Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 46
Imagine a comic book series in which Shakespeare’s most popular characters team up in rival, warring camps bent on seizing control of the kingdom that is the world of Shakespeare’s plays.
It’s called Kill Shakespeare, and Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col have been publishing the series since 2010. Barbara Bogaev interviewed the authors while they were at Comic Con in New York in 2015 for the release of their new book — a volume that combines all the Kill Shakespeare comics in a single book, complete with annotations by leading Shakespeare scholars.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © April 20, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I Have O’erheard a Plot of Death Upon Him,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Bob Auld and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation in New York and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax-West Studios in Los Angeles.
MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
One thing we keep an eye out for with Shakespeare Unlimited is the original, and even eye-popping, ways that Shakespeare and his works show up in popular culture. We’ve looked at Shakespeare on film, we’ve talked with an author who rewrote the Star Wars trilogy in the style of a Shakespearean drama. And now, we look at comic books.
Since 2010, Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col have been publishing a comic book series under the title Kill Shakespeare. As you’ll hear, they’ve taken Shakespeare’s most popular characters and teamed them up in rival warring camps, bent on seizing control of the kingdom that is the world of Shakespeare’s plays. We had this conversation while Conor and Anthony were at Comic Con in New York in 2015 for the release of their new book, a volume that combines all the Kill Shakespeare comics in a single book, complete with annotations by leading Shakespeare scholars.
We call this podcast “I Have O’erheard a Plot of Death Upon Him.” Conor and Anthony are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: When I first heard of your title, I thought of Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino’s movies, and I thought that’s just too perfect. And then I heard that that was part of your inspiration, so how did this whole project come together, and what’s the Kill Bill connection?
ANTHONY DEL COL: That is actually how it did come together. Conor and I were sitting around brainstorming ideas for video games, of all things, almost 11 years ago, and the title Kill Bill came up in our conversation. And we thought, “Hey, that would make an amazing video game, but I’m sure it’s already been done.” So then we started to play on that name, like, Kill Bill, what if it was another Bill?
And eventually we came to “Kill Bill Shakespeare,” and all of a sudden, those lightbulbs, bing, the lightbulbs went off, and we thought that would be so cool, all of Shakespeare’s characters on this revenge quest for him. And then we looked into it and discovered that no one had done that before. So, yeah, we got, again, we got even more excited, because we thought maybe we could be the individuals to bring this to life.
BOGAEV: And did you have a sense of destiny with this? Are you both huge Shakespeare fans?
CONOR MCCREERY: Yeah, I mean, yes and no, I think. I think one of the reasons why this project appealed to us is we both really enjoyed Shakespeare. I mean, Anthony likes to talk about, you know, his birth of his Shakespeare love kind of came from two places, one was from his sister, who has always loved the classics, and kind of instilled that in Anthony, and actually, Anthony and his family, they like to go to the Stratford Festival, which is just outside of Toronto, which is this amazing Shakespearean festival.
But by the same token, I mean, neither Anthony or I, we’re not English majors. We didn’t study this to any deep regard at school, but we both loved Shakespeare, we both had moments in our high school years where we remembered really kind of understanding Shakespeare and, you know, bing, the lightbulb went on again, and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, you know, Shakespeare’s amazing.”
You know, I was a comic fantasy adventure nerd, and reading something like The Tempest, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the kind of stuff I like.” And so, when we started this project, one of the things that really we were passionate about was the fact that, hey, here’s two guys who are not, you know, experts, but we love the Bard. And so many people, we think, do love Shakespeare, and are either afraid to admit it, because they feel they don’t know enough, or they’re afraid to admit it, because they feel they haven’t been given the right keys to the Shakespearean kingdom.
And we just kind of wanted to show everybody how amazing these characters are, and why they stood the test of time, and why anybody can pick up our comic book or go see a play, and fall in love with Shakespeare, because it’s really accessible, and, you know, there’s a reason why these are, you know, arguably the greatest characters of all time.
