jarring. When Portia and her maid Nerissa dress up as men, travel to Venice, and save the day, the audience is clearly meant to be as impressed as their husbands are - but in a modern context, we more or less expect Portia - beautiful, rich, smart Portia - to pull a Nancy Drew. If not a Buffy, for Pete's sake. Shylock is lucky she wasn't carrying a stake.

Speaking of Shylock, his poor treatment at the hands of the otherwise noble Antonio and his friends just doesn't make it when they're wearing tailored suits instead of jerkins and pantaloons. A guy in a suit who says he's going to spit on a Jew is, nowadays, an irredeemable douche - and it takes a story much longer than this one to show him as otherwise. (I can't help it - I'm thinking of Tony Soprano here.)

There are just too many problems with this particular play for it to be anything but a hot mess except when presented exactly as written and in historical context. This is not to say that this book isn't immensely superior to graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare by other authors. It is: they're terrible. It's just that other plays have aged better. I look forward eagerly to Gareth Hinds's treatment of almost any of them, as I am currently on the lookout for his King Lear.

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