Beyond “Words, Words, Words”: Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The following post is an excerpt from an article I am working on originally written for my class on Shakespeare: Editing and Performance, offered by Peter Holland at the University of Notre Dame (Spring 2012). This paper was presented at the 2013 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 20th, 2013.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Beyond “Words, Words, Words”:

Soliloquies, the Graphic Novel, and the Great Shakespearean Divide

The fourth soliloquy in Hamlet, commonly referred to as the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is considered to be the crown jewel of the play. It is not only the portion of Hamlet that is most referenced to in scholarship and popular culture, but it has become intricately tied with the concept of the soliloquy itself. When watching a performance of the play, it is the moment that we most anticipate as spectators, and its delivery has the capacity to either enhance or damage the overall perceptions, attitudes, and affinities of the play as a whole. This is precisely because this soliloquy not only encapsulates the core issues and rhetorical appeals of the plot, but also because it outwardly presents the most intense and direct codification of who prince Hamlet is, and more importantly, who he is not.

But this codification is more complex than it initially presents itself as being. Hamlet’s struggle is simply not a matter of choosing what to be or what not to be, but rather, it is also his struggle to define himself within an external world with demands of its own. Furthermore, the complexity of codifying this soliloquy is enhanced when taking into account its inherent disorganization and enigma, and the fact that readers and viewers tend to overestimate their familiarity with the speech. As Douglas Bruster argues in his treatment of this pinnacle soliloquy:

While Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy remains one of the central speeches of all of Western culture, it is also one of the most mysterious. There are reasons for this mystery. […] the speech as a whole is quite messy. And its beginning (the most orderly part of the soliloquy) seems so familiar that we think we know the entire speech better than we do. No matter how many times we hear it begun, though, it is easy for us to get lost in the middle and end. […] the speech turns on itself time and again, sometimes like the back-and-forth rallies in a tennis match, at others like the coils of a snake moving sideways through the grass.

This disorder and ambiguity increases the difficulty of determining the intentions of Hamlet’s monologue and its overall climactic role within the structure of the play. Moreover, it becomes tricky to determine whether the target of Hamlet’s words is either himself or an external force in the form of King Claudius: is Hamlet contemplating suicide in the fourth soliloquy, or is he debating between action and inaction towards his uncle? Once again, we find ourselves in a situation in which language fails to sustain an exact interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and thus, we rely on performative interpretation to point us toward a specific direction.

What is clear, however, is that the soliloquy is designed to challenge and shatter dichotomous views present within Hamlet’s perspectives, making clear that life does not consist of clear-cut choices, and that all decisions ultimately bear consequences. Keeping the literary, contextual, cultural, and structural importance of the fourth soliloquy in mind, it would be easy to assume that graphic novel adaptations of Hamlet would place significant aesthetic and creative effort into its depiction and interpretation. Given the correlation between rehearsal and the process of creating comics, it can also be assumed that a great degree of experimentation would be embodied in the manifestation of this soliloquy in comics format. In other words, seeing that the fourth soliloquy is arguably the epitome of English soliloquies, and seeing that a decoder has high expectations of this speech, the adapter and illustrator would do their best to exploit the possibilities of comics to concretize the struggles, paradoxes, and inevitable outcomes depicted in the playtext. Alas, as seen in the following panel, this is not always the case:


“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Magic Wagon.” Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Rebecca Dunn, Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare (Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009). 20. Print.

This panel is taken from Rebecca Dunn’s adaptation of Hamlet, an adaptation that is overall very short, abridged, and focused on plot-driven performative realism. But more than anything, the adaptation is very clearly a text designed to chew Shakespeare’s original text, partially digest it, and regurgitate the remains onto page.

