Comics in Education: Shakin’ up the Bard – Visualizing Shakespeare

Columnist Anastasia Betts of Graphic Novels 101 looks at the use of comics in the classroom, and shares her experience as an educator helping teachers embrace sequential art as a teaching tool.

Anastasia Betts by Anastasia Betts

Shakin’ Up the Bard: Visualizing Shakespeare
By Anastasia Betts

Shakespeare today remains one of the most influential and significant writers of all time. Despite what some might see as the “inaccessibility” of Shakespearean language, the study of Shakespeare is a worthwhile endeavor, guaranteed to challenge and inspire, regardless of the age or reading level of students.

I have many colleagues that shy away from Shakespeare, claiming that his work is too difficult, the language too cumbersome, and the stories less than relevant for their student populations. I find myself insisting that nothing could be further from the truth. Shakespeare’s work continues to live on as testament to the triumph of the human spirit, to love, to tragedy, revenge, power, and more. As the intro to his first folio stated, “he is not of an age, but for all time”.

The challenge in Shakespeare, then, is helping students to see the relevance of his timeless tales to their own modern, often urban, lives. Shakespearean text need not be a barrier to comprehension, as there are so many wonderful tools to help promote understanding, not the least of which are graphic novel adaptations.

So what are some ways to use graphic adaptations of Shakespeare with your students?

1.  Generate higher interest by using a multimedia format

It’s no surprise that in the 21st century, teachers recognize the need to make learning more visual. As I’ve said in previous posts, we live in a visual world, and frankly if you want to capture the interest of students, your best bet is to include visuals. Whether that is a graphic novel, animation, live performance, website, or any other multi-media format, its important that we as teachers do not ignore this critical point. Using a graphic novel enables you to provide the visual stimulation that students today are accustomed to, while still immersing them in the classics that so many of us long to teach.

Also keep in mind that Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be “read” in the first place. They were meant to by “viewed” live on stage. Though not as dynamic or inspirational as watching a live performance, comics can provide the best of both worlds – students are able to “view” the play while simultaneously “reading” it.

Macbeth adapted by John McDonald, illustrated by Jon Haward

2.  Support second language learners or reluctant readers

As classrooms continue to grow ever more diverse, today we teach students from a variety of backgrounds – whether that means they come to us speaking a first language other than English, or from a lifestyle or home environment where reading is not a priority activity. Perhaps they prefer to play sports or an exciting video game than to curl up with a good book. Or, perhaps they just never got the help they needed to improve their reading skills, and so now are just simply reluctant to read. Whatever the reason may be, we teachers do everything we can to get our students not only interested in the books we are teaching, but to help them achieve the greatest level of comprehension or understanding. Using a visual Shakespeare format can provide just the hook and the support students need to not only “get into” the text, but to exhibit the stamina needed to persist and finish the book.

One of the best graphic adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that I have seen lately is this interactive motion comic by Classical Comics. They also publish a hard copy version with the original text. However, the online or CD-Rom version is where it’s at. They provide an interactive comic experience with three different levels of text, the original, plain (modern), or quick (ESL). The benefit to this edition is that it is truly multi-media in that it also provides sound effects and an audio track to accompany the visuals and the text.

3.  Use as an introduction prior to studying the actual play

Using graphic adaptations before embarking on a study of the original (or even modern text versions) is another great way to incorporate visual supports that can benefit your students. If you are determined to tackle the challenge of studying the original, you might have an easier time getting the pump primed if you start your students out with a feast for their visual senses. If you do not have time to have them read the whole adaptation, you can send them home with the graphic novel (or portions there of), to whet their appetite for more. You can also use an intro activity such as this to help students gain familiarity with the setting, historical context, plot elements, and characters – in a way that is sure to be comprehensible to them. It’s a great way to help ensure that some of the basics are out of the way so that students are ready to tackle the text unhindered by other questions.

Hamlet adapted by Neil Babra

4.  Use along side the original text as a comprehension aid

Many of my teaching friends are familiar with Shakespeare editions that have built-in literacy support, such as the No Fear Shakespeare series that presents the Shakespearean text side by side with a more modern version of the language. I have used this series effectively in the classroom, but at times I feel it doesn’t always present enough support. I recently came across a new graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet by Neil Babra, published by No Fear Shakespeare. I had previously been unaware that No Fear had ventured into the world of comics, so I happily purchased it to check out it. I am happy to say it’s a great adaptation. The one downside is that the comic does not present the original Shakespeare text – however, even with the use of modern English, it is clear that the writer went to great pains to preserve some of the best lines (i.e. “Brevity is the soul of wit”). The artwork works well with the dialogue and story and the paneling is dynamic and interesting. It’s getting great reviews by the Shakespeare faithful and teachers alike.

Because this adaptation is so closely aligned to the original, it’s a great choice for using alongside the original. Consider assigning specific portions of the graphic novel for independent reading, then save the hard work of reading and discussing the original text for class sessions. Activate students’ critical thinking skills by asking them to compare the original to the graphic novel, and to make informed judgments about the graphic artist’s interpretations.

Just as a side note, I would also encourage anyone using this text to contact the graphic novel author, Neil Babra. I read on his webpage that he was really excited about teachers using his adaptation in the classroom, and I’m guessing that he might just be excited to do an author chat with you and your class!

