Isabella Biedenharn
April 22, 2016 AT 09:14 PM EDT

Four hundred years later, William Shakespeare’s collected works remain relevant, enduring classics. In acknowledgement of the 400th anniversary of his death, Pelican designers Manuja Waldia and Paul Buckley freshened up the Bard’s paperbacks with some modern makeovers. 

Below, Waldia tells EW about their inspirations for each cover, and how they’re reframing these works for a 21st century audience.

King Lear

MANUJA WALDIA: King Lear’s beard is a maze — he is caught up in his own head while on his ascent to insanity after his daughters’ betrayal. 

Twelfth Night

WALDIA: The play’s protagonist Viola’s chief problem throughout the play is one of identity. Because of her disguise, she must be both herself and also wear the mask of her male alter ego Cesario. The ship is a little reminder of the fact that she came about to be in Illyria as she was caught in a terrible shipwreck near the shore.

Romeo & Juliet

WALDIA: Cover shows twin coffins that symbolize the tragic act of double suicide by the lovers in the plot. The coffins have poison and dagger on them which stand for Romeo and Juliet respectively, as those were the instruments of their death. Arrows stab the two coffins to show how their love was met with violent resistance from their feuding families. Additionally, the rose on the right coffin stands for Juliet, and the heart on the left coffin stands for Romeo.

Macbeth

WALDIA: A lady’s tiara pours blood onto a nobleman’s crown. This symbolizes the influence of Lady Macbeth on Macbeth’s actions. A dagger and scepter cross each other to show the intersection of ambition and blood-lust in the play.

Hamlet

WALDIA: The ghost of the dead King Hamlet appears and declares ominously that he was murdered by Claudius. Ordering Hamlet to seek revenge (notice the double edged sword) on the man who usurped his throne and married his wife, the ghost disappears with the dawn (notice Sun and Moon).

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you land on a look that could work for each of these plays?

MANUJA WALDIA: Paul had the idea of unifying the series using this minimalistic illustration style. We wanted to set a template at the start of the project, so I came up with a color system and also laid out the design elements that run across the series. We’re using specific background colors for the three categories — tragedies, comedies and histories. Keeping the line weight consistent for all illustrations brings further consistency to the set.

What are some of the concepts that you considered but didn’t stick with?

The sexism and misogyny in Taming of the Shrew is ludicrous! I did a couple of sketches with the male lead Petruchio. However, we were rooting for the Shrew, so there was definitely a bias when it came to picking the final cover.

How do you make something 400 years old feel fresh for a new audience? Who was the audience you had in mind?

I like to describe the aesthetic as mono-linear, minimalistic and derived from basic geometric shapes. It is inspired in equal parts by ancient symbol based languages like hieroglyphs, and modern minimalistic iconography that we find in phone operating systems and signage (at airports, maps, statistics visualizations, etc.) these days. While Shakespeare is quite old, most of the broader themes that appear in his work are timeless. It was genius of Paul Buckley (who’s art directing these covers) to think about juxtaposing this modern and minimalistic aesthetic for such classics. This led to a uniquely fresh approach to titles which have so many existing editions (and covers.) and pay homage to Shakespeare in line with modern sensibilities. 

I think Shakespeare is for everyone. So I try to go for themes which will resonate with the broad spectrum of his fans, who can have varying levels of familiarity with the texts. Along with that I also try to hide a few easter eggs for the really hardcore fans. 

Did you re-read them before you designed them? Did you notice anything new?

I did read them. However, Shakespeare can be very dense and rich, and sometimes I have to read it over and over to comprehend. So I also rely on alternative ways for research, which can be equally effective in figuring out the basic essence of the plot. Cinematic adaptations, Shakespeare in the park, podcasts, live performances and documentaries are some fun ways to soak it in. Performances and adaptations are a great way to understand the emotion  behind the words and notice other details which can be missed while reading the text.

What was the biggest challenge with the project?

Some titles have a lot of visual symbolism and imagery in the plot, while others have very abstract concepts which are harder to translate into artwork. Those are the ones that require more brain muscle, and can be a bit challenging. Although they are also the ones that feel the most rewarding at the end. Also the fact that many versions of these covers have been done makes it challenging to keep them fresh. 

Which cover is your favorite? Why?

I like Macbeth the best, as it was the first one I did.

What is your favorite Shakespeare quote?

“Action is Eloquence” from Coriolanus (Act 3, Scene 2) is my favorite. It seems to be Shakespearean for “Actions speak louder than words.”

Why do you think these plays are still relevant over 400 years after they were written?

I think the Bard is as relevant as ever. He lives through all the words that he invented and which we speak today. He lives through his overt and covert influence on popular culture, cinema and literature. Sure, formats and presentations are tweaked to resonate with modern audiences, but it’s still all Shakespeare at the core.

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