Dunn’s adaptation is extremely plot-driven and focused primarily on giving the decoder a simple and straight summary of the tragedy. As can be seen on the panel, the entire fourth soliloquy has been condensed to a sequence of four external speech bubbles, and no effort is put into the concretization of the imagery imbued within the language. We simply encounter a depiction of Hamlet, with a stern façade and his hand on his chest, uttering a short series of words before the sudden arrival of Ophelia. There is little to no attempt to convey any of the aforementioned qualities and rhetorical appeals of this soliloquy, and there is nothing that demands close attention or scrutiny. The juxtaposition of word and image creates no resounding effects within the reader, and there is little difference between approaching this particular adaptation and approaching a summary of the playtext—except that a summary of the playtext arguably would not stifle the imagination as much as this adaptation does. Perhaps the intention of this adaptation was to try to make Hamlet more accessible to younger readers, but as evidenced by the depiction of this soliloquy, I assume that even young readers would find the text excruciatingly boring.

When the conventions of comics are invoked and employed effectively, and when the graphic novel makes effective use of the source playtext by focusing on performativity rather than the reduction of the plot, the results are exciting and fresh. In my opinion, the best adaptations are those that approach Shakespeare’s soliloquies not only as tributes, but as independent works of art with a distinctive style that instills particular emotions and decodings. Let us now turn our attention to how Sexton, Pantoja, and Babra approached the quintessence of Hamlet’s soliloquies in their adaptations, beginning with an excerpt from Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation of the soliloquy:

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

Within Sexton and Pantoja’s interpretation, the absence of speech bubbles establishes the interiority of the speech. The overwhelming presence of black and shades of gray in this soliloquy can be interpreted in many ways; in a sense, the theme of this soliloquy is darker and more concerned with the topic of death and suicide when compared to the other soliloquies in Hamlet. Perhaps this use of color is also an illustration of how Hamlet himself is slowly descending into the darkness of his own folly and inaction. The interiority of this interpretation is emphasized with the fact that Hamlet does not look into the decoder’s eyes, and in the first panels presented in the excerpt, he has his back facing the decoder. This gives the sense of the decoder as an intruder who is overhearing the prince’s thoughts. Furthermore, it depicts a sense of aloofness, solitude, darkness, and impartiality, thus reinforcing the image of the character distancing himself away from his world, and from our interpretive purview.

The first panels of this soliloquy depict a shadowy Hamlet scrutinizing a dagger while thinking about the act of directly dealing with the troubles that haunt him. The act of taking arms against “a sea of troubles” is materialized with his holding of the dagger in front of his face, as if he were placing himself in a battle stance, ready to duel. Yet, as his thoughts pivot to thoughts of suicide, we see a clear and shadowless depiction of the character as he changes the direction of the dagger’s blade and points it to his neck. We then cut to another panel in which we are exposed to the handle of the dagger moving in a thrusting motion accompanied by a splatter of blood, reinforcing the interpretation of the soliloquy as a gesture towards suicide. Note that Sexton and Pantoja depict this soliloquy with a graphic and violent hue, highlighting physical images of death rather than metaphorical or subtle ones.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

“To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Manga Edition.” Adam Sexton and Tintin Pantoja, Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition (Hoboken: Wiley, 2008). 77-78. Print.

The graphic violence escalates as we shift our view to the next panel, in which we see Hamlet desperately clutching his own neck as blood flows through his fingers. The visible fear in Hamlet’s eyes and expression is complemented with his thoughts about the uncertainty of what comes after death. Note that the page depicts Hamlet being caught between a heavenly figure with wings, and a deathly figure below, thus highlighting Hamlet’s position between two oppositional forces salvation and eternal punishment; action and inaction. Notice that Sexton and Pantoja also made the choice to illustrate Hamlet as half-naked, which is an interesting aesthetic choice that further highlights a dualistic struggle: half of his body is covered with man-made clothing while the other half depicts a natural and nude man. With this in mind, the panel reinforces another binary perspective between the realm of man and the enigmatic realm of the afterlife; not only is Hamlet unaware of what comes after death, but he is also unsure of the effects that his death will induce in the mortal realm. All in all, we get an image of a man who is not only confused and conflicted, but a man unable to define himself in a world defined by choices, paradoxes, and binaries.

