Digital Shakespeare

Vector line drawing in red and yellow of Julius Caesar
Illustration by Manuja Waldia, 2014-16

Shakespeare gets a digital makeover

One of the most unusual cover series of recent years is the set of forty Pelican Shakespeares from 2016. The striking artwork is by a young Indian-born artist Manuja Waldia who was only 24 at the time; she had just graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. She explains:

I emailed Paul Buckley, VP Executive Creative Director of Penguin US, a link to my (terribly amateur) student portfolio. He kindly took the time to look at it, and replied that he’d like to explore the idea of doing Shakespeare covers in the style of my Daily Icon project. Not just any Shakespeare editions, but the Penguin Classics range! 

photo portrait of young woman in front of bookcases, illustrator Manuja Waldia
Manuja Waldia, Verve magazine, 2016

Buckley chose Waldia because her linear, digital style art could give a contemporary take on the familiar classics. When you find a mashup that should be so wrong but comes out so right—that’s what art can do with material you thought you knew.

Hamlet Waldia copy///////Romeo Waldia

Vector line drawing of Othello with headress and sword/////.//Pelican Shakespeare_King Lear_Manuja Waldia/////

The vector-based illustrations (presumably made with Adobe Illustrator) glow like a computer monitor. An article in The Atlantic stated that Waldia brings a design sensibility shaped by the clean-lines aesthetic of the digital world to centuries-old classics: inspired by modern imagery—app icons, street signs, maps, statistical visualizations—as well as ancient symbols like hieroglyphics.

The illustrations are full of clever details that symbolize the characters and events in the plays. The cover of Julius Caesar (at top) has him towering over Rome and raining down blood from his arms. Romeo and Juliet has two coffins each containing the means of the character’s death, poison and dagger. Hamlet has the deathly figure of a king which could be stand for Hamlet’s murdered father, or the usurper Claudius, or the doomed prince Hamlet himself. The designs show aspects of the plays expressed with an appealing visual wit.

The illustrations are set in a cover design grid reminiscent of the 1957 Penguins by Abram Games, with a narrow section at the top for plain text leaving the remainder of the B format cover for the dominant artwork. The series won a Gold Medal at the Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition.

Othello full Waldia

Front, back and spine of the cover shows further illustrations Walsia.
The complete front, back and spine of the covers show how Waldia has created further illustrations for each title.


Waldia designed this video promotion for the series which is an insight into her creative thinking on the acclaimed series. Click here for full screen version.

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