"For brave Macbeth, well he deserves that name,
Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel,
Which smoked with bloody execution,
Like valour's minion carved out his passage,
Till he faced the slave. From Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 2
A fearsome Macbeth, his wild blue-and-brown mane flying, stands above a mass of rebel soldiers, bloody sword raised to smite again. An orange, red and yellow sky silhouettes the battle raging behind him. The din and terror of violent battle fairly leap from the cover of the latest version of Macbeth.
"The purists wince," says London publisher Anne Taute', "and the students applaud."
Whoever looks at the cartoon-style Macbeth (Workman Publishing, 92 pp., $6.95) apparently comes away with a strong opinion, one way or another.
Wrote Newsweek critic Jack Kroll:
"A few soliloquies are printed right
"('Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow')
"But most of Shakespeare's cabin'd, cribb'd, confined
"Into those dumb balloons, so verse and prose,
"The double clarion of Will's trumpet-tongue,
"Are scrambled gruesomely to a megillah."
At one London bookstore ("It has 'By Appointment to Her Majesty' over the portals and you feel you ought to tiptoe around the shop"), the buyer told Taute', " 'I wouldn't have it in the shop.' "
The 33,000 copies published in Britain, however, "are practically sold out," says Taute', "so we're going to reprint."
Peggy O'Brien, education coordinator of the Folger Shakespeare Library here, is enthusiastic about the book. "It's a great idea. Part of my whole thing at the library with kids and teachers is to try to get 400 years of cobwebs off the man.
"He accumulated a lot of baggage since he wrote these plays. He wrote them for performance, not to be read. Anything that helps get that message across is great."
The idea for the project came from a Brazilian-born artist who goes by the name Von and now lives in London.
"He began working on it three or four years ago," says Taute', "and then spent almost three years trying to interest publishers in it. They all rejected it."
Taute', 35, first saw the initial paintings when she was in New York running a distribution operation for a small consortium of British publishers.
"A publisher had visited with a portfolio of projects and we were sitting around talking about publishing ideas and he put these illustrations on the floor. I looked at them and said, 'My God.' "
The publishers had looked at the work and decided it was too risky and too expensive. "You publishers," Taute' announced, "are hopeless. Something comes along that fundamentally touches everybody's life and you say 'Oh, no. We can't do that!' "
Several days later, her phone rang at 3 a.m. It was one of the publishers, calling from London to suggest that she publish the book. "I don't know what happened. I just knew it was right and I said, 'Yes, I'll do it.' "
Taute' returned to London, went to her bank and asked for a loan of 50,000 (about $73,000 at the current exchange rate).
The publishers had said they thought it would take 50,000 to get production together, plus another few thousand pounds to actually publish and distribute the book. Taute' left the bank with the promise of 30,000.
"I went home for the weekend and I said to my parents, 'Do you think I'm mad?' They said, 'Good heavens!' that it was terrific and asked if I had enough money to do it."
When Taute' said she'd have to go to an investment counsel or find some speculators for the balance, her parents replied, "Don't do that. We'll mortgage the house."
Von resumed work on the project, ultimately taking a year to complete the paintings. Taute' got together a total of 90,000 to start her company, Oval Projects. She found a printer, in Hong Kong, and lined up distributors in Britain and the United States, with an initial combined first printing of 86,000 copies.
"The result," says Taute', "is quite lurid and extremely faithful. We've used the unabridged first Folio text from 1623" (published seven years after Shakespeare's death April 23, 1616).
"Nothing's deleted or squashed together, the way you see happening to Shakespeare in comic books. We've kept every word and comma."
"As an introduction to Shakespeare," says the Folger's O'Brien, "it's wonderful. But I would hope that it not get used as a replacement, because you really can't get the stuff about the language when you can look at a picture."
Says Jack Ryan, literature teacher and assistant director of Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria: "If a child can't even get into it without something like this, then it's wonderful. It's a genuine tool for those that can't visualize internally what's happening, given the fact that the language is so far removed from them.
"What I'm against is limiting kids who would be better off with their own imagination. That's the real literary experience."
Taute' is confident enough in Macbeth that she has two other artists working on illustrated versions of Othello and King Lear, hoping to have one out this fall and the other next spring.
Says Folger Library director Dr. O.B. Hardison Jr.: "My philosophy regarding Shakespeare is 'Let every little flower thrive.' CAPTION: Illustration, From "Macbeth," 1982, Oval Projects, Limited Illustration, Copyright 1982 by Von. Workman Publishing, New York; reprinted by arrangement with the publisher. Picture, Publisher Anne Taute: "Nothing's deleted or squashed together, the way you see happening to Shakespeare in comic books;" by Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post