I will proceed to close my discussion on the fourth soliloquy by analyzing Neil Babra’s take on Hamlet’s crown jewel. But first and foremost, credit must be given to where credit is due. Before engaging in this project, I studied countless graphic novel adaptations of Shakespearean works, including excruciatingly tedious full-text adaptations of Romeo and Juliet[1], a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream[2] clearly geared towards children, and even an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet[3] that took place in the future in which the Montagues are depicted as robotically enhanced cyborgs and the Capulets are depicted as genetically modified humans. Nonetheless, of all the adaptations that I read before settling on the study of soliloquies in Hamlet, I must acknowledge that Babra’s work was the most effective not only in terms of transmuting the essence of Shakespeare into a comics format, but also in terms of presenting itself as a standalone work of art. Let us take a look at how Babra interprets the soliloquy:

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Babra’s illustration deeply emphasizes the interpretation of the soliloquy as Hamlet’s negotiation between living and committing suicide as a way of ending his troubles. It also stresses the many paradoxes and dual manifestations peppered throughout the speech. Seeing that this soliloquy is a deep struggle for Hamlet to find conciliation between his interior desires and external social/spiritual demand, we see the separation of Hamlet into two: the passive Hamlet and the inactive Hamlet, the Hamlet that suffers in life and the one that rests in death. The soliloquy therefore begins as a debate or a negotiation between the multiple and binary sides of the character in order to find a space in which he can make sense of his convoluted emotions and thoughts.

Babra depicts the monologue as one that begins with a physically external delivery and progresses into a subconscious and mental dialogue. While reflecting on the opening lines of the soliloquy: “To be… Or not to be,” Hamlet stares into a pool of water in which he sees his reflection as a skeletal corpse donning his clothing, thus illustrating the tension between living or ceasing to exist. As he proceeds to think about the tortures of enduring the pains and tribulations of life, he envisions Claudius as a grand and Cthulu-esque agent whipping him with tentacles as arrows pierce the flesh on Hamlet’s back, depicting life as difficult to endure and physically painful. When pivoting to the thought of suicide, emphasis is placed on a panel in which Hamlet is removing a sword from its sheath. We then observe the split of Hamlet into two bodies, where the active Hamlet proceeds to stab the inactive Hamlet in the chest with the sword. In an eerie move, a close-up of the inactive Hamlet’s stabbing shows the fusion between the living Hamlet and the skeletal figure, and in death, he flashes a wide grin, as if the end of life has granted him the release that he desperately craves for. The struggle and rigidity between living and dying is made blatantly obvious in the imagery, and it reinforces the binary tension that refuses to situate Hamlet.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet - No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

To Be or Not to Be Soliloquy – Sparknotes.” Neil Babra, Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare (New York: Spark Publishing, 2008). 81-82. Print.

Taking advantage of the possibilities of the comics medium, an elongated panel is used to give the impression of Hamlet falling into a pit, with his head in a cloud as to illustrate the notion of sleeping or dreaming. In another unnerving move, we then observe how Hamlet’s flesh begins to unravel and disengage from his body like the peel of an orange as the text displays his questioning of the dreams that come after death. The physical skin continues to peel away as Hamlet reflects on the enigma of existence after death, and how fear of the unknown prevents him from taking action in terms of self-slaughter. The inner essence of Hamlet is revealed in its entirety with the removal of his skin, and we observe him floating in the sky as a pair of celestial hands manipulate this unraveling of the flesh. On one hand, this may indicate the exposure of the soul and its judgment in an afterlife. On the other hand, the act of having one’s skin peeled away is an extremely painful and physically violent act, thus alluding to the pain that his indecision is provoking, and the possibility of punishment after committing the sin of suicide.

