HSC resource package with a focus on Hamlet by Nicki Greenberg

Portrait photo of Cathy Sly
Image: Cathy Sly, author and consultant.

There is no gentle tweaking or surreptitious pushing of the literary boundaries here! With the force of a battering ram, Nicki Greenberg’s 428 page vibrant, graphic novel thrusts Shakespeare’s Hamlet into the 21st century. It has depth, dynamism, melancholy, mania, animosity and action that transform Shakespeare’s famous revenge tragedy for the new millennium. Its comics format is appropriate in an era that is beginning to appreciate the delivery of literature in a more pluralistic manner, and at a time when, as Kevin Patrick has noted,

'the newfound social acceptance of ‘graphic novels’ has given Australian authors, publishers and readers alike the cultural permission to assess the comics medium in a manner comparable with literature, cinema or music. [And that] in such enlightened circumstances, we might now justifiably anticipate the appearance of the great Australian (graphic) novel.' Patrick (2012)

Stunningly conceived and realised, Greenberg’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s 400 year old play script offers readers a depth of aesthetic and literary engagement with the play. Greenberg presents Hamlet from a personal perspective, expressing an astute understanding of the canonical play and imbuing it with elements of contemporary culture. Shifting the original drama from stage to page using the sequential art format offers a unique demonstration of how the work can be valued in a different context.

Curriculum context

Students who study Hamlet for HSC English do so in the context of Module B: Critical Study of Texts. Within this context the syllabus requires students to:

* explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts

* develop understanding of questions of textual integrity

* explore the ideas expressed in the text through analysing its construction, content and language

* examine how particular features of the text contribute to textual integrity

* research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations of the text

* discuss and evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts

* extrapolate from this study to explore questions of textual integrity and significance

* develop a range of imaginative, interpretive and analytical compositions that relate to the study of their specific text. English Stage 6 Syllabus – Advanced, p. 48

Reading Greenberg’s Hamlet, assessing the extent to which it retains textual integrity and considering its value in the contemporary context can assist students to test their perceptions of the play against the perceptions of a composer who has provided an imaginative interpretation of the play for a postmodern audience. Figure 1 is a concept map for a student study of Nicki Greenberg’s Hamlet.

Historical and modern contexts

William Shakespeare was an Elizabethan playwright, a maker or builder of plays. He appropriated plots from much earlier legends and historical tales, and it is thought he may have based Hamlet on an early 13th century Norse tale about the rise and fall of the great rulers of Denmark and the role of a young prince, Amleth. His play was not initially produced as a book, but rather as rehearsal scripts for actors’ use. Although, the passage of time has seen Shakespeare’s scripts collected and published in book form, his works were constructed to be performed. In different eras, different cultural contexts and different media, Hamlet has been transformed and appropriated by writers, theatre directors, artists and filmmakers. Re-creators and audiences in each context engage with the play in the light of their own social, political, historical, and cultural ideologies. Honouring the notion of performance, Greenberg uses the sequential art format to generate a new experience of Hamlet that is staged on the page. Her blend of high culture and popular culture has resulted in a composition that can be approached from several perspectives in terms of its literary value.

Image: Figure 1 Concept map: from stage to page. Cover permission Allen & Unwin.

Students can research the production of Hamlet in the Elizabethan context and investigate how the play has been transformed or appropriated to suit the interests of audiences in subsequent contexts. A focus on the nature and impact of Postmodernism in relation to contemporary literature could help to inform a study of Greenberg’s version of Hamlet, as could an awareness of variation in meaning arising from different readings of the text. Students can use their research of others’ perspectives to test their own understanding and interpretations of the text. They can consider how the text has been received and valued over time in other contexts, and they can examine how textual features, including construction, content and language, contribute to the integrity of the text.

Shakespeare’s audience

Interestingly, theatre in Shakespeare’s day was not performed solely for the wealthy classes or the intelligentsia. It was not high culture. Elizabethan theatre was one type of entertainment in a society that also drew crowds to bear baiting, cock fighting, boxing, wrestling, strolling players, jugglers, and acrobats. All classes of society could attend Shakespeare’s plays and they were certainly not the quiet, docile, well-educated audiences that would be expected in theatres today. Predating the invention of electricity, performances would be staged at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, in broad daylight. This required the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief in order to be absorbed in the world of the play. Plays ran without intervals, poorer people stood throughout the performances, and roving vendors sold snacks and beverages during the production. The play and the skills of the actors had to keep audiences engaged and entertained.

