There’s more than one way to hail a Caesar or roast a pig. Author, editor and comics artist Sarah Boxer has broken codes and recast couplets, exposing the great William Shakespeare to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. As we emerge from this winter of our discontent, her recent reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Hamlet and Julius Ceasar, provide ample raw material for a comic feast punctuated by the Bard’s iconic wordplay.
These books, Hamlet: Prince of Pigs and Anchovius Caesar (Bunncoco Pressfirstname.lastname@example.org), are not just for or by the seasoned punster. Boxer, who is also author of In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Beastiary, a series of cartoon case histories of all things Freudian and Mother May I?: A Post Freudian Folly, is a master of what Publisher’s Weekly calls “charming and quirkily resonant images and ideas.” I asked Boxer to explain her motivations for cooking up such a feast for ear and eye.
I love your introduction to both Hamlet and Anchovius Caesar. Of course you made everyone into animals. It’s as natural as a ham on rye at Katz’s Deli. But how long did you deliberate with yourself before investing a piglet with Shakespeare?
Puns have always been my favorite part of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet has always been my favorite Shakespeare tragedy. Put them together and what do you get? Hamlet: Prince of Pigs.
But seriously, Hamlet: Prince of Pigs began with a pig in search of a part. In the 1980s, I drew a little booklet of “The Three Little Pigs” story and it dawned on me: Hey, I can draw pigs! (I already knew I couldn’t draw humans.) The publication of Art Spiegelman’s Maus gave me the strength and courage I needed to give up on humans altogether. And I was off to the races.
I drew anxious bunnies, paranoid wolves, obsessive-compulsive rats and depressed sheepskins as part of my first comic, In the Floyd Archives: A Psycho-Bestiary (Pantheon, 2001), which was based on Freud’s case histories. I did not find a part for a pig, though, until I drew my second psychoanalytic comic, Mother May I? A Post-Floydian Folly (IP Books, 2019). In that book, there’s an anxious piglet, Squiggle Piggle, who expresses himself through his squiggly tail. (He’s an homage to the child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, the inventor of the Squiggle Game.)
I can’t remember exactly when I thought I was up to the task of tackling Shakespeare’s tragedies with funny animals. But once the idea popped into my head, there was no question that Hamlet would be a piglet. It’s right there in the title! In the name Hamlet, you can hear Ham-let, little ham. And, as it turned out, the pig pun fit! In Shakespeare’s day, if you wanted to make fun of royalty on stage, you’d have them wear a pig mask.
In the wonderful world of metamorphosis and anthropomorphism, there are some guidelines. What rules did you establish for continuity’s sake once you decided on the pig as your star thespian?
Each of my Tragic-Comics has its own rules. Once I decided that Hamlet was a pig, my next big decision was what to do with Hamlet’s family, with his dead and ghostly father, with his evil murdering uncle, Claudius, and with Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, who marries her husband’s killer. I decided to follow a one-family, one-species rule. (I have always had trouble figuring out the family groups in Shakespeare’s plays, so I think the one-species rule is a really nice help for readers.) Thus Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, the one who killed Hamlet’s father, would be a big fat hog, or as Shakespeare put it, “the bloat king.” His mother, Gertrude, who married her dead husband’s murderer, would also be a pig, but a pig with lipstick. For Ophelia’s family, I figured that since she dies in water, she’d be some kind of cat. Thus Polonius, Ophelia’s father, is a pompous cat, and her brother, Laertes, is an irascible cat. Those are the two main family groups. I next ruled that each profession would be one species. The gravediggers would be dogs because dogs are excellent diggers. The guards would be mice because mice look really nice in helmets. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are weasels because they are, you know, weasely.
Was this an experiment without a predicted outcome, or did you know what the consequence of making Hamlet into a swine would be once you entered this world?
I only learned how appropriate it was to turn Hamlet into a pig after I started doing it. From reading Stephen Greenblatt’s great book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, I learned that in 16th-century England, the “swine-snouted king” was a stock theater figure. Nick Bottom’s ass-mask in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for instance, “strikingly recalls the swine’s snout placed on the face of the king.”
You clearly know your Shakespeare. Are you fond of him as a playwright or as an infinite source of puns?
Of course, I love both! I never get tired of seeing Hamlet or Caesar or Lear on stage. And I’ve been struck many times by the uncanny similarities between plays and comics. Both use gestures and words to get across their meaning. Both like to refer to their own medium—plays to plays and comics to comics. (Remember the play within the play?) Both have abrupt breaks between scenes. And in both, almost all the words are dialogue, with practically no narration. These two arts, seemingly separated at birth, are made for each other. But I suppose what makes me feel most fuzzy and warm about Shakespeare are the puns. I love wordplay. I love making up fake etymologies for words.
