This morning I announced on my website that at the end of the month Audible will releasing a novelization of Shakespeare’s Macbeth written by me and David Hewson, and performed for audio by the inestimable Alan Cumming. Macbeth, A Novel, has proved itself an exciting project for lots of reasons and in my next few posts I want to single out features of the process for discussion from the writer’s perspective.
I want to start with the question that will already be in some people’s minds: why do this at all?
Shakespeare is generally recognized to be the word smith par excellence, a master story teller, the king of character, and a bastion of both the theatre and education. Surely, wading into those particular waters is just asking for trouble?
As a Shakespeare professor, no one feels these things more than I do. I love Shakespeare’s words and am deeply suspicious of those modern English “translations” which sometimes find their way into the high school classroom. If we aren’t looking at the original language, in all its richness and complexity, what’s the point?
But that argument doesn’t apply here. Shakespeare in the classroom is about his work as he wrote it. The play itself is the point of study and students should therefore get it unmediated. Our purpose was quite different. David and I wanted to tackle Macbeth as a story, not as something to be studied, we wanted to come at it fresh, to defamiliarize the tale and its characters so that our audience would be caught up in the drama of the thing without the difficulty, archaism and attendant cultural baggage of the original.
And to be clear, we weren’t setting out to replace Shakespeare’s play. In fact, I think we’re doing something along the lines of what Shakespeare himself did most of the time, retelling a familiar story in his own voice, supplying his own special spin on the characters and events. To put it in more contemporary terms, we wanted to do what theatre directors always do, approaching the play as something from which we would make something new which had artistic cohesion and interest value in its own right. We wanted to make more than a pale reflection of the original, but also wanted to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater (Macbeth as CEO of Scotland Corporation, say, or as drug kingpin of the Thanes gang).
In short, we wanted to keep the frame and setting of Shakespeare’s story but adapted the specifics for our own purposes. So our version is still Medieval, but we wanted to discover the story’s characters, its world (real and quasi supernatural) for ourselves, inspired by what Shakespeare had given us, but not limited by that. We wanted to add and inflect. We wanted to dip into historical sources Shakespeare passed over, not in the pursuit of greater historical authenticity, but in pursuit of story, a story which would be—had to be—different in our telling of it because our audience was different from his and would be receiving this Macbeth in an entirely different genre.
Plays, after all, are all dialogue. You may get the odd stage direction or location note (though both of these are generally editorial in Shakespeare), but practically all the information on the page comes through speech. We don’t see the landscape or the battles which traverse it except in the occasional word picture, and we don’t see inside the character’s heads. One of the assets of Shakespeare, part of what makes his work so flexible, so prone to evolve, is that we have no authorial voice insisting what things mean, what characters are thinking. Even soliloquy is speech, and therefore less than entirely trustworthy.
So part of what we had to do was rethink the form of the story and tap into what the novel permits which a play is less suited to. In short, we wanted to take a story known the world over and make it new in part by embracing our form—the novel—over his—the play. Consider, for instance, the simple matter of page count. Plays are short, and Macbeth is shorter than most—less than 20,000 words! A novel is likely to be four or five times that, which suggests a considerably broader canvas. Yes, our version of Shakespeare’s scenes would be longer because we would need to supply more than simply what people said, but plodding through the play scene by scene wasn’t going to work. Our story needed to be larger.
To give an example, the play begins with two short scenes, neither of which involve the title character or his wife. One is a glimpse of the witches which establishes them as a presence, the other is the account of a battle in which Macbeth did noble service for King and country. The first scene is cryptic, unsettling, the second is talky, expository. Both rely on capable performers on stage to be effective, and neither would work in a novel without significant rethinking.
So we show the battle. We get to watch it as it happens, and apart from the thrill of the thing, we get to establish the world in which Macbeth lives, a world which is violent and deeply political and defiantly male, a world of loyalty and camaraderie, suspicion and ambition, valor and cowardice, all revealed in the din and heat of combat.
Our first scene was similarly used to establish not just the world of the witches, but also that which no play can clearly give but which we knew would be crucial to our telling of the story: landscape. Shakespeare’s Scotland is vague, and though the play is dotted with place names pulled from historical sources, the play has precious little which feels truly Scottish about it. The play is about people and kingship. We wanted to root those things in place, to make the crown not simply an abstract of power, but something emblematic of the land itself. Next time, I’m inviting David Hewson, my co-author, who has a particular gift for writing location, to speak to this subject more directly. I think you’ll find his insights fascinating.