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.