5.  Use in place of the original play

Though I don’t recommend this per se (as I think the Shakespearean text is far too valuable to pass up), there may be occasions when this might be the appropriate choice for you. Perhaps you have limited amounts of time, or you feel that the Shakespearean English is simply too far out of reach for your students. If this is the case, then I would highly suggest that you at least introduce some portions of the original text to use as a companion to the graphic novel version (that is if the graphic novel version is in modern English). For example, when studying the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet, why not go ahead and copy a handout of the original text for students to compare. I’ve found that in small chunks, with the visual support of the graphic novel and the modern English translation, almost any student is able to begin to understand the Shakespearean version. The original text offers multiple opportunities to discuss with students the poetic cadences and the beauty of language.

6.  Have your students create their own “comic” depictions of key Shakespeare scenes

One of the activities I loved the most was encouraging my students to create their own graphic novels from the books they were reading, and Shakespeare was no exception. The easiest way to do this was through the use of photographs. Students do not always feel well equipped to draw, and given the option to photograph instead often helped them overcome any anxiety. Through this activity, students became, in effect, play directors – working to stage scene tableaus that would provide the maximum visual communication. These images were then imported into a comic-making software (i.e. Comic Life, or Strip Designer), where they could add speech or thought bubbles, and text boxes. Student work was evaluated on how well they communicated the intent of the scene, how well the visuals worked with the incorporated dialogue, and how well they utilized such literary devices as foreshadowing, mood, symbolism, and more. Providing students with an opportunity to demonstrate and deepen their comprehension through the creation of their own texts is an opportunity not to be passed up.

Romeo and Juliet adapted by Sonia Leong

Other Recommendations

There are a lot of graphic adaptations of Shakespeare available. I would caution you though, not all adaptations are created equal. Some are much better than others. The two I’ve already mentioned are really great: No Fear Shakespeare, and those by Classical Comics. There is also a series of graphic style interactive apps on the iPad called Shakespeare in Bits which I am pretty fond of. It provides more of the multi-media support through audio sound tracks, and also includes many other tools like articles on theme, plot, setting, act and scene summaries, and more. You can watch a product tour of the app on YouTube.

All of the resources I have mentioned thus far are pretty faithful to the language, setting, and context of the original plays. If, however, you are looking for something more updated, flashy, and trendy – check out Manga Shakespeare. With updated or in some cases futuristic settings, these books might be slightly too removed for a classical study of the Bard. That being said, these make fantastic additions to the class library, and provide a great informal (yes even sneaky) way to get your students reading Shakespeare without even really knowing it. While abridged, they do include much of the original text, interspersed with action sequences typical of manga. Manga remains one of the most popular styles of visual literature, and students are continually drawn (no pun intended) to the dynamic art and stylized characters.

Kill Shakespeare by Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger

Lastly, if you are looking for something Shakespeare themed, but a little more inventive and exciting, and not necessarily based on a specific play – look no further than a comic series called Kill Shakespeare. This is a brand new creation that recasts some of Shakespeare’s best heroes and heroines, and pits them against his best villains. Think of it as the Bard meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It may be that this guilty pleasure is best left for us adults who have the background knowledge of the plays and characters to fully appreciate this series, but I will leave that up to you to decide.

There are many more graphic novel resources out there, and you can pretty much find a graphic text for any of Shakespeare’s plays. Just be wise and carefully review any text you plan to use. Make sure that it’s providing the support you need, and that you have predetermined the ways in which the graphic text can best support your classroom teaching. And, as always, I am here as a resource if you want to send me any questions you might have, or if you want to bounce around potential teaching ideas.

But for now, I must bid you adieu!

Homework: If you plan to use any graphic Shakespeare in your class this year, please take a moment to comment below and share which play/graphic adaptation you plan to use, and any teaching strategies you are thinking of employing. Your ideas might just help one of your colleagues take the plunge!

Anastasia Betts is a former teacher, administrator, and UCLA literacy coach from California. She has delivered professional development courses, workshops, and seminars on using comics in the classroom, including participating on Comics in Education panels at Comic Con International: San Diego. Anastasia currently runs an independent curriculum development company called Curriculum Essentials, Inc as well as the website Graphic Novels 101. You can follow her on Facebook at Graphic Novels 101: Using Visual Texts in the 21st Century.

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About Corey Blake

Corey Blake does things on the Internet, and sometimes even in real life.

Posted on September 24, 2012, in Columns, Comics in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thodoris Andriopoulos

    My name is Thodoris Andriopoulos, I am a math teacher and the author of a graphic novel book titled “Who Killed Professor X?” which is an innovative idea for teaching secondary school mathematics through a detective story.
    The project on which the book is based took 3rd prize in the 6th Microsoft European Innovative Teachers Forum in Vienna in 2009. The distinction was awarded in the special category in which European teachers vote for the best projects.
    Here is a description:

    It is a work of fiction based on actual incidents, and its heroes are real people who left their mark on the history of mathematics. It takes place in Paris in 1900 and is the story of a murder for which the greatest mathematicians of all time are considered suspects. Each suspect’s statement to the police leads to a mathematical problem.An award winning graphic novel.
    A sample of the book:
    and here is a link for those interested in bying the book:

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