Fair Terms and a Villain’s Mind: Review of Manga Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

If there’s one thing I geek out about more than anime, manga and video games, it’s Shakespeare. I’ve loved his work since I was five years old. Strangely enough, however, I owe my love for his plays to a great version of Romeo and Juliet; specifically, a comic book version with beautiful high-quality art and the full text of the entire play. Even though I couldn’t understand the complicated language, I could understand the plot and, over time, grew to appreciate the artistry in Shakespeare’s wording and characterization.

So here I am, 25 years later, confronted with the same concept, only with a manga twist. The Manga Shakespeare line features multiple titles set in various time periods, including modern day China, ancient Japan, and even the Wild West. But as unusual as these titles are, nothing quite beats the WTF factor of The Merchant of Venice… starring a full contingent of some of the prettiest elf boys to ever grace the pages of the Bard.

Yes, that’s right. Shakespeare with bishonen elves. My mind, it is blown.

If You Wrong Us, Shall We Not Revenge?

The plot is, naturally, lifted word for word from the original play. Bassanio, a young and handsome but spendthrift noble of Venice (in this comic, a pretty bishonen elf) wants to make his fortune by marrying the beautiful and spirited Portia; however, to visit her in Belmont, he needs yet more money. He begs it off of his best friend Antonio, another bishie elf who, in this comic as per most interpretations, is hopelessly in love with Bassanio. He, in turn, must borrow the money off of Shylock, a Jew (or dark-haired elf) so bitter and twisted from his racist mistreatment at the hands of Antonio and Venice as a whole that he agrees to grant the loan… but only if Antonio will forfeit a pound of flesh if he defaults. In the meantime, Portia is dealing with her own problems, namely having to marry whoever can correctly choose which of three symbolic caskets holds her portrait… and so far, the suitors have been most lacking! A fateful elopement brings matters to a head, and soon only Portia can save Antonio from Shylock’s vengeful wrath.

The storyline, as per most Shakespeare plays, is gripping in every sense of the word, balancing comedy, tragedy, sympathy and righteousness in equal trade. Shylock, in particular, is a fascinating and complex villain, driven to evil by the evil that has been done to him. He is angry, stubborn and greedy, but at the same time there is much to sympathize with, and his moments of pain and anguish are incredibly moving and convincing. In this, the artist does a great job of conveying his humanity and his bitter nature.  Portia is also a great heroine; while she is initially passive and unable to act in her own interest, her meeting with Bassanio soon spurs her to exert her own subtle influence, and it’s not long before she’s embarking on a major adventure of her own without anyone but her friend and maid Nessa for support. Antonio is a bit over the top for some audiences – he’s a perpetual martyr who pines for Bassanio constantly, and half the cast extolls his saintly virtues – but his plight is genuine and makes for gripping drama.  The only bland character seems to be Bassanio, who’s a bit of an oblivious fop. The supporting cast is a great mix of comedic foils (Bassanio’s friend Gratiano and Nessa particularly) and serious characters (Shylock’s daughter Jessica, the Duke of Venice).  It’s a great story, and one of my favorite Shakespearean plays.

But how does it work as a manga?

The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained

Faye Yong’s artwork is lovely, particularly for those who like pretty manga characters wearing pretty clothing. Her Venice and its people are delicate and lovely, and the costumes and hair are to die for. It’s also very interesting to see how she occasionally employs manga tropes to reflect the story. Comedic segments often feature SD characters, sweat drops, eye sparks, flaming backgrounds and other common manga tropes. Antonio’s one-sided love for Bassanio plays out like a yaoi manga, complete with blushes, wistful gazes, and bared chests (albeit bared for slaughter).

On the other hand, all of these manga trappings can be rather distracting from the actual story itself. I have absolutely no problem with the concept of using comics or manga as a vehicle for sharing the works of Shakespeare – as I said, I swore by the Romeo and Juliet comic as a child – but this particular title seems so steeped in its own manga-hood and own world that it doesn’t seem to mesh well with the play. Modern day retellings and the occasional odd scenario are one thing, but the whole bishonen elf thing is so… manga that it’s really jarring. When I first saw the cover of this manga, I stood in the store for at least five minutes going, “WAIT WHAT” over and over.  In the end, although it was an interesting take on the material, I couldn’t help but feel like there were two threads of story – one of the original play and one of the whole art style – that coexisted but never quite meshed completely. It was like the Merchant of Venice wearing a mask with big eyes and sweat drops. I’d almost say that it felt like it was trying a bit too hard and coming over a bit too forced. It’s Shakespeare! WITH ELVES! OMG! And I thought “Taming of the Shrew as a Western” was a bit over the top!

I hesitate to write this manga off, and I’m glad I purchased it, as there certainly is a lot of interesting material here – the artwork is beautiful, and it’s fascinating if nothing else to see how Shakespeare works through the filter of anime. But in the end, I can’t help but feel like these were two great concepts that just didn’t mesh well. It’s like combining chocolate and steak; each element is great alone, but together it just doesn’t work out and ends up making you feel a bit queasy. If you’re a real manga buff who wants to use it as a gateway to Shakespeare, or a Shakespeare fanatic looking for something WAY out of the ordinary, pick it up; otherwise, look up your local theatre company and check it out in live performance, or try one of the movie versions. Trust me, you’ll get a much better exposure to the play… without the wispy pretty boys.

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