The works of Shakespeare are classed as the pinnacle of English literature. His plays defined what it means to be English and his genius almost certainly lies in his universal themes, crafting stories as certain to appeal to his peasant audience as the kings and queens of his day.
Henry V (or ‘Henry the Fifth’ if you don’t want to embarrass yourself at parties) is perhaps the most famous of his historical plays, at least nowadays, thanks to two modern feature film versions (Lawrence Olivier’s in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh’s from 1989). It tells the story of how the eponymous king was persuaded to invade France on a heritage technicality, by an Archbishop of Canterbury more worried about how his church might get taxed if Henry has nothing more serious to think about. Henry crosses the channel at Harfleur and lays siege to the town before marching on to Agincourt and facing the full might of the French army. And the rest, as they say, is history.
It might seem a strange match to some, mixing comics and Shakespeare, but Classical Comics has executed it with panache. There are three versions of this book: the Original Text uses the script in its entirety; the Plain Text version effectively translates the text into easier to understand English but keeps all the meaning of the original; and the third Quick Text is a sort of modernisation, using far fewer words to help carry the gist of the story without all the nuances. Here we’ve reviewed the Plain Text version, which is a good balance for casual readers looking for sophisticated entertainment without the need to struggle with the Elizabethan language.
The translation is spot on, carrying the weight and meaning of Shakespeare’s words, but in a way that doesn’t leave you toiling over unusual diction. Purists may balk at the concept, but they can always find the full script version if they’d prefer.
One of the interesting things about Henry V is Shakespeare’s inclusion of an apologetic narrator, who explains the limits of theatre when it comes to portraying epic battles, and asks the audience to suspend their disbelief and use their imaginations to turn the handful of actors into an army of thousands. Despite the fact that a graphic novel is capable of showing anything the artist can draw, the narrator is kept in. And rightly so – this is a faithful rendition of the play and nothing is left out.
However, full advantage hasn’t been taken on the art front. The illustration is reasonably competent and does a good job of keeping quite a large cast of characters looking like recognisable individuals, particularly through the use of costume. What it doesn’t do is play to the strength of comics in terms of depicting the battlefield as a place of mass slaughter, with thousands of men hacking one another to bits. There’s the odd severed head or limb, and some gore-covered deaths, but it’s still left feeling like an adaptation of a stage play rather than pushing the full potential strengths of the medium: to portray something epic in scale in a way that even cinema’s budgets might struggle to manage (though you might argue that Branagh’s film capably captured the horror of battle).
As you’re reading, however, the imperfections of the art fade into the background as the wonder and engagement of the play take over. With the language made accessible (and I can’t stress enough how well this has been done) the reader is left to enjoy the story in the spirit it was intended. And, when the author is Shakespeare, you can expect a classic tale of the highest calibre.
Want Shakespeare’s full text or a more concise version? Try these alternatives:
More adaptations of Shakespeare‘s plays:
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