Literary mashup: killing Shakespeare, or another form of appreciation?

Good art should provoke strong reactions.  So let’s start here:

I am shaking my head. I want to cry. I want to bitch slap whoever was involved with creating it. However, this kind of crap is nothing new. There is nothing I can do about it except hope that somewhere, someday, it inspires ONE person to go and discover how awesome the work of William Shakespeare is and how even more awesome the history behind this iconic figure is. But the comic book is seriously so poorly done, so flawed on even the most elementary levels of story-telling, I cannot imagine it doing anything but alienating even more people.

Come on, the villain tells the hero his task is to steal Shakespeare’s Quill?

I just threw up in my mouth.

I’m not going to bother with explaining the basic flaws. You can find out for yourself and then throw-up in your own mouth.

Um, okay … It gets more fun and simply gross …

Oh, they think they are so clever. They must, because otherwise, this comic book would not exist. IDW would never have even considered the proposal. But no one at IDW knew a thing about Shakespeare, that much is clear, because I doubt that they want to publish a giant stinking turd of a comic book on purpose.

Thanks, Kimberly Cox, for giving us a great example of how NOT to write a review (which should be critical, not emotional) and for such a wonderful example of hyperbole!  While she is entitled to her own opinion, Cox is a scholar who would likely scoff at any attempt to teach curriculum standards via Shakespearean texts in the year 2010 and beyond.  She claims that you can’t teach Shakespeare or write about him unless you REALLY, TRULY understand him and the texts.  She’s right, but only to a certain degree. Her goal would be to teach Shakespeare to a group of students.  My goal is to engage students in constructing their own understanding of centuries-old Shakespearean texts and to build on comprehension and analytical habits over time. She seems to view Shakespeare as an end; to me, he’s only one piece of the means.  To be fair to Cox, Comic Book Resources also gives the volume an unfavorable review, sans bowel or vomit-laden imagery.

I don’t believe in labels such as traditionalist or maverick or however else we seek to pigeonhole teaching styles (they’re probably ALL good and useful), but I’m sure I’d be greatly entertained to watch someone like her attempt to teach Shakespeare (or rather, drama standards via Shakespeare) to any of my classes.  Would she bore students with a whole-group read and toss out a few toy swords, crowns, and capes and expect the students to magically care?  Or would she try something like this:

The above example was my first attempt to make Othello a bit more engaging – in addition to a variety of reading strategies and traditional assignments (even a long essay!).  It’s still rudimentary … Here is English teacher Charles Young’s much more sophisticated Facebook-engaged reenactment of Macbeth.  Both of these activities and assessments can be used as strategies to engage students in closer-reading of Shakespearean — or any — text, but neither will make Shakespearean text more accessible in and of themselves.  This is where a graphic text could be layered for a quick, easy hook.

Now – on to why Kill Shakespeare isn’t really all that great, but your students will still love it and you might even find it useful …

I tend to think that it’s tough to be completely original these days, and it’s okay to be derivative as long as you’re conscious of it and unpretentious.  Media can be produced, distributed, and consumed more easily and rapidly than ever before (Jenkins, 2006), and any and every subculture can find or establish an entertainment niche on the internet.  Some of the best music production in 2010 came from mashup DJ Girl Talk whose latest release All Day can still be downloaded for free as promotion for sold-out live concert dates that won’t earn him lawsuits from any of the 373 artists sampled on the 70-plus minute dance marathon album.  You may be asking “Why haven’t I heard of this guy?”  I counter “Why haven’t you heard of him?”  All Day’s popularity earned Girl Talk (Greg Gillis) his own official day in Pittsburgh, and he has been featured several times in the New York Times.

Gillis’ productions can be easily dismissed as recycled amalgamations that disrespect the rightful owners of the original music, and this viewpoint is certainly valid.  Who would want their own work to be “abused, stol’n from from [them], and corrupted” like Brabantio assumes Othello did to his fair daughter Desdemona via the power of witchcraft in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy?  Therein lies the issue.  Brabantio is a misguided, elitist patriarch who preserves his comfortable status in aristocratic Venetian society by employing Othello as a warrior and only regretfully as a son-in-law.  While Othello’s jealousy, Iago’s deceit, and Desdemona’s innocence are all equally important, Brabantio’s disapproval of his daughter’s interracial marriage helps lend Iago’s lies weight as well as representing how traditional beliefs wear thin with cultural change.  Just like Gillis takes classic rock, 80’s hits and 90’s alternative and makes it fun and relevant again by re-casting it through assertive, confident, party-themed hip-hop tracks that exercise the listener’s mind by forcing them to re-imagine the newly minted songs as both separate, original and combined, contemporary texts, McCreery and Del Col throw Shakespeare’s works into a blender, hit the pulse button a few times, and push out a new product that stands (more or less) on its own while simultaneously providing points of access to the multiple former texts.  As advertised, it’s like Bill Willingham’s Fables, but it’s solely focused on Shakespeare.

