Writing Location: The Macbeth Project


Today it’s my pleasure to introduce my friend and co-writer of the Macbeth, A Novel, audio book which comes out from Audible on Tuesday of next week. David Hewson is the award winning and bestselling author of 16 books, and is best known for his Nic Costa detective series set in present day Rome., the most recent of which, Fallen Angel, is currently getting rave reviews in minor local papers like the New York Times and Washington Post. He has a special gift for today’s topic which we is evident in ourShakespeare adaptation, an extract of which you can hear for free here.

Please welcome, David Hewson.


Real estate agents in England (and perhaps elsewhere) have a saying. The value of a property is down to three things. Location, location and location. Books are more complex than houses, but they share a little of that quality too. As a writer I’m fixated with making sure my story transports the reader to the world I’m creating. I don’t just want them to see it. I need them to feel it, smell it, understand how hot or cold it is and why it shapes the characters who inhabit the place.

Most of my books have been set in Italy. When I started out to write the Nic Costa series I moved to Rome for a while and enrolled at language college to study Italian. I wanted to know what Rome looked like to the locals. I intended to write about Italians born and bred in the country, not foreigners passing through. It’s quite a commitment but, eleven books into my Italian cycle, I think it’s necessary.

And then there’s Macbeth. When A.J. Hartley and I decided to embark on this insane adventure – turning one of Shakespeare’s best-known but most difficult and impenetrable of plays into an audio novel – we really had no idea where to start. I wrote some things from my point of view. Andrew did the same from his. We began to have a feel for how the work might proceed, and the kind of interpretations and, on occasion, downright inventions we’d need to introduce.

But there was still the question of location. A.J. was on the other side of the Atlantic in Charlotte. I was in southern England near Canterbury. I’d never spent any real time in the Scottish Highlands, where most of the story of Macbeth takes place. I’d no idea of the geography, the feel, the smell of the place. Most importantly of all I’d still only a hazy idea of Macbeth himself, and why he was willing to risk everything, his life, his wife, his reputation, to murder Duncan and steal the crown of Scotland.

Where were the answers? Not in Charlotte or southern England. So last September, while Andrew was dealing with more literary questions, I hopped on a plane to Inverness, hired a car and started to explore the Scottish landscape of the Moray Firth where the real-life Macbeth lived and died. I doubt we’d have finished with the work we have without that.

My first stopping off point was the Inverness Tourist Office where I marched in and demanded every last leaflet they had about Macbeth. The girl behind the counter stared at me blankly. They had nothing. Macbeth, you see, is now the Macbeth of Shakespeare, a bloodthirsty villain, a man of whom Scotland should be ashamed.

This shocked me. I’d already read quite a lot of background on the historical Macbeth. I knew that Shakespeare’s creation was a myth, invented out of fake history and a need to satisfy the complex politics of Shakespeare’s own time (his patron was James I of England, James VI of Scotland, a man obsessed with witchcraft who, quite without foundation, believed himself descended from Banquo). Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to seize the throne, fall into a bloodthirsty rage and meet his comeuppance in a matter of weeks. The real Macbeth was on the throne of Alba, as Scotland was then, for seventeen years. Yes, he killed to get the throne. But most Scots kings did back then, and the Duncan he murdered was young, ineffective and largely disliked. Most history paints Macbeth as one of the best kings Scotland ever had, and he didn’t die at Dunsinane either, but was beheaded after a battle near Aberdeen.

So there’s the first lesson. So compelling is Shakespeare’s portrait that the real man has effectively been beheaded twice, once by Malcolm in real life, and once by the portrait of an English playwright who had one eye on his partisan king. Interesting…

I then set out to explore the length of Moray and the Great Glen, the territory from which this real-life Macbeth emerged. God, it’s gorgeous. Savage and beautiful, a place where, in Macbeth’s eleventh century Scotland, salmon would have thronged the rivers, pheasant and ptarmigan and deer the heather hillside. The Great Glen itself is an extraordinary geographic feature, like a slash across the neck of Scotland as it says in our story. Here was a world to match Macbeth’s character: wild yet noble too, true to itself, hostile to outsiders, and full of hatred of anything that would seek to steal its freedom.