BOGAEV: Well, let’s give everybody a window into your series, and you set the premise really early on. Richard III tells Hamlet that it’s Hamlet's job to free us from the tyranny of William Shakespeare, hence, Kill Shakespeare. What is the tyranny?
DEL COL: The tyranny, basically, is that Richard, who, spoiler alert, is teamed up with Lady Macbeth, they want to control all of Illyria. It’s a power grab, and they’ve assumed the power, however, Shakespeare is this magical wizard that’s out there. He’s sort of this wild card, and half the world believes Shakespeare is their creator, their God, and the other half believes that he’s an evil wizard. And so, Richard and Lady Macbeth believe if they get rid of this wild card, Shakespeare, then they will have full run of the place.
BOGAEV: And there are good guys and there are bad guys, but is it entirely clear who’s who?
MCCREERY: I mean, not always, right? I think that’s one of the many great things about Shakespeare, one of the characters we really love to use is Iago, who, you know, the Shakespeare fans among your audience, which I imagine is most of your audience, will know, you know, Iago is not necessarily a guy you can take at face value. But, you know, a lot of Kill Shakespeare is about asking “What if” questions, so one of the questions we ask is, “What if Iago really wanted forgiveness?” You know, is that something that Iago can actually handle? Or, would that just be another mask that he wears? But, yeah, as you go on, there are other characters that you’d probably think of as good guys in Shakespeare, I suppose, who ultimately are not, I would argue.
And then there are some characters, like Falstaff being a good example. Is Falstaff a good guy? I mean, can you call him a good guy? In our comic series, he definitely seems like one, but I think, you know, there are many, many essays written on, you know, the morality of Falstaff and whether, you know, is he somebody you should really like or not. And that’s kind of the fun with Shakespeare, is taking these characters and, you know, we try to be very faithful to where they come from in their plays, but once we get hold of them, you know, all bets are off, in terms of what might come next.
BOGAEV: And that’s really what’s so interesting and rich about Shakespeare is the moral gray ground. And I suppose you explore that with this idea, as you said, Shakespeare’s a wizard, but he’s also, he’s a god, he’s a tyrant, it’s not really clear who Shakespeare is.
DEL COL: Yeah, that’s sort of the enigma or the puzzle of this entire piece, and it’s really interesting because, I mean, of course, the centerpiece of all of this is Hamlet, so we like to joke, but really at the core of the story, I mean, Hamlet’s dilemma is to kill or not to kill this wizard named Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: You know, one really interesting thing I read somewhere that suggested that in your books, it’s always the heroes who embrace change, while it’s the villains who are loyal to the past or perhaps they’re rigid in terms of their identity and growth, or lack of growth. Conor, was that the intention on your part?
MCCREERY: It was funny, when the question was asked, Anthony and I kind of looked at each other and said “Yeah, you know, now that we think of it, that really is this sort of invisible guiding line that we’d followed without knowing it.” And I think, you know, part of it comes from just the basic rule of drama, right? You want your main character or characters to change, you want to see them grow. And the people who are learning are the people who are getting better at life, in general.
And so our heroes are, yeah, they’re getting better at life, they’re not making the same mistakes, they’re figuring out ways to overcome what’s holding them back, and the villains, yeah, for the most part, the villains stay the course, and because of their unwillingness to change, their inability to see that there’s a need to change, you know, they often are hoisted by their own petard, to borrow a little bit of Shakespeare. You know, and that’s why some of the characters are kind of fun, I think that’s where the tragedy in both Shakespeare and Kill Shakespeare comes from, it’s in that character, where you can see that they see another path, a way to change, a way to grow, and yet they refuse to take it. And, you know, there is a little bit of that in Kill Shakespeare, and certainly, for us, in Shakespeare. That was, you know, some of our favorite characters are those type of characters.
BOGAEV: And just to help people follow along the plot, Hamlet and Juliet are your principal protagonists, so this is a mash-up. Why did you choose them?
DEL COL: Well, Hamlet is arguably the greatest character ever created. So why not put him at the centerpiece? He is the character that every actor wishes to portray at some point in their lives, and he’s such a ball of contradictions. Most people will say that Hamlet has the most, that his tragedy flaw is he’s too inactive. But I would argue, of course, that he’s the most active person in that play, he believes that he’s righteous, and that’s really his downfall. But, I mean, it just seemed inevitable that Hamlet would be the main character.