The plot, like my memory of Shakespearean plays, is not very complex: “In this dark tale, the Bard’s most famous heroes embark upon a journey to discover a long-lost soul.  Hamlet, Juliet, Othello, Falstaff, Romeo and Puck search for a reclusive wizard who may have the ability to assist them in their battle against the evil forces led by the villains Richard III, Lady Macbeth and Iago.  That reclusive wizard?  William Shakespeare.”  Referred to playfully as Will throughout, Shakespeare is the creator of the vast kingdom that houses each of these memorable characters who strive and war to find Will’s quill – an archetypal symbol of “all power and life” (Cooke, 2010).

Cooke’s introduction in the first trade volume (found here by scrolling through MTV’s free book preview) could itself be used to open up a candid discussion of why Shakespearean texts are frustrating to adolescent readers:


Othello and Iago as portrayed in Kill Shakespeare

Presenting an image such as this one portraying Othello's rage toward Iago could serve as a more relevant hook than classical art to open up a discussion of stereotypes and Shakespeare's treatment of them - a topic which Kill Shakespeare neither preaches nor strays from entirely.

… There is no love lost between myself and the Bard in question.  As a matter of fact, in high school if someone had yelled “Kill Shakespeare” I’d have zealously seconded.  My memories of high school Shakespeare are not unlike my memories of French language class: vague and irritating, like there was  a different word for everything.  Three pages into that muckety-muck and I’d gloss over and reach for a Ross MacDonald novel or a Detective Comic.  Class discussion often amounted to the teacher reading the play a line at a time with a crushingly thorough translation of each word and phrase and cunning inference.  For my story-starved teenage brain it was like being beaten to death with a dictionary in slow motion.  My inability to fall into the old man’s pentameters and rhythms kept me from enjoying his work on any level other than plot construction and basic character interplay (2010).

Peppered with literary allusions (both textual, direct, and indirect) and playful with Shakespeare’s works, any page or panel of this graphic text could be used for any variety of classroom activities and goals including activation and summarizing strategies (present the students with an image to relate to prior knowledge or to tie into the day’s lesson through a short written assignment followed by discussion), characterization (distinguishing between direct and indirect characterization in a graphic text and then transferring to Shakespearean text), understanding dramatic dialogue and speech (examining the importance of soliloquies), or even for creative writing.  The key is not to dismiss Kill Shakespeare as a weak, inaccurate, or impractical text, but rather to imagine how it could be used or presented to students to benefit even one reader’s appreciation of the Bard.


I often present a similar image to assist the students in constructing a preview of Shakespeare's portrayal of Othello and Desdemona, but images from Kill Shakespeare are certainly much more attention-getting.

Sure, there is no iambic pentameter, and although the artwork is highly engaging and the concept is imaginative, the plot can wear thin at times.  Readers may also benefit from prior knowledge concerning the featured characters, but then again, the text invites readers to learn MORE about these important literary figures whether via Wikipedia or even Shakespearean texts themselves.  A 2011 ALA Great Graphic Novel for Teens, Kill Shakespeare is easily found at local bookstores as well as throughout the internet links I’ve provided or simple searches.  Originally a video game idea, Kill Shakespeare could morph into a feature film in the future, at which point another layer of relevance and curiosity could be added to the Bard’s already rather thick inter-textual folio.  At that point, the authors may achieve their main goal.  “We want people debating about whether a project like this would have Shakespeare rolling around in his grave,” said Del Col in Wired Magazine.  Perhaps more English teachers should begin asking their students questions like this one.





About marcginsberg

I teach high school English in Athens, GA. I read graphic novels and catch live music whenever possible. I walk my dog Humphrey and kid myself that I'm a distance runner.
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2 Responses to Literary mashup: killing Shakespeare, or another form of appreciation?

  1. Wow, this is one of the most interesting analysis of our work that I have been fortunate enough to come across. I think you nailed a great deal of what we were hoping to achieve with Kill Shakespeare while fairly acknowledging some of the flaws of our work. As we’ve progressed with the project we hope the character’s interactions add a complexity that the fairly simple plot may not (which I suppose could be considered a reflection of Shakespeare).

    We’d be happy to support your class any way we can.

    All the best,


  2. marcginsberg says:

    I actually think the plot is appropriate. That may not have come off in that post. Additionally, I don’t think you need to write the entire thing in iambic pentameter.

    To me the strength of his plays (the comedies and tragedies, at least) are in the characters and their well-painted representations of common themes, ideas, and feelings. All of that playfulness is still there because you can’t just take someone like Puck or Iago or Falstaff and change them completely while expecting an audience to go along with it.

    I read for enjoyment and teach to encourage it though – not because I think that my perspective on literature is the *right* one.

    Keep it up! Don’t quit at issue 12 like some articles have suggested will happen! Re-mixing old ideas isn’t going to get any less popular or fun any time soon, and I for one enjoyed this effort.

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