Some things just go perfectly together: Chocolate and peanut butter. Cocoa and little bitty marshmallows on cold nights. Me and red wine. LEGO minifigs and William Shakespeare. Bear with me for a few minutes and I promise I’ll convince you of that last one (the second-to-last one is equally true, but the less we speak of that the better).
From the creative minds of John McCann, Monica Sweeney, and Becky Thomas comes Brick Shakespeare, classic Shakespeare plays retold through LEGO minifigs and bricks. This review primarily covers Brick Shakespeare: The Tragedies–Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar, but there is a second volume as well covering the comedies A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Taming of the Shrew. They’re available either as two separate volumes or as a combined edition, but as the latter is probably quite heavy and ungainly, I’d suggest purchasing the two separately.
I purchased this book on the assumption that it was written primarily for children and that it would be mostly a visual treat for use as a coffee table book. I was delightfully surprised to find that, while abridged for length, the authors did not paraphrase or dumb down Shakespeare’s work. Also, it should be noted for parents considering this for children that the subject matter remains intact; Hamlet, for example, retains lines such as:
O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets
While I love the idea of getting kids into Shakespeare at a young age using popular toys, just keep in mind that this book has not been expurgated.
The authors include a healthy amount of background information about each play. Hamlet begins with an explanation about how Elizabethan audiences would have noted the symbolic struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism, for example.
This segues into my favorite thing about Brick Shakespeare. The book in and of itself is a sot of wonderful microcosm of Shakespeare’s genius. It blends intelligent writing with pop culture and never favors one or the other. Though many a dry textbook has neglected to convey this, Shakespeare’s works were the height of “pop culture” for his time, touching on current issues and layering many levels that could be enjoyed by virtually all tiers of Elizabethan society. And they endured so long and so well because he never sacrificed any of those rich layers under the misguided assumption that some existential cleave must exist between “fun” and “intelligent.”
And that brings us to Brick Shakespeare, a book that blends the simple fun of the supremely popular LEGO empire with a timeless classic. The authors sacrificed neither fun nor depth when making this tome. They could easily have gotten away with just paraphrasing the story in simple lines and still sold extraordinarily well to a LEGO-adoring public. But they chose to preserve Shakespeare’s wit and beautiful language, pairing them boldly with the simple yet charming minifigs and bright geometric scenes.
Overall the execution was solid with a few minor criticisms. On several occasions the facial expressions were at odds with the tone of the scene; swapping in a few extra heads with more varied mouths would have been an improvement. They made good use of depth of field and cropping to vary the shots even when using multiple images of a single setting. I do wish they would have added in just a few more elaborate set pieces, but it’s a minor quibble.
I must also commend the authors for using the medium to create fanciful images based on the rich metaphors and hyperbole Shakespearean characters so often employ. I don’t know that any director of staged or filmed productions of Romeo and Juliet have ever attempted to recreate Juliet’s suggestion to “chain me with roaring bears.”