However, having said that, the first incarnation of Kill Shakespeare had someone from today’s world, it could be you, could be me, who finds this portal into this quote-unquote “Shakespeare Land.” And we tried that out, and unfortunately the tone was a little off, it kind of sounded like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure instead of Lord of the Rings, which is what we truly desired for this. So, we decided to then go back to Hamlet, or, you know, we decided that Hamlet would be the right person, we found a jumping-in point, and for Juliet as the major female lead in this, and arguably the strongest character of all of them, in our story. Juliet is the most, I guess you could argue, she’s the most well-known character that Shakespeare ever created, and so we thought it would be amazing to put her in here, but a different incarnation of her. Who would Juliet be eight years after, if she had survived, if Romeo had died, but she survived, what would she be like? And subsequently, what would she be like when she meets Hamlet?
BOGAEV: So again, this “what if” situation, a kind of fan fiction approach.
DEL COL: Yeah, that’s actually, that kind of stems from our comic background, and when I was a kid, one of my favorite series of comics to read was something called What If, Marvel Presents What If, and it would take these famous, you know, Wolverine, you know, the love of his life dying in his arms, and what if he’d gotten there just five minutes earlier? And they’d spin a tale, either telling you how nothing would change at all, or, you know, the whole world as you knew it as a comics fan would’ve been totally different, if only.
And for us, I mean, that’s one of the things that’s so great about Shakespeare. I mean, I think one of the reasons his stories have held the test of time is because there’s all these moments in his plays where you think “Wow, like, that was the other path that Hamlet could’ve taken,” or Romeo, or King Lear, or Prospero, like, they could’ve taken this other path, and I would’ve believed it if they had. And oh my gosh, how different would it have been, if?
And, you know, that’s what we try to do with Hamlet, you know, what if he doesn’t get back to Denmark? Is Hamlet bloody-minded by nature? What if Iago wanted redemption? What if Prospero decided to kill his brother on that island? Asking those questions, I would say, was a ton of the fun of doing this project, because we’d get into these great discussions of, yeah, what could have happened? And that’s really the heart of Kill Shakespeare is just trying to ask interesting, what-if questions, and then, you know, at that point, I guess it kind of becomes fan fiction.
BOGAEV: Well, one of your critics picked up on something really interesting about your portrayal of Hamlet, and that, it was essentially that you guys got rid of all the other characters that drive the conflict in the actual play, for instance, in your series, Kill Shakespeare, there’s no Horatio, there’s no Ophelia, there’s no Laertes, and instead, you’ve gathered this bunch of characters from the rest of the Shakespeare canon to fill the gap. So what was the thinking there, and is it, again, this “What if,” what if we just explode the concept?
DEL COL: Yeah, and it’s a bit of that. I mean, I think it’s twofold. One is, if we kept Ophelia and Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet was going to be dealing, then, with the exact same things he was dealing with in his play. And that was not necessarily going to give us an opportunity to do something different with him. Or, you fall in kind of the trap of “Well, that’s not really what happened in the play, but it’s all the same players, so…” You know, is this genius, or is this just kind of dumb? In fact, one of our first reviews talked about how Kill Shakespeare crossed the line between genius and stupidity so often that they couldn’t quite tell which side it belonged on.
BOGAEV: Which you sound so proud of.
DEL COL: Yeah, for sure. I mean, hey, at least half the time, we were genius. But, no, I mean, giving these other characters coming in, I think that’s, you know, that’s the mash-up, that’s what makes it interesting, is… Hamlet is still going to deal with Hamlet’s problems. It’s really important to Hamlet to do things right, be right. And so we give him this question or, okay, you’re going to be tasked with deciding whether Shakespeare is God, or whether he’s the source of all tragedy. You know, and giving him a character like Juliet to play with, or someone like Falstaff, they can fulfill the same roles as other characters did in Hamlet’s play, but it allows Hamlet a totally fresh perspective, so that, yeah, he isn’t always sitting there, going “My uncle’s sitting on my father’s throne, and everything I have to do has to be about getting rid of that.”