In her graphic novel version of Hamlet, Greenberg also appeals to a wide audience. While her composition at first glance may not appear scholarly, like Shakespeare, she offers multiple levels for an audience to contemplate. Shakespeare’s version relies on theatrical devices and techniques. There is the action and dialogue of the play, including soliloquies offering insights into a character’s inner thoughts, a play within the play, prescribed settings, costumes, and sound effects.

Greenberg presents the action of the play through illustration, sequential panels and dialogue. Her visu-verbal soliloquies allow the audience to appreciate the character’s inner turmoil and members of the acting troupe are distinguished by colour, making them different from the actors in the main play. Greenberg adds another dimension, taking the reader backstage and drawing attention to the constructedness of the drama. Blurring the line between life and playing a role is very much in keeping with Shakespeare’s juxtaposition of world and stage, captured succinctly in the well known quotation,

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts …

As you like it II, vii

Positioning the reader

The opening pages of Greenberg’s text position a reader as the audience. A page listing the characters in the play begins the sequential movement into the world of the play and is followed by a black double page with one small utterance, Shhh … This simulates a break with the day-to-day world similar to that experienced when the lights go down in the theatre. A faceless inkblot character standing in front of a lavish curtain follows. In the next sequence the actor dons his mask ready for the reenactment that will follow. The play unfolds through the actions and reactions of abstract, anthropomorphic characters uttering words from the Shakespearean text. Set against colourful, stylized, symbolic backdrops, Greenberg’s version readily engages a reading audience. Panelled pages alternate with splash pages, moving between a calm and frenetic pace, and yielding a dynamic reenactment for the reader audience. The composer delivers a new hybrid visual and verbal reading – different from traditional reading but fortunately no less subtle, intelligent, or, in its way, demanding … (Tabachnick, 2007, p .27).

Understanding and critiquing sequential art

Graphic novels use a format that the purists working in the medium refer to as comics. It has its own unique value, grammar, syntax, codes, and conventions, all of which are worthy of deep research and understanding.

To read at all, we need to be familiar with the literary techniques and conventions which a particular work deploys; we must have some grasp of its ‘codes’ … the rules which systematically govern the ways it produces its meanings.

Eagleton (1983)

Students new to reading in the graphic novel format may be assisted by Table 1, which presents some of the most fundamental elements needed to appreciate and critique sequential art literature. A knowledge of its unique grammar and syntax is worth cultivating because, as Stephen E. Tabachnick argues, …

the graphic novel … offers just as many fine creative talents – and as subtle, plastic, and wonderful a reading experience – as any literary genre ever has done.

(2007, p.11)

Image: Table 1 Fundamental elements of sequential art literature

Greenberg’s Hamlet elicits an intellectual and emotional response, as might a staged production of Shakespeare’s text. A graphic novel requires active reading, including processing images and written text simultaneously, closing moments between panels in order to construct a continuity of the actions occurring in and between the panels, making inferences and making judgements. Knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can inform Greenberg’s version and vice versa. It offers a fascinating alternative for students to use in the process of refining their own understanding and interpretations of the prescribed text and critically consider(ing) these in the light of the perspectives of others (English Stage 6 Syllabus – Advanced, p.52).

Greenberg retains Shakespeare’s language, which would be subject to particular nuances and innuendoes in a theatrical performance, and she explores these shades of meaning through her visual construction and representation. Her approach involves the use and subversion of the comic format. Her panels are determined by colour but do not use traditional solid line borders. Speech balloons and images seep beyond the frames and into the broad black gutters of a metaphysical realm. Inner consciousness is unbounded by frames and soliloquies float in bubbles or unframed against a dense black backdrop. Transitions are mainly moment-to-moment or scene-to-scene and the characters are phantasmagorical abstractions. These personae are clearly constructs. They are fluid and seem to display emotions through bizarre physical mutations. Mask-like faces are moveable and fragmenting. Symbolic motifs such as pens, paintbrushes, cogs, plants, weeds, and feathers permeate the visual text reinforcing both the themes and constructedness of the drama. Using these devices Greenberg creates a rich, personal impression of the play that can be unpacked to provide a richer understanding of the text in a new context. Figure 2 shows an example of such an analysis.

Interview with Nicki

In a fascinating interview at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, Shaun Tan, another graphic novel composer, discusses Nicki Greenberg’s interpretation of Hamlet with her (Hamlet, a graphic tale, 2011 <wheelercentre. com/videos/video/hamlet-a-graphictale/>). It is informative to see the shared understanding of value, of both Shakespeare’s play and the graphic format, between these two composers. The interview also highlights the depth of content that can be observed and discussed in the graphic novel format. As Charles Hatfield explains, … comics can be a complex means of communication and are always characterized by a plurality of messages (2009, p. 132).

