Home > Introduction > Shakespeare in Cartoon Plays

Shakespeare in Cartoon Plays

             What is Shakespeare to a female fourth grader? A chance of a life time. Well, for Helga that is. Helga is a female character in the cartoon series “Hey Arnold.” Throughout the series, Helga is portrayed as a rude, feisty girl who loves to bully other people around but she secretly harbours immense love for the protagonist of the series, Arnold. That is why, when her teacher decides to create an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” with Arnold as Romeo, Helga does everything in her power to get the role of Juliet to get the chance of kissing her beloved Arnold without revealing her true feelings for him because it would all simply look like “acting.” Helga resolves to getting the role of Juliet as she kisses her picture of Arnold in a bathroom and utters the lines, “What could be more perfect than this?” 

            For Helga’s other classmates, they don’t see much relevance concerning Shakespeare at all, especially her male classmates who don’t go for the “mushy romantic” stories. But what they see as attracting in Shakespeare’s play is the violence or the fighting scenes. The thought of holding a sword and fighting with other people gets Stinky, Harold and Curly excited and eager to audition for roles. But at the same time, the thought of kissing a “girl” makes these guys leave the play as well, even if they won’t actually be playing Romeo. Arnold, the person who plays Romeo, initially didn’t want the role as well because of the “kissing scene.” He said “yes” to Mr. Simmons, the teacher in charge of the play, only because Mr. Simmons was practically begging before Arnold to take the role.

            In contrast to the male characters, the other female characters, aside from Helga, are actually okay with the kiss. They don’t see any big issue about it, especially since it is Arnold and not some other guy whom they’ll kiss. What concern these female characters that were initially to play the role of Juliet are other things. For Rhonda, the girl who got the part of Juliet, she is concerned with making herself beautiful and Helga uses this to her advantage to get Rhonda to reject the role of Juliet. Helga volunteers to do the costumes for the play and she makes Juliet’s dress as hideous as it could be forcing Rhonda to back out because she couldn’t afford to wear such an ugly dress. The first understudy, Sheena, is concerned with the violence and fight scenes in the play, in contrast to the male characters’ interest concerning such scenes, which make her back out as well. The second understudy, Phoebe, Helga’s best friend, is scared off by Helga in playing the role by telling Phoebe that at any time she could make a mistake with the numerous lines that she has to memorize and this would screw up the whole play. So, Phoebe backs out and plays the role of stage director instead. Helga, as the fourth understudy has one more girl to “scare off” into playing the role and this girl is Lila. Helga talks to Lila and tries to scare her by telling her about the violence in the play, the hideous dress and the numerous lines she has to memorize. But Lila does not budge and instead replies, “The violence only serves to underscore the real meaning of the play, which is that love conquers all.” Among all the characters that will play a role in “Romeo and Juliet,” it seems that it is only Lila who is playing the role without any motives or personal concerns but that she wants to play the role because of her appreciation and understanding of the play. After exhausting her efforts in trying to convince Lila to back out, Helga resorts to confessing the truth concerning why she wants the role of Juliet so badly and tells Lila that she does like Arnold. Helga held her feelings for Arnold as her deepest, darkest secret and in order to get the role of Juliet to kiss Arnold it took a lot from her to tell Lila the truth but she still does so because of her desire to kiss Arnold. Talk about desperation or what Shakespeare could do to the mind of a fourth grader. In the end, Lila willingly gives the role to Helga and Helga finally gets the role of Juliet after all her efforts.

            Helga, with all her scheming and plotting to get the role is shown not as someone who is only manipulative but after getting the role, Helga is shown to be someone who practices the whole night to memorize her lines which shows a different side to Helga. Helga may have her own motives for wanting the role of Juliet but she still wants to do a good job at doing her role so that the efforts of everyone in the play won’t be in vain. She ends up sharing a lengthy kiss with Arnold which is the consummation of all her efforts, perseverance and hard work. The play also becomes a successful performance of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and was appreciated by the crowd that watched it.