It frees Hamlet to kind of, I guess, arguably, be the guy he probably would’ve been in university, before he shows up when the play begins, and, yeah, he's this angry young man who’s… Oh, and by the way, your father’s about to come back and tell you that it’s got to be bloodshed or nothing.
BOGAEV: Well, shifting gears a bit to the comic book side of this, how are comic books, as a medium, similar to theater? And did you find them, as you got more and more into this project, very akin to each other?
DEL COL: Well, it’s funny. Conor mentioned that he was a big comic book fan. I, myself, I was never that big into comics when I was younger. I read a couple, but I never got into it. You know, I always thought they were superheroes and men in tights and capes, and that sort of thing. And it wasn’t until we had come up with the idea of Kill Shakespeare, and we were just trying to find the right medium to bring this story to life, I mean, whether it was stage, whether it was film or TV, whether it was a video game, whatever the medium was. But really, Conor was the one who kind of opened my eyes to the possibility of storytelling in the comic book medium. I mean, he introduced me to titles like Fables, or Y: The Last Man, or The Walking Dead, and it just made me realize that there’s so much, so much you can tell in the medium of comics.
And if you wanted to paint a huge pirate battle, which Shakespeare talked about in the play Hamlet, but you never actually see. If you want to illustrate that, if you want to bring that to life, you can do so. And so, it just kind of clicked at that very moment, and we decided “Hey, let’s do Kill Shakespeare as a comic book series,” because we’ve always argued that Shakespeare’s productions, his stories, his plays, are very kinetic. They’re full of energy, they’re full of excitement, and you can capture that on the pages of the comic book.
BOGAEV: And Conor, can you speak to the process, how you conceptualized this? I know the artist, Andy Belanger, is the one who crafts the images, breathes life into them, but I wonder, do you all sit around and say “We should have a series of panels where… In this panel, we should have a close-up of Juliet, and in the next one, we should see Othello, in a silhouette, against a battle." How does it work?
MCCREERY: I mean, kind of just like that. I mean, there’s kind of two steps with comics, one is the writing aspect, and then one is the artist taking the script and turning it into visuals. Our process is, you know, Anthony and I will sit down and we’ll say “Okay, well, what’s this story about?” And we’ll go back and forth, we’ll talk and we’ll chat. We’ll threaten, we’ll do whatever we need to do to get this story going, and…
DEL COL: How dare you. I bite my thumb at you, sir.
MCCREERY: There is a lot of thumb-biting, actually, in the first early stages of any Kill Shakespeare comic. So yeah, once we’ve kind of figured out what we think the story is, then what normally happens is one of us will take one issue, and then the other guy takes the next issue. And then we flip them back and forth. So, you know, Anthony will write a draft, and then I’ll be like “Hey, what if we tried this?” “Oh, that’s a great idea,” and, you know, “I did that, and now I’ve got this even better idea.”
And once that’s all done… A comic script is actually, in a weird way, it’s not really meant to be read in the same way as a novel, or, actually, the end product of a comic book is. It’s really more of a letter to the artist, trying to inform them as to how this story could work. And so we will go and say “Hey, there’s going to be six panels, panel one is this, panel two is this shot, panel three is going to have Hamlet doing this.”
But with Andy Belanger, we gave him, you know, basically carte blanche to come forward and say “Hey, guys, I’ve got a better way to do this.” And so there’s this kind of one, for Andy, famous scene early in the comic series, in which Hamlet’s on the pirate ship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he’s talking about this central question for him, which is “Okay, am I going to go to England and raise an army, and come back and lay waste to Denmark, or do I need to turn my back on vengeance?” And in the background of this conversation he’s having, are this statue of his father coming out of the water, and there’s crowns and there’s swords, and it’s this very interesting visual montage, and none of that was in the script.
