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Jo Nesbø’s ‘Macbeth’ a Gritty Take on a Classic

4 Stars

Macbeth Cover
Courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group

“Perhaps it was the town’s climate that made the decay visible or perhaps it was imagination; perhaps it was just the certainty of bankruptcy and ruin that made the silent, dead factories stand there…” Thus is the unnamed town in which Jo Nesbø sets his novel adaptation—a part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series—of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Nesbø’s Macbeth looks to gain power as Police Chief Commissioner and is influenced by his girlfriend Lady, who owns the upscale casino in town. Macbeth must overpower a drug addiction, skeptical police officers, an angry biker gang, a failing town, and a rich drug overlord in his quest for power. “Macbeth” is a page-turner, complete with an ominous atmosphere and action scenes galore, but ironically, the scenes that most closely evoke Shakespeare’s original fall flat.

Nesbø has an extensive list of characters to recast in his modern story. Hecate, the queen of witches in the original text, appears as the drug overlord who holds much of the town in his grips due to the addictive power of his drug, brew. Duncan is the town’s newest Police Chief Commissioner. Macduff is Macbeth’s childhood friend and fellow police officer. The three witches who tell Macbeth and Banquo the prophecy in the original are prostitutes who work for Hecate. The list goes on, but Nesbø makes these characters shine by giving them a backstory that Shakespeare couldn’t provide within the confines of five theatrical acts. Entangled backstories connect Duff and Macbeth from their childhood to the present day, love affairs that complicate the power dynamics, and politics that influence the characters' decisions. The fullness of Nesbø’s characters bolsters Shakespeare’s work, strengthening a story that has already weathered the test of time.

Although at its core Nesbø’s “Macbeth” is a crime novel, the author is not afraid to deepen the plot past the mystery. Perhaps in a nod to Shakespeare’s ability to include so much into his plays, Nesbø ensures that his novel is more than a crime adaptation of Shakespeare’s characters. The greed for power is integral to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and Nesbø complicates this theme by adding the component of addiction. Not only are many townspeople attached to brew, but Macbeth himself is partially driven mad by his need. Hecate even concocts a special recipe, which Nesbø has not-so-subtly dubs “power” that gets Macbeth hooked. His girlfriend runs a casino and “the addicted [are] Lady’s bread and butter.” Nesbø thus uses this idea of addiction to enhance Shakespeare’s warning about the dangers of being power-hungry.

In a paradoxical twist, “Macbeth” falters when Nesbø most directly references Shakespeare. Ending the chapter with Macbeth telling Banquo he has to kill Malcom “for my crown prince, Fleance,” the language feels out of place: It’s odd for a power-hungry police officer to refer to a nearly 20-year-old man as his “crown prince.” Macbeth’s famous “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy, which takes place once Macbeth has been told of Lady Macbeth’s death, is repurposed as Lady’s suicide note in Nesbø’s adaptation. However, Nesbø changes the wording liberally, making it feel like a mere summary of Shakespeare’s original: “The days crawl in the mud, and in the end all they have accomplished is to kill the sun again and bring all men closer to death.” Nesbø misses the opportunity to include the powerful concluding lines of this soliloquy that have inspired authors like William Faulkner and Kurt Vonnegut. Here, Nesbø’s version does little to further the plot and feels forced, as though he knew a reference to the soliloquy was required but didn’t care much to integrate it.

There are many clever and subtle ways in which Nesbø draws the play and his narrative together, which for a watchful eye make the story that much more enjoyable. However, the most obvious references to the original work are the ones that feel the most forced.


—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at caroline.tew@thecrimson.com. Follow her on twitter at @caroline_tew

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