Repackaged Shakespeare classics underscore the English playwright’s lasting impact

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In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the preeminent English playwright's death, The Pelican Shakespeare is being revived with new editions designed by Manuja Waldia under the creative direction of Paul Buckley. Photo courtesy of MANUJA WALDIA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Duplicity and treachery. Nobility and honor. Conquest and triumph.

These are phrases that may best describe the current political climate in the country, especially as the activities of candidates reach their momentum, given that the day of elections is now less than two weeks away. These word combinations, though, are actually part of a marketing copy for the recently premiered new season of “Game of Thrones.” Apparently, the run-up to this year’s all too real national and local elections has quite a few things in common with a fantasy drama TV series depicting machinations and maneuverings amid ever-mounting power struggles and fire-breathing dragons.

But long before the hotly discussed HBO show and the televised spectacle that is the Philippine election campaign trail, themes of deceit, virtue, and victory, among others, had been the lifeblood of the works of a singular man named William Shakespeare — works so enduring that they’ve once again warranted the publication of new editions from the world-renowned publishing house Penguin.

Shakespeare - Macbeth, King Lear The new cover for "Macbeth" (left) expresses the theme of murderous usurpation through the image of a skull-hilted dagger crossed with a scepter between two crowns, one of which is dripping blood into the other. The new cover for "King Lear" shows the eponymous mad monarch crying a single tear in the rain. Photos by GEORGE BAIER IV  

Published through the Penguin imprint Pelican, the new editions constitute a reboot of The Pelican Shakespeare, a series of authoritative and annotated texts that gathers together the preeminent English playwright’s tragedies, comedies, and histories. In a bit of contradiction in terms, the revival is tied up with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, which falls on April 23. “It felt like time to breathe new life into the series,” says Paul Buckley, executive creative director at Penguin.

As the art director of the new editions, Buckley had the difficult job of choosing the designer with whom to entrust the challenging task of coming up with the new look and feel for The Pelican Shakespeare, a commission with an immensity that is not lost on him. It’s a huge project, comprising as it does a total of 40 books. Then there’s the fact that it’s — as Buckley puts it, short of dropping an emphatic expletive — “William F’in Shakespeare.” So whom to turn to?

“Only giants have gone here,” Buckley says, referring to the iconic designers behind some of the more classic iterations of The Pelican Shakespeare, including David Gentleman, Milton Glaser, Paul Hogarth, and Riccardo Vecchio. With them in mind, Buckley thought hard on which “heavy hitter” he was going to reach out to.

For a project of this magnitude, someone who’s more or less familiar with the big names in book cover design today might be inclined to expect that the undertaking would find its way to someone like John Gall, Jonathan Gray, Jamie Keenan, Peter Mendelsund, or David Pearson. But in a surprising turn of events, it ultimately landed in the hands of a virtual unknown named Manuja Waldia, a 24-year-old Indian-born artist living in Indianapolis.

Macbeth Shakespeare Manuja Waldia Manuja Waldia's style is evocative of hieroglyphs and other ancient symbol-based languages, as well as of modern iconographies such as those used on public signage and mobile phone operating systems. Photo courtesy of MANUJA WALDIA  

How Waldia came to Buckley’s notice is something of a stroke of serendipity. He was faced with the last few days of his deadline and in “full-on panic-stricken mode” when he received an email from her. Normally he would immediately delete emails from people he’s never heard of, but hers, he says, politely demanded his attention. It also didn’t hurt that Waldia was recommended by the acclaimed letterer and illustrator Jessica Hische, with whom Buckley had previously worked on a series called Penguin Drop Caps. “So I looked,” he says, “and was truly blown away.”

“It was quite genius of Paul Buckley to think about juxtaposing this modern and minimalistic aesthetic with such classics,” Waldia says. Hers is a graphics style characterized by highly vectorized imagery. In the hands of a less committed artist, such an approach would come off kitschy or downright lazy. But in Waldia’s hands, it’s anything but. She describes her preferred aesthetic mode as “monolinear” and says that it’s “derived from basic geometric shapes.” Indeed, it’s evocative of hieroglyphs and other ancient symbol-based languages, as well as of modern iconographies such as those used on public signage and mobile phone operating systems.

“This is all smartly designed combinations of shapes laid bare,” Buckley says. “There is no hiding any mistakes in something like this.” In fact, he’s so impressed by the precision in her work that he even goes as far as to say that “the world lost something when Manuja chose not to be a brain surgeon or a city planner.”

Waldia graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design in 2014 with a BFA in Communication Design. Prior to that, she had taken up a fashion communication-oriented program at the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi. “I pay a lot of attention to costumes, fabrics, appliqué, and textile patterns,” she says. “I look at fashion for finding color combinations and ornamentation details. I also like to look at medieval tapestries for inspiration.”

Shakespeare - Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet The new cover for "Hamlet" (left) renders the specter of the title character’s late father. The new cover for "Romeo and Juliet" hints at the tragic fate of the titular star-crossed lovers with two adjacent coffins, one emblazoned with a bottle of poison and the other with a dagger, pierced by Cupid’s arrows. Photos by GEORGE BAIER IV  

Waldia’s designs for the new covers of The Pelican Shakespeare are themselves inspired works of art. In addition to their unconventional application of modern aesthetic modes on centuries-old classic works, the covers rely on abstraction and symbolism to convey the essence of the stories they contain as well as to pique the interest of potential readers (or re-readers). The cover for “Macbeth,” for example, expresses the theme of murderous usurpation through the image of a skull-hilted dagger crossed with a scepter between two crowns, one of which is dripping blood into the other. The cover for “Romeo and Juliet,” for another, hints at the tragic fate of the titular star-crossed lovers with two adjacent coffins, one emblazoned with a bottle of poison and the other with a dagger, pierced by Cupid’s arrows.

“Macbeth” and “Romeo and Juliet” are two of the four titles that make up the initial batch of releases for the refresh of The Pelican Shakespeare, the other two being “King Lear” (the new cover of which shows the eponymous mad monarch crying a single tear in the rain) and “Hamlet” (the new cover of which renders the specter of the title character’s late father). They’re available now on international online booksellers and in local bookstores.

To buy or not to buy? That is the question. The answer, considering the impressive job that has been done on the series by Waldia under the creative direction of Buckley, is, of course, yes.

As for the question of Shakespeare’s universal and lasting appeal and influence four centuries after his death? “Most of the broader themes that appear in his work are quite timeless,” Waldia says. “He draws from core human nature, and perhaps that’s why he endures.”

Old Shakespeare Covers.png In some of its more classic iterations, Penguin's The Pelican Shakespeare featured the designs of iconic designers such as (from left to right) David Gentleman, Milton Glaser, Paul Hogarth, and Riccardo Vecchio.