You know, honestly, it took us a little while to get it, he drew it, and we were like “Okay, wow, that’s totally different than what we would’ve done, but that’s really cool,” and for a lot of people who first read that first issue, that ended up being one of the iconic moments in Kill Shakespeare, where they were like “Wow, this is a different type of comic book.” And that, I think, is the really great thing of comics, is it’s not just the writers’ idea, it’s not just the artist, it’s always going to be this really cool synthesis, and in that way, it’s kind of like theater. You know, you’ve got the director, you’ve got the actors, you’ve got the set deck, and because it’s live, it’s always slightly different, as opposed to, your film is going to be the same every time you see it, but theater, and comics, issue by issue, they evolve and they change in a very interesting and unique way.
BOGAEV: Right, there’s tremendous life in it. And the artwork, I have to say, is pretty stunning, it’s a very dark palette, and there’s a lot of red and purple as dramatic focal points, and it’s very Elizabethan, somehow, I think. And earlier, you mentioned Lord of the Rings, I read somewhere that that was one of Andy Belanger’s inspirations for the look of the series?
DEL COL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Andy has brought so much to Kill Shakespeare, I mean, really. Conor and I, we’ve done a lot of research, you know, as we started to work on this, we started to reread a number of the plays, just to try to get into the characters, get into the original stories. But the amount of research that Andy did really, really surpassed what we did. When we first sat down with him, first of all, within five minutes, he slammed his hand on the table and said “I’ve always wanted to draw Lady Macbeth, I’m in.” And then, five minutes after that, he started to talk about what he was really envisioning, and this was just after hearing just the very basics of what the story was.
And he talked about how he wanted to put so much detail into every single panel, as though… If you’re in the Merry Wives of Windsor, which, in Kill Shakespeare, is a brothel, if you’re there, you can feel like you’re actually there. You feel like you can see the details on the wall, or on the tables, or on the people on stage, or whatnot. And, yeah, I mean, he just has this real… He’s been able to create these really great portraits or illustrations of exactly what that Elizabethan society would’ve been like. Of course, it’s our little twist on it, but he… Lord of the Rings was a huge influence on him, European comics were an influence on him, and you mentioned the horror aspect of it, I mean, he’s big into EC Horror Comics, from the midcentury or so. A lot of those influences, and that’s one of the reasons why we really wanted to work with him, and that’s why we really think Kill Shakespeare does work.
BOGAEV: Well, getting away from the visuals for a moment, and back to kind of the heart of Shakespeare, the language, I am curious how you thought about dialogue? Because it seems as if you want to give the flavor of Shakespeare without going the whole Shakespeare nine yards, really, you know, no iambic pentameter, not too many obscure Elizabethan metaphors. So what was your approach to the language in the series?
MCCREERY: I mean, the number one thing we always thought about is, we want it to be accessible. You know, we wanted somebody who knew nothing about Shakespeare to be able to pick up this comic book and to be pulled in by the story. And I think, you know, for a lot of people, the biggest challenge when they first encounter Shakespeare is the language. You know, which is ironic, because, of course, it’s the language that defines Shakespeare. But, you know, it is, it’s tough, especially when you learn it in school, you know, and all of a sudden, it’s almost all but a foreign language that you’re being asked to pick up, understand, and even worse, we test you on it, so you can get it wrong and feel like an idiot. And that’s the last thing we wanted anybody to do with Kill Shakespeare.
So yeah, we definitely wanted to be able to approximate some of the Bard’s poetry. I mean, we definitely used Shakespearean lines, we put them in there, often as Easter eggs, and I think as the series goes on, I mean, there’s four books in the series so far, as the series goes on, I think we start to find our own space in the language. And, you know, people have said to us, “Your guys’ writing became its own thing, its own poetic form, which became less and less an imitation of Shakespeare and more your own thing, and yet somehow, actually, that makes it, in a way, almost more Shakespearean,” which is a really lovely compliment to get.