As I drove around those deserted glens I began to see Macbeth’s character — which is only glanced at in Shakespeare’s original — emerge. Why fight for this? Answer: because it’s worth fighting for. Because Macbeth is a true patriot, a man who adores his native soil and will give up his life to defend it.

At the beginning of the play we see this hero too. He’s defending Scotland on behalf of Duncan, against traitors and against invading Vikings. Nowhere in the play does it tell you why this much-loved man turns into a regicide. In our story we needed to explain that. In the glens and by the lochs I finally saw the solution. What drove Macbeth was his growing realisation that Duncan himself was too weak or, in our version, to corrupt to defend and preserve the cherished paradise of Scotland against marauding invaders. Macbeth was a patriot first, and a loyal subject second. When his patriotism demands he act against a bad ruler, Macbeth obeys his conscience.

It all made a kind of sense, as much as stories ever do. One of the abiding themes of Macbeth is the divine right of kings, another obsession close to the chest of that barmpot James I who even wrote a boring book on the subject. Macbeth, our Macbeth, believes in the land above all else. It’s the force that drives him, and it’s his innate decency and horror at the depths to which his patriotism leads, that brings out his final insanity and end.

Could we have got there if I hadn’t hopped onto that plane to Inverness? I doubt it. Stories aren’t invented. They’re uncovered, hunted in the hills, chased down like the stags and salmon the real-life Macbeth once surely sought as his quarry in the hills and rivers of Moray. One week on the road was all it took and there we were. A figure, a flawed and very human man, was starting to emerge from the murky mists of history and Shakespeare’s brilliant but enigmatic protagonist.


11 comments to Writing Location: The Macbeth Project

  • Fascinating stuff here, David. Thanks. I’m starting to think that the real-life Macbeth was more interesting than Shakespeare’s creation. This post also gets me to thinking about John Steinbeck, about whom it was often said that his landscapes served as more than mere settings, they were characters as well. If yours isn’t an actual character, at the very least it’s a major shaping influence ON your main character. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • Beautiful post, David — one that makes me all the more eager to listen to the audiobook. What fascinates me most is Shakespeare’s historical assassination of MacBeth’s reputation, the fact that he turned a former king of Scotland, one who was, it seems from your description in this post, somewhat unremarkable, into the embodiment of ruthless, cruel ambition. “Beheaded twice,” as you put it. Great stuff.

  • I would certainly find it freeing to realize that Shakespeare played fast and loose with the truth, and thus, you can too! There’s an obvious expectation from the reader that you’ll be giving a prose version of Shakespeare’s telling, but at the same time, you can relax a bit when it comes to adding in scenes, characters, even plot points, that aren’t in the original text because after all, if Will can bend Macbeth’s story all around, why can’t you? Good luck on this. I look forward to listening to it.

  • A question first: So this is only an audio book?

    Great post. Finally someone is going to do justice to Macbeth! While I enjoyed Shakespeare’s play I researched the real Macbeth shortly after reading it since I’m Scottish on my father’s side. Just from your desciption of your journey to the highlands alone I have to read (or listen) to this book.

    To touch on your presentation of Macbeth as putting his home before all else, it brings to mind my favorite moment from Full Metal Jacket when Eightball is being interviewed and he says: “I guess they’d rather be alive than free. Poor dumb bastards.”

    I think its genetically ingrained in me (being Irish and Scottish and American) to absolutely get where your Macbeth is coming from.

    And I can’t help but point out that this is why I utterly despise the Bryan Adams song from the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie (and the movie as well). I have a feeling Robin Hood would have sacrificed Marion in a heartbeat if it would have saved his country and true king.

  • I think David will check in later but let me respond to a couple of things raised in the comments.

    First, yes, this was written specifically for audio. We hope the book will come out in print thereafter but those negotiations are just getting started.