            It is very interesting to see how Shakespeare can play a “life-changing” role in the character of Helga. For Helga, the play “Romeo and Juliet” was simply equated to “the chance to kiss Arnold.” Even if Helga and the other characters didn’t appreciate the play for itself, except for Lila, but had their own motives for playing a part in the play, it goes to show that Shakespeare, for whatever reason, is very much appealing and applicable to even the “drama” that fourth graders have, in a cartoon series, that is.

            Another cartoon series that makes use of Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” is the animé entitled “K-ON!” K-ON! is a Japanese animé concerning the school life of five female protagonists who are a member of the light music club in their school. It is interesting to see how “Romeo and Juliet” is adapted in a Japanese animé which features protagonists studying in an all-female school. The two characters who played the role are Ritsu for Juliet and Mio for Romeo, both third year junior high school students. If their personality were to be followed, Ritsu is considered to be more fit to playing the character of Romeo because she is sort of boyish while Mio is known to be the shy, feminine type but due to them drawing Juliet and Romeo respectively in the draw lots, they played roles opposite to their true personalities. That is one of the twists the animé put in portraying a version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

            As the play progressed, Mio and Ritsu actually were able to get into their roles very well even if they found in difficult to act while they were still practicing for the play. During the balcony scene where Romeo, Mio talks with Juliet, Ritsu in her balcony, the two are shown to be very close together and even if they are known to be best friends and both female, the audience cannot help but feel the intensity of the scene and one audience member even commented that that scene “really made [her] heart race.” In a way, the animé is able to create “chemistry” between Mio and Ritsu even if they’re best friends and both girls. In the balcony scene where the two are shown to “intimately hug” each other, the audience can be heard to be screaming because of the “kilig” factor that the scene has, showing that Mio and Ritsu play the role of Romeo and Juliet very effectively.


            “Romeo and Juliet” is popularized by the kissing scene between Romeo and Juliet before they both die and this is also what is capitalized in the “Hey Arnold” adaptation of the play. So, how would a Japanese animé with an all-female cast portray this scene which is the climax of the play? The answer is, it doesn’t. The animé still treats the “graveyard” scene as the climax of the play but instead of showing a scene where two girls would kiss, which probably is taboo or something verging into the forbidden in an all-female school, the animé instead creates a conflict outside the play to replace the supposed climax in the play. The conflict is that the one of the props for the graveyard scene, which is the grave stone of Juliet, is missing and no one could seem to find it. Without it, the scene wouldn’t be as effective. So the other characters seek help from another organization to replace their lost grave stone. The resolution of that conflict becomes the “climax” of the episode replacing the climactic scene in the play.

            In a way, Shakespeare works even in an all-female cast in a Japanese animé since the mere thought of two females sharing some sort of intimacy is enough to give the audience excitement and thrill in order to get hooked into the play.

            The adaptation of Shakespeare in two cartoon school plays shows that Shakespeare’s works can be easily modified and suited to fit the theme that a show has. In the case of “Hey Arnold,” the episode that adapted “Romeo and Juliet” emphasized on Helga’s desperate desire for Arnold and this desire is achieved through the play. In the K-ON! episode, it effectively shows how even an all-female cast could successfully portray one of Shakespeare’s most popular couples and scene suited for an all-female junior high school Japanese audience.


Hey Arnold! 2011. Photograph. Life Behind the ScenesWeb. 28 Mar 2012. <http://lifebehindthescenes.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/25-shows-hey-arnold/&gt;.

Wiki Contributor. Romeo and Juliet. Photograph. K-ON WikiWeb. 28 Mar 2012. <http://k-on.wikia.com/wiki/Romeo_and_Juliet!&gt;.


Submitted by: Sarah Jessica S. Napoles 2008-50010

Eng23 THU 2nd Sem AY 2011-2012

Categories: Introduction
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