But I mean, yeah, we wanted to make sure that if you were a Shakespeare fan and you read through this book, that there are going to be little Easter eggs for you, you are going to say “Oh, that was clever, they’ve done some homework.” But at the same token, you could hand this to, you know, a 12-year-old kid, who hasn’t even encountered Shakespeare yet, and they could devour these comic books and love this action-adventure story, and they’d pick up some Shakespearean language, but at no point would they be stuck sitting there, going “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what’s happening, because I don’t know what this word is.”
BOGAEV: Did you have a model, then, that you were following? Because a lot of people have tried this, I’m thinking of the movie Shakespeare in Love.
MCCREERY: Yeah, I mean, I’m glad that you brought that up, because our model was Tom Stoppard. And so, yeah, we looked to his work, we looked to Shakespeare in Love, which I think is one of the greatest screenplays of all time, so we looked at Shakespeare in Love, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as our two models, because these were plays, or creations, that really mine that sort of middle ground, where it could be accessible for everyone today, but also harken back to the language of the 1600s.
BOGAEV: Well, I’m curious if you had any set rules, though, about what you would or wouldn’t change about the language, what famous quotes you wouldn’t or would mess with? And in the same token, what you would and wouldn’t do about the time, because, as we said in the beginning, you set up this world of a mash-up of Shakespearean characters, which means that it’s a mash-up of time periods, historical time periods, because the plays take place in many different centuries.
DEL COL: Well, in terms of rules, the number one rule that I set down right from the very beginning was a very simple one, “No tights.” Absolutely, no tights.
MCCREERY: You laugh, but there would be long arguments between Anthony and Andy, when Andy would argue that they were just really long boots, and Anthony would say “Those look like tights, they look like tights.” I think I might have lost a month of my life actually hearing those back and forth, over the no tights rule. Oh, the irony of superhero comics, you know, and then a Shakespeare comic with no tights.
DEL COL: In terms of rules, with respect to time periods, I guess our major rule was the historical plays were ones that we decided we wouldn’t touch. I mean, the general rule of thumb, if you want to boil it down to something very simplistic again, is if it’s a play where togas play a major role, then that means it’s not going to be in Kill Shakespeare, so something like Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. Although the historical ones, such as Richard III or even some of the Henrys, those ones, we kind of, when you look at them, or when people today, again, four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote his works, when you look at them, they kind of just feel like they’re in this sort of 1500s, 1600s
BOGAEV: Yes, the general medieval-ey period. Medieval-esque.
DEL COL: Never let it be said that we were not willing to play on the general lack of knowledge that we have in modern day society over anything that’s, you know, 1600…
MCCREERY: 1200, 1600, it’s all the same, right?
BOGAEV: If there’s an ignorance bone to pick, you will pick it.
DEL COL: Happily so.
BOGAEV: We did a podcast with the author of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series, and we asked him who gets more upset about his mash-up, the Star Wars people or the Shakespeare people, and he said he was more concerned about the Star Wars people, because they’re so persnickety about what’s right and what’s wrong, so how have you guys fared in that regard?
DEL COL: I mean, you know, we did have a bit of concern when we first came out, and that was sort of exacerbated because the first review we got was from an apparent Shakespearean scholar named Kimberly Cox. I’m not quite sure what language is allowed in this interview session, so I won’t actually repeat the words she used, but some of them were salty language. She did say that the story made her vomit in her mouth. Yeah, and she said that she wanted to, a word that rhymes with “Witch,” slap us for doing this comic.
BOGAEV: Classy, classy.
DEL COL: That was kind of the first review that came out of the chute, but it was actually followed, the same article had two other Shakespearean scholars, who also reviewed the piece. One said “Well, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.” And the other one argued very passionately, like “no, this is Shakespeare, this is part of the tradition of adapting Shakespeare, and this is why Shakespeare stays alive, because of things like Kill Shakespeare.”
And so, we actually just, we’re here in New York, at the New York Comic Con, and we’re actually debuting a book in New York which is our backstage edition, which is this hardcover collection of the first couple books, and it’s actually completely annotated by some of the top Shakespearean scholars, so everything from “Who is Hamlet,” if you have absolutely no knowledge of Shakespeare, great, we’re going to tell you who Hamlet is, to little things like “Oh, if you look early in the second issue, there’s a coat of arms hanging behind Richard III’s throne, whose coat of arms is that? As it turns out, it’s Shakespeare’s family’s coat of arms."
