Novelists have often borrowed templates of Shakespeare’s work to create contemporary stories of their own, though not many are willing or possess the skills to overtly novelize a Shakespeare play. But A. J. Hartley and David Hewson have dozens of bestselling novels between them, written in nearly as many genres, and with Hartley’s background as a Shakespeare scholar, who better than these two writers to succeed at such a bold undertaking?
From the very first page of Macbeth: A Novel I realized Hartley and Hewson hadn’t just written a padded translation of the play but a fully realized novel, lush in tone and language, rich in imagery. Perhaps more importantly, they have transformed Shakespeare’s characters from vessels for ideas to human beings—sentient and crackling with passion and blood. It is not an easy task to breathe new and nuanced complications into characters that have existed for readers and audiences for centuries, but the authors succeed brilliantly. They have rendered Macbeth’s entire cast more sympathetic by affording them inner lives, making clear their motivations, and allowing us to feel their intentions, desires, doubts, and the ultimate pain of their demise. The story becomes more character driven, though the intense and clever plot is never far behind, which makes Macbeth: A Novel the perfect page-turner.
As a writer myself, I’m particularly sensitive to the nuance of speech, and I half expected to find the novel’s dialogue forced, copied over from the play, where it is meant to be spoken by live actors. But the dialogue not only remains true to the play, it is woven into the novel as if it had been written only for that purpose. For example, this original line by Macbeth: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more / Returning were as tedious as go o’er,” in the novel becomes, “I am so far steeped in blood that if I chose to wade no further, then returning would be as bloody as to proceed.” Zing! The authors achieve these perfect translations, one after the other.
I’m guessing fans of Shakespeare will come to the novel with their own set of skepticisms, perhaps questioning the fidelity to the original play. But as the authors point out in their authors’ notes, Shakespeare himself drew from other sources to evoke higher truths, with most of his plays based on real life events and people. The original Macbeth is not a historical account of eleventh century Scotland, even if it is often interpreted as such. In truth, the play is a depiction of humanity set against the backdrop of Scotland, a story that reaches across time and space with its themes of greed, tragedy, morality, power, death, war, and love.
Macbeth: A Novel repurposes an age-old tale to portray secrets within secrets, leading to tragedies based on misunderstandings, missed opportunities, and perhaps, above all, vulnerabilities. Good people with the best intentions give in to desires and greed and then try to right all their wrongs by stumbling over their own mistakes. In the novel, Lady Macbeth becomes a complicated, nuanced, fully realized woman, her hand forced in many ways, life and death decisions based on her own pain, and on the deep love she has for her husband and country. The novel brings vision and nuance where none had existed, due to the limitations of playwriting. The novelists use introspection to reveal the depth of motivations behind the Macbeths, and in turn shine a fairer light so that we understand how the couple came to make that first fatal mistake and how they privately endured their sins begetting misery, begetting more misery, until death became their only escape.
Filmmaker Tim Burton comes to mind, the way he adapts classic tales by layering them in raucous bands of an even darker, twisted skin. Hartley and Hewson have done the same here with their sensual and vulgar witches, bloodthirsty wars, and highly charged sex scenes. But perhaps most of all, they have succeeded in depicting the intense and mysterious love between husband and wife, as fickle as patriotism in all its wonder, glory, and misfortune. Gentlemen, take a bow.