Punwise, you’ve done well with Hamlet and the variations thereon, but you outdid yourself with Anchovius Caesar. What was your process? Did you just allow the pearls to roll off your spine? Or did you have to stretch to cast the right characters? Mock Anchovy, indeed!
I began with the title role, with Caesar himself, the great kahuna. Because the name Caesar conjured up for me a Caesar salad, and because there’s just one animal in a classic Caesar salad, I knew that Caesar would have to be an anchovy. Anchovius Caesar! The Roman citizens, who sway this way and that, cheering for Caesar one moment and Brutus the next, would be played by romaine leaves. The countrymen would be crouton-men. It made perfect sense to me that Cicero, the one Greek guy in the play, would be a Kalamata olive, whose presence in a Caesar salad is often questioned. (Do they belong or not?) And Mark Antony? Obviously, he’s a mock anchovy, also known as a sprat. One good pun deserves another!
I hit a snag, though, when I realized I was all out of Caesar salad ingredients! What would I do? I decided to hold some tryouts. That is, I tested the aspiring actors, various cartoon characters—on paper, of course—for their adaptability, cuteness and punning potential. Then I created my first rule: All characters would have to be comfortable underwater, because that, after all, is where Anchovius Caesar lives and dies.
Here were my casting choices. Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, would be a sea cow, a manatee. (Cowpurnia!) And what of Portia, Brutus’ mate? The Porsche logo—a coat of arms with a horse upon it—saved the day. She’s a seahorse, of course! Flavius and Marullus, the slithering scolds at the start of the play, would be moray eels. Artemidorus, the diviner who tries to warn Caesar about the plot to kill him, would be a dream-fish. And Cinna the poet? A cinnamon clownfish, naturally.
While all the characters loyal to Anchovius Caesar would live underwater, the conspirators, I decided, should mostly dwell on land, but happily wade in water. So I had to come up with at least six such conspirators. Brutus was the most difficult. I looked for creatures with “brute” or “brutish” in their names. Nothing. Then I thought about Brutus’ character. What kind of creature seems an idealistic, moral fellow but ends up a credulous killer who fails as a friend, husband and patriot? I chose the weasel, which seems cuddly but is deadly. Next came Cassius. I googled “Cassius and animal,” hoping for some Latin names to pop up. “Crocodile” surfaced first, not because Cassius is Latin for crocodile (it isn’t), but because according to “The Guinness Book of World Records,” Cassius is the name of the largest crocodile in captivity (18 feet long, 2,866 pounds).
The rest of the conspirators of Anchovius Caesar fell into place, thanks mostly to the plenitude of amphibious creatures and the vagaries of zoological nomenclature, which (like the cast of Julius Caesar) is full of Latin. Casca? Turns out that a Cascabel is a type of rattlesnake. What about Trebonius, the conspirator who delays Mark Antony while Caesar is stabbed? Conveniently, a Triboniophorus (close enough!) is a fluorescent Kaputar pink slug. And the beat goes on.
Do you have any other food groups in your literary comic strip grocery basket?
I think I’m done with groceries for now. The next Shakespeare tragedy I’m eyeing is King Lear, which, I think, will become King Steer. I feel drawn to this tragedy because it was the first Shakespeare play I saw with my father, who memorably said to my sister and me as we were walking from the parking lot to the outdoor theater in Boulder, CO: “You know, I don’t really need to see this play. I’ve already got my Goneril and Regan here with me.” I must say, though, that I’m a little worried about whether I can draw a good crazy old steer.
What is Bunncoco Press?
Bunncoco Press, c’est moi! The logo of my press is a picture of a bunny sitting in a cup of cocoa. For those who don’t know, this bunny first appeared (as Bunnyman) in my first book, In the Floyd Archives, and reappeared in my second psychoanalytic comic, Mother May I? So far, though, my Shakespearean Tragic-Comics have not featured any bunnies, and they have traveled a less traditional publishing road than the psychoanalytic ones. They are currently available only as Bunncoco book-zines. If you know any silly but serious publishers for them, please tell me! If you want a copy of the zines as they are, please find me!
Anchovius Caesar: https://www.politics-prose.com/book/9781624294020
Hamlet: Prince of Pigs:https://www.politics-prose.com/book/9781624294037