And so these scholars, we were amazed by how many scholars came to us and said “We want to be part of this project, this is so cool.” So for the most part, Shakespeare scholars are really cool.
MCCREERY: As you identified earlier, this is fan fiction, and Shakespeare academics and scholars are fans. So, in most cases, they love to play in this sort of world of fan fiction.
BOGAEV: Well, one of you said in another interview, something that I think really gets to this, and gets to the essence of the project, and that was that most people don’t have a neutral relationship to Shakespeare. They’re either really big fans or they feel it’s not for them. You’re either in or you’re out. So are you trying to bridge that gap?
DEL COL: Absolutely. That has been the number one… You know, if there was a mission statement for Kill Shakespeare, then that would be it. To shine a whole new spotlight on Shakespeare, for a whole new audience, or a whole new generation. You know, get those people that have never been big into Shakespeare, whether they’ve had bad experiences by going to see very poorly done productions, or really bad teachers in elementary school or high school teaching them Shakespeare, and have them read an issue or one of the books of Kill Shakespeare, and then realize, “Oh, you know what? That Hamlet is pretty cool,” or Juliet, or any of these other characters, and then, perhaps, they’ll go see Shakespeare in the Park next summer, or they’ll go see a production.
And conversely, we’ve had a lot of Shakespeare fans who have never read a comic book before, but they read Kill Shakespeare and then, all of a sudden, they’re like “Huh, this is really interesting,” like, “What other interesting stories are told in this format?” And we often give suggestions.
And the greatest piece of fan mail we’ve ever received was from a 12-year old girl from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Labrador, in Canada. And she had read Romeo and Juliet in class, this was what she wrote to us, and she hated it. She did not understand Juliet, “She was whiny, and I didn’t like her,” and then her quote-unquote “cool aunt” gave her Kill Shakespeare for Christmas, and she read it, she loved it, she devoured it. And she wrote us just saying how much it made her now finally understand Juliet, and how she wished she had read this before she read the play in class. And, more importantly, that she was really looking forward to reading Hamlet next year. So, when we receive something like that, when we talk to people at conventions or in interviews, or anything like that, and people tell us how much they’ve been affected by this or inspired to consume more Shakespeare, to us, I mean, that makes this entire project a success.
BOGAEV: So you think of yourself as kind of a cure for that awful Shakespeare anxiety that so many people have, that you were talking about earlier in the conversation? You were kind of like the Valium to treat our…
MCCREERY: We’re drug pushers, we’re Shakespeare pushers.
DEL COL: Yeah, I guess so, I mean, Shakespeare should be fun. If you made people take Star Wars in grade seven English, you leech the fun out of it. And I think for a lot of people, too, like, some people take to Shakespeare very naturally, and then if you don’t, I think for the rest of your life, you’ll have this relationship with Shakespeare of, like, “Oh well, I’m not the smart kid, I’m not smart enough for Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s too clever for me.” And yeah, and we just want to, you know, that wasn’t… Shakespeare, the reason why I think he’s held the test of time is because his plays were meant for everybody. Whether you’re a groundling or royalty, Shakespeare was for you, and I think that was something that’s been lost a little bit. I think it’s definitely coming back, and I think it’s really cool that Kill Shakespeare’s part of a wave of people who love Shakespeare and are doing things that make Shakespeare accessible, but yeah, you know, if we can make just one child a little less nervous to go into grade eight English, then we’ve done our job.
BOGAEV: Well, you guys…
DEL COL: But if he could sell the comics to like, 50,000 of his friends, that would be cool, too.
BOGAEV: Conor, Anthony, it has been so much fun talking with you, thank you.
MCCREERY: Thank you so much, this has been a real treat for us.
WITMORE: Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col are co-authors of the Kill Shakespeare comic book series. They were interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
"I Have O’erheard a Plot of Death Upon Him" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Bob Auld and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation in New York and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West Studios in Los Angeles.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.