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With only a month to go to publication of my most anticipated book of the year, Jo Nesbo’s modern retelling of Macbeth (!!!), I thought it time to reacquaint myself with the plot. Not by reading the Bard, because I am a firm believer that Shakespeare in the original is to be seen, not read. Instead, I picked up Macbeth: A Novel, an impulse buy at the Bloody Scotland Crime Festival, some 4 years ago.

Now I won’t reacquaint you with the plot, because I assume that every one of you has a better memory than me. What I will say is that the authors stick closely to the spirit of the original, but use description, characterisation and interpretation enabled by the novel form to great visual and emotional effect. For example, the opening

Shakespeare Act 1 Scene 1 Thunder and Lightning. Enter three witches.

Hartley and Hewson:  A Scottish autumn as bleak and bitter as the grave. Rain smears the gray sky. Lightning cracks, thunder shrieks over the drenched fells of the Great Glen. A skinny, tall shape, a girl, young, yet not young, crawls through the bracken ……

Maybe you like your witches as old hags, in which case you’ll like the other two more, but let me tell you this “young” girl with a tattoo is the leader of the pack and as duplicitous a minx as you could wish her to be.

In remoulding Macbeth into a novel, the authors didn’t wish to “slavishly retranslate” Shakespeare’s plot into a modern format and idiom, they wanted to create something new. To do that they have inserted a subplot about the battles that Macbeth and Banquo were fighting at the beginning of the play, and a victory over the Viking king, Sueno, in which mekilwort (belladonna) gives the Scottish forces a crucial advantage. It’s an addition that foreshadows the use of the same plant in the drugging of Duncan’s guards.  Finding the berries spawns Banquo’s initial suspicions, which in turn leads to Macbeth’s perfidious assassination of his most loyal friend. The details might not be exactly as in Shakespeare but they are very satisfying in a novelistic sense.

I was never convinced by the wracked consciences of the two Macbeths – the change always seemed too sudden. but that might be because in Shakespeare, the murder of Duncan and his guards are off stage. In this novel, they are most definitely on the page and difficult. There is embellishment here, but the scenes are realistic in their horror, bloody in their detail and you simply can’t walk away from performing such actions unscathed, unless you are a psychopath. Hartley and Hewson are at pains to show that isn’t the case with either Macbeth or his lady. In fact, they are sympathetic to both. The authors’ afterword states:

More importantly, we decided to like the Macbeths, not to excuse their actions, but to try to explain them, to afford them an inner life that went beyond what the play could tell us, and then to watch them make a series of bad choices that escalate until they are dragging tragedy at their heels.

This is not how I saw the Macbeths beforehand, and I’m not entirely sure I do so now. I did, however, enjoy this new view through a different lens. So much so that I immediately googled to see if any other Shakespearian play had been given the Hartley and Hewson treatment. There was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel though only in ebook format. (A real shame that, because the Thomas and Mercer paperback with its moleskin-feel cover is a delight!) Not to worry. I downloaded the ebook, started it immediately and only the lateness of the hour prevented me devouring it in one sitting! Absolutely unprecedented for an ebook.

Now, a word about Hamlet. I’ve never read it. Never seen it performed. Was not acquainted with the plot and didn’t google it before starting. I knew vaguely that it was about some batty prince wandering the battlements with a skull in his hand soliloquising about injustice and that his girlfriend, Ophelia, drowned. I was, therefore, completely unprepared for the tale of treachery and woe that unfurled, and I was utterly mesmerised.

I may have slightly misrepresented the Bard’s play with my ill-informed synopsis above, but I do understand that it is full of bleating, belly-aching soliloquies by the title character. And, but only after reading the novel’s afterword, that the world-renowned Yorick appears only as a skull; his extinguished self being the one that Hamlet knew well. In the novel, however, Yorick’s son, Yorick junior is the court clown and Hamlet’s irreverent confidante. This invention enables the novelists to transform all those soliloquies into fast-paced, oft-times witty dialogues, during which time I became inordinately fond of Yorick Jnr. Which didn’t blind me to the fact that some of his stunts were simply unexplainable, until the final reveal, an authorly sleight-of hand that I found quite inspired, and which made me fundamentally reassess my picture of Hamlet.

Up-to-that point the presence of Yorick Jnr made Hamlet appear less eccentric and less indecisive than his reputation. For starters, he’s not talking to himself. At others he appears to be a man of action. And yet, he has no peer to confide in. Relations with Ophelia are strained, and not just because she is being played by her evil father. There’s some juice in this modern update that I can only suspect isn’t in Shakespeare (although perhaps I shouldn’t make that assumption).

This is a vivid, incredibly successful reimagining of Shakespeare’s tale. My only worry is that I might have enjoyed it too much, because I have little inclination to watch the original, knowing that Yorick Jnr (and associated humour?) will be missing.  I remain open to persuasion though. Over to you. Who has played the seminal Hamlet and is the performance available on DVD?

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