Exploring the text

The complexity of qualitative graphic literature allows readers to explore texts from varying perspectives and to critique them using different lenses. In this sense, like Shakespeare’s play, Greenberg’s Hamlet can be analysed using different theories. In essence it is a postmodern text. It utilises devices like blurring the distinction between high culture and popular culture. It employs pastiche and parody in transforming Shakespeare’s written text to a completely different form. Intertextual references occur in the guise of visual images and symbols. It is self-reflective and draws a reader’s attention to the constructed nature of the graphic novel.

Reader-response theory acknowledges that meaning is made by active negotiation between the reader and the composer of a text. No matter what the medium, readers will bring their own conscious and unconscious knowledge into play in the process of making meaning of the text. Postmodern theorists argue that this knowledge is culturally determined and thus tends to govern the implied reader.

Alternative readings can be undertaken in the light of contemporary critical theories such as Psychoanalytic theory, Feminist theory, or contemporary ideologies, which can be used to inform a reading of a text. Such theories can be readily applied to a graphic novel. Like other literature a graphic novel is a product of a sociohistorical context and the author has an implied reader in mind when creating a work. Close scrutiny reveals choices made by the composer. It unveils conscious and unconscious workings of the composer’s mind in the creative process and reflects cultural ideologies of time and place of production.

Students who have the opportunity to engage with Greenberg’s Hamlet should consider it in the light of all these aspects. If they read it within the context of the critical study of text option, they should note how Greenberg’s work reinforces or alters their own perceptions of Shakespeare’s play. The following questions and activities can be used to cultivate a deeper understanding and appreciation of Greenberg’s work, to help the development of a personal interpretation of Shakespeare’s text, and lead to a deeper awareness of how texts can be valued in different contexts (Figure 3).

Image: Figure 3 Questions and activities to promote deep thinking, analysis and discussion

References and further reading

Absolute Shakespeare, AbsoluteShakespeare.com, USA. Viewed 07 October 2011. <absoluteshakespeare.com/>. SCIS 1251511

Eagleton, T. (1983) Literary theory, Basil Blackwell Ltd, Oxford, UK.

English: Stage 6 syllabus, (1999) Board of Studies NSW, Sydney. SCIS 976356

Extract: Hamlet, Allen & Unwin, Sydney. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.allenandunwin.com/_uploads/BookPdf/Extract/9781741756425.pdf>.

Folger Shakespeare Library: a lively place for learning and the arts, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.folger.edu>. SCIS 1251449

Greenberg, N. (2010) Hamlet, Allen & Unwin, NSW. SCIS 1482408

‘Hamlet’, Allen & Unwin: online store, Allen & Unwin, Sydney. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.allenandunwin.com/default.aspx?page=94&book=9781741756425>.

Hamlet, a graphic tale, (2011) Wheeler Centre, Melbourne. Viewed 07 October 2011. <wheelercentre.com/videos/video/hamlet-a-graphic-tale/>. SCIS 1526525

Hatfield, C. (2009) ‘An art of tensions’ in J. Heer & K. Worcester (eds) A comics studies reader, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, pp. 132–148.

Hatfield, C. (2011) ‘What makes a great comic? (Part 2)’, D. Badman, A. Boney, I. Cates, C. Fischer, J. Gardner & C. Hatfield, The panelists, Wordpress.com. Viewed 07 October 2011. <thepanelists.org/2011/02/what-makes-a-great-comic-part-2/>.

McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding comics, A kitchen sink book [series], HarperPerennial, New York. SCIS 810507

Tabachnick, S.E. (2007) ‘A comic-book world’, World Literature Today, 81(2), University of Oklahoma, Norman, pp. 21–28. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.ou.edu/worldlit/essays/Tabachnick-GraphicNovel.html>.

Patrick, K. (2012), ‘In search of the great Australian (graphic) novel’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1(1), pp. 51–66. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=10823/>.

Murray, M. (2007) ‘Exploring the potential of graphic novels’, Scan 26(1), pp. 19–23.

Nicki Greenberg, N. Greenberg, Australia. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.nickigreenberg.com/>. SCIS 1381202

Siegel, K. (n.d.) Introduction to modern literary theory, Kristi Siegel, Milwaukee. Viewed 07 October 2011. <www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm>.

Shakespeare and his world, Fathom Knowledge Network. Viewed 07 October 2011.<www.fathom.com/special/shakespeare/>.

Sly, C. (2010) ‘Going graphic: reading in the gutters’, Scan 29(4), pp. 6–1

Keywords: Graphic novels; English 7-12; Shakespeare;

How to cite this article: Sly, C. 2011. 'Beyond the review: HSC resource package with a focus on Hamlet by Nicki
Greenberg', Scan, 30(4)

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