I met Shakespeare scholar, Mike Jensen, and his wife, Cydne, while we were dining family-style at the exquisite new restaurant, Blue, Greek on Granite. Jensen recently lectured at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival about OSF’s radio show, which aired between 1951 and 1984. He will be co-teaching a class on Shakespeare and Modern Culture with Geoff Ridden at Southern Oregon University this fall. This is an on-line interview.
EH: Shakespeare and popular culture, what’s the latest?
MJ: A Manga (a Japanese comic published as a paperback book) has just been released called Romeo X Juliet that sets the R&J story in a future repressive state with Juliet as a Zorro figure leading the rebellion; and I’m investigating the Japanese animated TV series that originated it.
I’m also checking into BBC Radio 4 this week for Sellers in the Attic, a show about Peter Sellers comedy recordings that replays several of them, including Sellers reading the lyrics of “A Hard Day’s Night” in the style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, and Sellers giving the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech while impersonating John Lennon. These recordings are a bit legendary in the UK, but not well known here.
I have a couple of writing projects, one about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s three radio productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1966, 1971, and 1977.
I’ve just been asked to contribute a chapter on Shakespeare comics to a book on Shakespeare in the arts to be published in Scotland next year.
EH: Why are graphic novels so popular?
MJ: A graphic novels tells stories differently than novels, letting the pictures interact with the words. It has trouble going as deep into character as a novel. The pace is determined by the pictures, not the words, and most graphic novel readers will not tolerate a truly complex plot. Still, a great graphic novel is a unique and worthwhile experience.
My interest is Shakespeare and Shakespearean adaptation. Three recent Shakespeare graphic novels are especially good, I think. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition by Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja (Wiley, 2008) is a well-told, visually faithful rendering. The No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Hamlet by Neil Babra (Sterling, 2008) makes some mistakes, but it is more experimental and so more interesting. The art is dynamic, expressive, and highly interpretative. Reading Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Richard Appignanesi and Sinia Leong (Amulet, 2007) is like seeing a play without sound. It is set in modern Japan and finds smart equivalents for old structures that truly illuminate the play today, just as good modern directors do.
EH: How can you compare Shakespeare’s text to the graphic novel?
MJ: Shakespeare is essentially verbal and vocal with some visuals. Sound matters most. Comics are essentially visual with text to make the pictures make sense. Sound is impossible. It is up to the artist to create a compelling visual world and pace the story, sometimes including panels without words to show a character’s reaction to what was just said. It is rare but rewarding to see it done well.
EH: What’s the difference between religious conflicts today and those in Shakespeare’s time?
MJ: “We view the religious conflicts of Shakespeare’s time through the prism of The Merchant of Venice.” People in Shakespeare’s audience had family members who were put to death for being a member of the wrong religion, as the religion in power swung back and forth. Today the conflict is between Christian, Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim fundamentalists and everyone else. Fundamentalism of all kinds is the problem. It makes me sad that some people actually kill each other when they disagree. They force the rest of us to deal with their moral sickness.