Macbeth has to be one of the most unfortunate individuals in history. As far as can be told from scant historical accounts, the real Macbeth was actually rather a good king, and during his reign Scotland enjoyed a rare and prolonged period of peace. Whilst he became somewhat paranoid and delusional late in his life, he was, by the standards of the time, not a bad monarch.
That, of course, is not how most people will imagine him. Proving that the pen is truly mightier than the sword, most people's view is shaped by Shakespeare's play which (like many of his History plays) is grossly inaccurate. Thanks to The Bard, popular history remembers him as a foul murderer who, backed by a scheming and ambitious wife seizes the Scottish throne and begins a bloody reign of terror.
Macbeth is probably one of Shakespeare's better known plays. Even if you don't like his writing, the chances are that this is the one you were forced to read at school. It's brave authors, then, who decide to take this familiar play and transfer it to novel format. To my mind, if you are going to attempt this, you have (to my mind) one of three ways to go: you could write it as a straightforward adaptation, attempt to portray a more accurate historical novel of Macbeth's reign which refutes some of Shakespeare's more outrageous slanders or you could create a hybrid of the two.
Unfortunately, Macbeth: a novel chooses the first of these paths. It follows the play, and it does so far too slavishly. The extra detail it adds (information about people's physical appearance or their surroundings) is mostly superfluous and actually serves to slow the tale down, rather than enhance it. The truth is, if you have read (or seen) the play, you will know exactly what to expect and will grow impatient at the length of time the book takes to move from one key scene to the next.
Ironically, having accused the book of following the play too slavishly, a crucial area where it fails is in bypassing Shakespeare's original text and the powerful language he used. Whilst the book frequently echoes passages from the play (or even quotes from it directly), there are other - quite famous quotes - which it ignores. There's no "out damned spot", for example and the whole idea of Lady Macbeth's failure to mentally wash away the blood she has shed is only obliquely (and weakly) referred to here. This actually weakens the characters because it fails to properly address Lady Macbeth's battle to reconcile her actions and her conscience - a crucial element in the play.
Similarly Macbeth's touching soliloquy on learning of the death of his wife ("and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow") is all but ignored. This speech is possibly one of the most emotional Shakespeare wrote and again, its omission is not a change for the better. It's perfectly understandable that the authors didn't want to repeat it word for word, but the point is they don't just fail to capture the words, they fail to capture the emotions.
You can understand the plight of the authors, of course. On the one hand, if they stray too far from the famous text, they will be criticised by reviewers like me. On the other hand, if they stick to it too closely, they will be criticised for simply repeating what has already been said and done. This is arguably, why they might have been better served trying to tell the true tale of Macbeth (or even a hybrid of historical and Shakespearian versions). At least that would have been their own work.
As noted above, though, the real problem is the inability of the authors to capture the emotions of the various characters. They fail to do in almost 330 pages what Shakespeare did in a lot less: convey complex emotions, thoughts and ideas. The characters in Macbeth (the play) are multi-layered. It's essentially a story of how people with the best of intentions can be misled and destroyed by bad decisions. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are essentially very human characters - full of contradictions and conflicting emotions.
Even though we are perfectly aware of the hideous deeds for which they are responsible, we still sympathise with them. We mourn with Macbeth when he hears of his wife's death and we mourn Macbeth's own passing at the hands of MacDuff, even though the latter is supposedly freeing Scotland from a bloody tyrant.
None of this comes through in Macbeth: a novel. Despite having far more time to develop the characters, Hartley and Hewson fail to imbue them with any sort of depth or humanity. You don't actually care for Macbeth and his wife, but neither do you despise them. The truth is that this novelisation fails to evoke any sort of emotional response at all. You read it, you finish it, you put it to one side, never to return. Unlike Shakespeare's original, there is very little engagement.
The only area where the authors really improve things is through the character of murdered monarch, Duncan. In Shakespeare's play, he is viewed as a saintly old monarch. In this novel, that is given as his public image: but everyone knows that in reality he is a greedy and lecherous old man, always looking to increase his personal wealth at the expense of everyone else. This small change shows how much better the novel might have worked if the authors had dared to be a little more different.
Macbeth: A Novel is not a dreadful book and I don't totally regret reading it. It is, however, little more than a minor curiosity. There is no doubt that the richer, more evocative and more layered work remains that of Shakespeare. That's probably testament to his writing skills that, with all the developments and refinements in novel writing, a 400 year old play remains superior.
Macbeth: A Novel
A J Hartley & David Hewson
Thomas & Mercer, 2012
© Copyright SWSt 2012