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‘All Our Yesterdays’ Review: If Macbeth Were Boring

2 Stars

Cover of "All Our Yesterdays" by Joel H. Morris.
Cover of "All Our Yesterdays" by Joel H. Morris. By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Hannah E. Gadway, Crimson Staff Writer

Joel H. Morris’s newest book, “All Our Yesterdays,” adds yet another narrative to the long history of Shakespeare retellings. “All Our Yesterdays” is set ten years before the plot of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The work hones in on the perspectives of Lady Macbeth and her son from before her marriage to Macbeth, exploring what led to the story that readers know so well today.

The book definitely approaches the familiar plot with a new angle, but in a novel all about embracing the feminine narrative, Lady Macbeth feels oddly boxed into her role as a mother and wife. Her relationship with her son becomes the central arc of the novel, and the reader never truly gets to know the Lady herself. While “All Our Yesterdays” is well done on a line-by-line level, on a larger scale, it lacks the freshness that an adaptation needs.

“All Our Yesterdays” could do with a little more show and a little less tell. Repeatedly, characters are defined by their reported characteristics instead of their actual actions. Lady Macbeth is said to be cunning by other characters throughout the book, but she never displays these clever ways. On the contrary, all that she seems to do is watch over her son and pace back and forth within Macbeth’s castle. Macbeth also suffers this treatment — while Lady Macbeth often rants to herself about his gentle ways and kindness, we only get tiny glimpses into these characteristics within the action of the book. The lack of characterization leaves the players in “All Our Yesterdays” quite flat.

The character’s lack of agency and development reflects the book’s overall problem with pacing and plot. Most of “All Our Yesterdays” takes place within the reflections of Lady Macbeth and her son. Besides Lady Macbeth marrying Macbeth at the beginning of the book, not much action actually occurs. The story instead follows the boy’s growth and Lady Macbeth’s growing concerns about his safety. The reader is left waiting for a story that they already know to unfold, instead of being invested in what’s on the page in front of them. Even if the book is meant to be an intimate portrait of a mother and her son, this attempt comes off as ill-formed. These two characters are never even named — instead, they are called the lady and the boy. While the plot’s momentum ramps up in the last twenty-five pages of the book, “All Our Yesterdays” lacks substantial content.

On a more granular level, the prose of “All Our Yesterdays” is touching and filled with an appreciation for the small details of life. Morris expertly weaves vignettes of Lady Macbeth’s prophesized future throughout the narrative, making the linguistic expectations established in the early chapters pay off down the road. The book does not falter when it comes to describing what is happening — but the novel’s lack of narrative ambition may make readers feel disappointed that Morris did not allow himself to play with his words on a bigger scale.

“All Our Yesterdays” is plagued by the inevitable comparison that one must draw between the book and Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Shakespeare’s 17th-century work painted a multi-faceted picture of femininity that reveled in women’s ability to shape the world — from the three witches’ prophecies to Lady Macbeth’s political machinations. Somehow, despite putting Lady Macbeth at the center of the narrative, Morris’s novel makes her appear passively trapped within her destiny and power dynamics instead of emboldened and enraged by them. The book obviously has a lot of passion behind it, but its goals feel somewhat muddled.

In a way, “All Our Yesterdays” reflects a larger problem with the state of adaptation — often, authors needlessly desire to directly attach themselves to older works, even if their new contribution feels almost unrelated to the original. The themes of “All Our Yesterdays” — motherhood, destiny, and fear — are tangentially related to “Macbeth,” but the book would probably explore them better if it stood on its own foundation instead of Shakespeare’s. The novel can’t help but leave the impression that it is simply another submission to the long line of adaptations that seem to only exist for adaptation’s sake.

—Staff writer Hannah E. Gadway can be reached at

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