One of the running themes that’s developed as I’ve added to the Library of Alexander has been the voyage of discovery I’ve been on in the land of comic books and graphic novels.
After ElfQuest, I tried to take some initiative and paid a visit to the new release tables at Toronto’s FanExpo convention, where chance would have it that I met Conor McCreery, Anthony del Col and Andy Belanger and bought the first issue of their new intellectual property, the alarmingly-titled Kill Shakespeare.
Being a fan, though by no means an expert on William Shakespeare’s remarkable plays, the title alone caught my attention, and so, autographed copy in hand, I dived in, ultimately reading the two complete volumes of both arcs – so far at least – of the series.
Our main character is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Exiled after killing Polonius, he is shipwrecked on the shores of England, where the hunchbacked King Richard tells him a terrible secret: that his fate is part of the machinations of a mysterious puppeteer, whose followers attack Richard and threaten his rule.
Richard puts it thusly: “These…zealots rally around the banner of a man. Some say he is a god, others say he is merely a wizard. You are meant to stop him, Hamlet. You are meant to save us. Will you free us from the tyranny of William Shakespeare?”
Hamlet, prophesied as the Shadow King, the one who can reach Shakespeare’s hiding place, is thus sent by Richard to find William and take his quill, with the promise that Richard will use its power to restore him to his rightful place in Denmark.
Hamlet is separated from the King’s party and ends up being led by the hedonistic knight Falstaff, who brings him to the Shakespeare loyalist faction, lead by ‘the Lady,’ Juliet Capulet, and her chief man-at-arms, the Moor Othello.
Richard, not surprisingly, has his own agenda, along with his ally, the sorceress Lady MacBeth, who supports his armies against the followers of Will.
Hamlet, now in the keeping of the pro-Will faction, begins to see the damage done by Richard’s tyrannical rule and how much worse it could be if he gets his hands on the quill.
Initially lost in his own personal tragedies, he begins to connect with Juliet over their past suffering, and for love of her, he aids the rebels and seeks to find Shakespeare and find out why his power has gone so awry.
The story’s premise is that Shakespeare actually exists in the world he created, but he gave his creations free will. Richard and Lady MacBeth, with Othello’s rival Iago in tow, are seeking the quill to claim its power for themselves, while the Prodigals, led by Juliet, Falstaff and Othello, all of whom have learned from the experiences set before them, fight against tyranny in the name of Will.
I love Shakespeare. The stories and characters he created and especially the stunning words he used to tell of them are with good cause the benchmark for storytelling in English. And, despite the title, Kill Shakespeare is a love letter to his stories.
It’s an all-stars gathering of some of his most iconic characters: Feste from Twelfth Night, Falstaff, of Henry IV, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor, Iago and Othello, Richard III, MacBeth, Lady MacBeth and the three witches, Juliet and Hamlet himself, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Having said that, the writing shows occasional signs of loving Shakespeare without always understanding him. For one thing, the dialogue is full of flourishes and ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and so forth, way moreso than the Bard himself ever used them. Indeed, some have said that Shakespeare’s writing was, by the standards of his time, considered quite crude and informal in places. I can recommend Bill Bryson’s digest of Shakesperean scholarship, Shakespeare: the World as Stage for more. Another thing that is notable is that the characters don’t speak in blank verse, which Shakespeare characters usually do. Possibly you’d have to be looking for that to notice, but the lack of its rhythm (usually denoted as te-tum, te-tum, te-tum) makes all those thous and forsooths a little tricky to wrap the tongue around.
The story itself is an intriguing quest with a lot of imagination and hints at the nature of the world and the power and influence of Shakespeare, while the great mystery is what Hamlet will find when he arrives. There is a theme about the responsibility of a storyteller to his creations which I find really intriguing, and an empowering one of second chances and making the best story you can out of your life. The story also has a pleasantly earthy sense of humour, with the odd off-colour joke, mostly coming out of Falstaff. I like it because I think people tend to assume that Shakespeare is all high-minded purity, when in truth his stories are the definition of ‘human.’
I feel that a lot of questions about the exact nature and limits of Will’s power are left open-ended. There are some ‘bonus chapters’ that imply that some of the characters have reincarnated through different time periods of Shakespeare’s writing – Cleopatra and Lady MacBeth, for example – whether this is supposed to be canonical or are just poems by the creators about the universality of certain character types I don’t know. It serves the second purpose alright, but I’m not sure what the point is beyond that.
Hamlet’s character arc is one of discovering the reality of people around him as more than elements in his plans or shadows on the wall. He often gives the impression of being lost and purposeless, which gives him room to grow. On the downside, he often comes across as just going along with the motivations of everyone else, doing things because the plot requires him to do so, not because he wants to, and I‘m not clear on why he in particular is qualified to be the prophesied Shadow King. He gets better as things progress, though.
So Kill Shakespeare is a great homage to the range of characters and immortal stories that William Shakespeare created, and spins a charming yarn of humanity and the power of creativity. The plot driving it is a bit generic and muddled and the prose misses the mark by being too fancy, more like a send-up of Shakespeare. It’s fun, if not profound, and well worth a try, just for a lark.
For we are such stuff that dreams are made of.