This is the latest of the Hogarth Shakespeare series which has contemporary authors retelling the Bard’s plays. I’ve read all of Nesbø’s Harry Hole novels, and in my 30-year career as an English teacher, I taught Macbeth numerous times. My conclusion: pairing Jo Nesbø with Shakespeare’s Macbeth was an inspired choice.
Nesbø sets his crime novel in the 1970s in an economically depressed, deindustrialized town. Macbeth is the head of the SWAT team; he answers to Duncan, the newly appointed police commissioner. Other members of the police force include Banquo, another member of the SWAT team; Inspector Duff, head of the Narcotics Unit; and Caithness, head of the Forensics Unit. Duncan is trying to clean up the corruption that has been rampant in the force and to take down Hecate, the local drug kingpin. Macbeth’s lover is Lady, a local casino magnate; she helps convince Macbeth that he should kill Duncan and become the chief commissioner himself. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy will be familiar with the rest of the plot to which this novel remains fairly faithful.
It is obvious that Nesbø has studied the play quite closely. For example, in his version, he incorporates Shakespeare’s clothing imagery (an ambitious man’s shoes always creak “because he always buys shoes too big for him” and Macbeth’s new uniform “rubbed against his skin and gave him the shivers”), animal imagery (Lady’s “pupils twitch, and this reminded him of something. Frogspawn. A tadpole trying to break free from a sticky egg”), and blood imagery (Lady has “full red lips” and “flame-red hair” and “long red nails” and favours red wine and red dresses). Like Shakespeare, Nesbø uses dramatic irony: Macbeth says, “You’ll be the death of me, Lady, do you know that?” Pathetic fallacy is used: it is almost always overcast and raining and sometimes the weather is described as “hellish.” Even soliloquies are adapted; Shakespeare’s Macbeth describes life as “a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing” (V, v, 26-28) and Nesbø’s Macbeth says, “Perhaps we’re just detached sentences in an eternal chaotic babble in which everyone talks and no one listens, and our worst premonition finally turns out to be correct: you are alone. All alone.”
What is largely missing is the comic relief found in Shakespeare’s play, though there is a nod to the Porter’s speech about alcohol causing “a colourful nose, sleep and pissing” and a humourous nod to Shakespeare’s dramas in the description of “the expensive national theatre with its pompous plays, incomprehensible dialogue and megalomaniac kings who die in the last act”. Nesbø’s Macbeth is a dark, brutal and bloody saga.
I appreciated that Nesbø tried to explain some ambiguous statements found in the play. For instance, Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “I have given suck, and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;/ I would, while it was smiling in my face,/ Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums/ And dashed the brains out” (I, v, 55-59). Nesbø gives an explanation for this child. He also examines Lady’s background which helps explain her ambitions for herself and her consort.
There are some missteps, however. “Brew” is a powerful drug prepared in a large container by Strega (the Italian word for witch) and her two sisters, too obviously evoking the three Weird Sisters and a cauldron. Later, Macbeth is introduced to an even more potent drug than Brew which Hecate calls “Power.” This metaphor is a tad heavy-handed. Accepting that Macbeth would bring home that shoebox and what it contains requires too much suspension of disbelief. And though Shakespeare does perhaps suggest a Satanic element to the character of Seyton, Nesbø’s portrayal is over the top.
It is the portrayal of Duff which is outstanding. In Shakespeare’s play, MacDuff is an upright man who acts mostly in the background. In Nesbø’s prose version, Duff is more morally ambiguous. He too is ambitious and has a desire for recognition. He is also described as a “selfish, arrogant bastard” and “the most selfish person I’ve ever met.” He dominates in several scenes; there is even an extended section showing his escape after the slaughter of his family, a massacre made even more poignant because of its timing. Duff ends up serving as Macbeth’s foil: as Macbeth devolves, Duff evolves.
This novel can be read without the reader having any knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, but a familiarity with the drama will increase the reader’s appreciation of what Nesbø has accomplished. He has touched on all the major themes found in the Bard’s work, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I still found the book a compelling read.
There have been many film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth; I can well imagine a film version of Nesbø’s novel which is an excellent example of the crime noir genre.