    Second, I want to point out that we’re not trying to do some kind of revisionist history here, in which we discover the “true” Macbeth behind Shakespeare’s version. Ours is a different telling of the story, one which approaches the character and his context from a different angle. This is partly about genre. Shakespeare’s play is not especially interested in location because that’s not what plays do (esp. early modern bare stage plays). We embraced location because our form (the novel) allows us to as it allows us to embrace battle scenes, unspoken thought and other things a play can’t do. What I think David is demonstrating is that embracing place gave us a different handle on character and therefore on story.

    Related to this is that since Shakespeare wrote for the stage, a lot of the pyshcology of Macbeth and his wife is finally left to the actors and their choices. We perceive character on stage through the body of the actor, something which is invisible in the play script but which the author takes as read. A non speaking person on stage is still a potentially complex, thinking character. A novel, which doesn’t give you that visual, bodily presence, has to create character pyschology in a different way. I don’t think Shakespeare’s Macbeth is lacking in character, but it has to be inferred/implied by the actor based only partly on the words themselves.

    OK, I’ll shut up now. The problem for me dealing with Shakespeare in fiction is that I stray into lecture mode…

  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the wonderful insight. In future, I will impose a new rule on all my titles: They must have a T in them so that it can be transformed into a sword on the cover. It looks sooo cooool. On a more serious note, thank you for revealing how much a landscape can influence a character. Very useful.

  • Thank you David for that wonderfully written intro to A.J.’s and your and Macbeth. I must confess, not having delved greatly into the Shakespearean world, I had no idea Macbeth was a real bloke. So, I have learned something new today, Thank you. Looking forward to the book next week.

  • davidhewson

    Thanks for your kind comments. I’m up to my neck in writing The Killing right now so I’m afraid my answers must be brief….

    @Edmund. There’s something wrong with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Maybe a part of the play is missing. Maybe it got censored. We’ll never know. But the gaps are huge… and we try to fill them in our own way.

    @david I got really mad for the genuine Macbeth when that little girl in Inverness spoke about him as if he was Saddam Hussein with a kilt. But I have to be honest. We’re not trying to do Braveheart here, redressing history (very badly in Braveheart’s case). We’re trying to tell a damned good story, and the real Macbeth helped us there I think. So we’re as guilty as Shakespeare really….

    @cedunkley That defence of country idea only came to me in Scotland. The English don’t think that way naturally. We still believe patriotism is ‘the first defence of a rascal’

    @unicorn While AJ and I would, I’m sure, like to claim credit for the T there’s a smart graphic designer in Audible somewhere…

    @widdershins Shakespeare gets ignored too often because the language is difficult. But the stories are wonderful – fast, thrilling, utterly human. That’s what we were looking for here.

    Hope that helps. This was a wonderful experiment and I think as AJ has said – we’ve no idea whether people will love it or regard us as insane heretics. Personally I’m happy with either – so long as we get read. Or rather listened to in the first instance. I have to tell you I was in the studio in New Jersey when Alan Cumming started reading this. Our words. What an actor… my blood froze.

  • AJ and David – thank you for this post about the landscape and imagination. I’ve been having it born in on me how much landscape influences story. I grew up in New Hampshire – mountainous, cold, grey in the winter, a place where “too cold to snow” actually makes sense as a statement. I now live in LA. There are mountains here, but they might as well be from another planet, they bear such little resemblance to the mountains I grew up with. And when I sit down to write I find that the worlds in my head resemble my childhood landscape, not just physically, but emotionally. The stories that can happen organically in a northern, wooded world full of rivers, couldn’t possibly happen in the dry, rocky, dusty, scrub grown hills. Even if they did, they would be different – Romeo and Juliet in New England becomes Ethan Frome, not the Baz Luhrman movie version.

  • mudepoz

    Hey, I popped over to audible to use up my credits. Amazing, Macbeth was on the front page. It rotated with a James Patterson books. Kind of surreal.http://www.audible.com/mt/Macbeth

  • Thanks Mud. I hope you like it. Those ‘making of’ videos are pretty cool, huh?