After depicting the troubles of humiliation, pain, embarrassment, and other follies in the physical world—which are so intense that they induce the image of Hamlet’s heart breaking—the page concludes with a panel illustrating his resignation towards self-slaughter: instead of taking arms against the sea of troubles, he puts his sword back into its sheath. Babra’s interpretation of the soliloquy not only depicts the tortuous consequences of choice and of being caught between a dichotomous split, but it also emphasizes how death manipulates the prince’s mental processes. This is important because death is a central theme of the tragedy as a whole. The play begins with the apparition of a dead king, it climaxes with a mental debate about living or dying, and, spoiler alert: it ends with the death of all the central characters. Dichotomies are ever-present in this soliloquy: the struggle between action and inaction, sleeping and awaking, living and dying, suffering and relief. There is no easy way of dealing with these binaries precisely because they are not able to encapsulate the intermediary position that Hamlet is positioned in, which in due course causes the peeling and unraveling illustrated in Babra’s interpretation. Ultimately, Babra’s adaptation was a magnificent effort to concretize this struggle and eventual externalization, and to demonstrate the tidal forces of this sea of troubles.

In this presentation, I offered examples of the rhetorical, analytical, and evaluative possibilities that close-decodings of Shakespearean graphic novels can offer. Bear in mind that my interpretations and decodings of the soliloquies in comics adaptations of Hamlet are in no way definite or conclusive, seeing that there are many other interpretive directions that one could take in terms of the images, their juxtaposition with traditional text, and usage of the conventions of comics to convey imagery and ideas. Nonetheless, I hope that my interventions of these works stress the overall aesthetic and semantic richness present within comics adaptations of Shakespearean works, and how notions of the soliloquy are translated, transformed, and permanently altered in this medium. No longer is the soliloquy abstract and subject to the partialities of language: the character’s mind, through the comics medium, literally becomes illustrated in ways that transcend the realm of the realistic and the physical. When it comes to soliloquies in comics, the wall between the character’s mind and the decoder is not shattered, but it is ultimately non-existent within the medium when and if the conventions of comics are employed effectively. Therefore, with the lack of a wall to block a full view of the character’s mind, the question that remains is how far are we able to take these elucidations of Shakespeare, to new interpretive heights. How will we envision the dreams that are to come with the inclusion of comics into the interpretive norm? That is the question, and I hope that I have provided some answers.

[1] McDonald, John, Romeo and Juliet – The Graphic Novel: Original Text. Litchborough: Classical Comics, 2009. Print.

[2] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Saddleback’s Illustrated Classics. China: Saddleback, 2006. Print.

[3] Work, Max, Stan Lee, et. al. Romeo and Juliet: The War. Dallas: Viper Comics, 2011. Print.


Babra, Neil. Hamlet – No Fear Shakespeare. New York: Spark Publishing, 2008. Print.

Babra, Neil. “On Writing and Line Editing.” NEILCOMICS– Hamlet. March 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.

Bruster, Douglas. To Be or Not to Be. New York: Continuum, 2007. Web.

Dunn, Rebecca. Hamlet – Graphic Shakespeare. Illustrated by Ben Dunn. Edina: Magic Wagon, 2009. Print.

Eisner, Will. Comics & Sequential Art. Tamarac: Poorhouse Press, 2001. Print.

Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Grant, Steven and Tom Mandrake. Classic Illustrated #5: Hamlet. Hong Kong: Papercutz, 2009. Print.

Knight, G. Wilson. “Hamlet Reconsidered.” The Wheel of Fire: Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Tragedy. 4th ed. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1964. 298-325. Print.

Maher, Mary Z. Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies. Expanded ed. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003. Print.

Melchiori, Giorgio. Shakespeare’s Dramatic Meditations: An Experiment in Criticism. London: Clarendon Press, 1976. Print.

Mott, Lewis F. “The Position of the Soliloquy ‘to be or not to be’ in Hamlet.PLMA 19.2 (1904): 26-32. JSTOR. 16 Apr. 2012. Web.

Newell, Alex. “Images of the Mind.” The Soliloquies in Hamlet: The Structural Design. Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1991. Print.

Sexton, Adam and Tintin Pantoja. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: The Manga Edition. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2008. Print.

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