Brain Pickings

To Be or Not To Be: Hamlet as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novel

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Ophelia as an emancipated science-lover and Hamlet as an emo thirty-something.

Parodies of Shakespeare — such as the recent Shakespearean rendition of Star Wars — may enrage purists as a perversion of the literary canon’s greatest works, but given the Bard’s very existence, or at the very least “his” authorship, is now being pulled into question, it pays to take such parodic homages in good humor rather than outrage. That’s precisely the disarming effect of To Be or Not To Be (public library) by Ryan North, author of the popular webcomic Dinosaur Comics — a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet, in which you can experience the Shakespeare classic through the perspective of various characters and alter the course of their fates. It offers a total of 110 alternative death scenes, illustrated by some of today’s most exciting graphic artists, including Brain Pickings favorite Kate Beaton. Self-published and funded on Kickstarter in 2012, the novel set out to raise $20,000 and instead netted $580,905, instantly becoming the most-funded publishing project in the platform’s history by a wide margin.

Though the premise might at first sound silly, underpinning it is a profound existential insight: The real question isn’t whether “to be or not to be,” but how to be, and that the answer to it is very much a choice — a choice that frames the entire quality of our existence. At least that’s how I chose to read it.

While many of the plot lines deviate from the Bard’s vision in radical ways — including dinosaurs, robots, and one sort-of-feminist trail in which Ophelia sheds the skin of docile victim to emerge as a smart, self-sufficient woman in charge of her own fate, an “awesome lady in her late 20s, with a calm, competent, and resourceful demeanour” and a penchant for science — there is solace for traditionalists. The iconic Yorick skull, which over the centuries has become the visual synonym for the play, marks the choices that lead to Shakespeare’s original plot.

North also points out that Shakespeare was himself a proponent of remix culture as a creative engine, generously borrowing from existing literature when writing his plays — Romeo and Juliet, for instance, was based on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 narrative poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet” — so the Bard likely wouldn’t have objected to a playful remix of Hamlet.

For a layer of added bonus, To Be or Not To Be benefits the Canadian Cancer Society. Complement it with The Graphic Canon vol. 3 — modern artists’ visual syntheses of literary classics.

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