Review of Kill Shakespeare, Vol. 1: A Sea of Troubles by

Book cover for Kill Shakespeare, Vol. 1: A Sea of Troubles

This is such an amazing concept, and when I first heard about it, I was taken aback by how unbelievably awesome it might be. Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters face off against each other in a desperate race to find a wizard named William Shakespeare. Othello, Juliet, Falstaff, and others believe that “Will” will deliver them from the tyranny of King Richard III. Richard, along with the Macbeths and Iago, plot to kill Shakespeare and obtain his quill—and with it, his magic. Thrust into the middle of this conflict is Hamlet, initially rescued by Richard and dubbed “the Shadow King”, prophesied, according to Richard, to kill Shakespeare and free England from the wizard’s tyranny. Later, Hamlet escapes from Richard’s grasp and learns that not all is what it seems with the King of England. But the question remains: whose side is he on, and who is this elusive Shakespeare?

Would that I could give this book the rating it deserves for its concept alone! Alas, in execution Kill Shakespeare leaves me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. There’s plenty to like about this book: witty dialogue, crafty villains, humorous situations, and allusions to many of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet beneath all these myriad elements of farce, the central element of story suffers.

Hamlet’s indecision is probably the most compelling conflict in this first volume. Exiled from Denmark for the murder of Polonius, Hamlet ends up in England, essentially a “guest” of Richard III. To both Hamlet and us (except, if you know who Richard III is, you know better), Richard seems like the good guy: a philosopher-king desperate to save his kingdom from the oppressive magic of this mysterious wizard. Only Hamlet, the shadow king, can save them by killing Shakespeare! Hamlet, still understandably traumatized, is not enamoured with the idea of becoming a contract killer. Still, he begins to form a friendship with Iago as they ride across the countryside in the company of Richard’s men.

Once Hamlet hears the other side of the story from Falstaff and Juliet, he—surprise, surprise—becomes indecisive! He’s a stranger to this land; he has no quarrel with either side, or with William Shakespeare. That being said, I feel like my background knowledge of these characters (and it’s rather obvious even if you aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s plays) upset the dynamic in this moral ambiguity. It seems so obvious that Juliet and the Protagonists (as they are called, hah) are the “good guys” and that Richard and Lady Macbeth are Evil. In fact, when I think about it, there’s nothing all that original or unique about the overall plot here—one might as well have used some different, generic characters and still arrived at the same ending. What do the Shakespearean characters add to this story?

Not much. However, the opposite is true. I quite liked seeing Othello having to confront Iago, Juliet giving a speech about how much she has lost and how she needs to believe in this “Will”, Hamlet struggling with his guilt over the death of Polonius and his father’s death and in general being quite useless. Kill Shakespeare gives these characters a brand new environment in which they can continue to explore their motivations and grow from their experiences in their respective plays. (Of course, since most of Shakespeare’s tragic figures end up driving a dagger betwixt their breasts, they need a miracle exemption.) Not every character fares so well in this type of adaptation: I’m not a fan of Lady Macbeth’s recasting as some kind of evil sorceress. Yeah, in the Scottish Play she coveted power—perhaps more so even than her husband—but her role in Kill Shakespeare seems rather forced. The same might be said for Juliet: exactly how she went from weeping maiden to warrior maiden (TVTropes) isn’t clear. I’m willing to cut the authors some slack here, because Shakespeare is much like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: versatile and mutable, changing to fit its medium and its audience.

I’m completing my final year of my undergraduate degree, at the end of which I’ll be certified to teach high school math and English. So while I read Kill Shakespeare, I evaluated it not only as a book but with the eye of possibly using it to engage students with the world of Shakespeare. Let’s face it: the Bard is difficult, because he’s writing in a language (and meter) 400 years removed from us, for a style and form that has evolved well beyond the Elizabethan playhouse. So reimaginings, adaptations, and mashups of Shakespearean works are valuable tools for conveying Shakespeare’s plays to modern day audiences. I’m not certain Kill Shakespeare retains enough of the flavour and content of Shakespeare’s plays to be worth teaching on its own, but it would definitely make an interesting supplementary aid.

I suspect that ultimately my feelings about this story will be swayed by the final volume. Do they actually kill Shakespeare? (Probably not.) Will we get to see characters from some of his other works, such as King Lear or The Tempest? (A short comic included at the end implies that the dagger Richard gives to Hamlet to use on Shakespeare is the same dagger that Brutus used to stab Caesar.) I’m sure that half the fun the writers had was trying to come up with ways to include various characters—and there are so many of them—so I’m looking forward to seeing more of that in Volume 2. Kill Shakespeare didn’t blow my mind like I was hoping it would, but it this first volume is still a decent enough example of how, 400 years on, William Shakespeare is still rocking my world.

Engagement

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