Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Ex-addict cop Macbeth in a grey town: Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been a fairly up and down ride (which I’ve been reviewing my way through). Some of the modern novelisations of Shakespeare’s plays have worked better than others, as might be predicted. With Macbeth, Jo Nesbo goes for a direct approach. From the title (unlike the others in the series, this new version isn’t renamed) to the plot, this is recognisably Macbeth. The title character is updated to an ex-drug addict cop in a town beset by two major gangs, corruption, and drugs, in a relationship with Lady, the proprietress of one of the town’s two casinos. As expected, it doesn’t take long after a bloody drug bust for Macbeth to see a chance to rise rapidly up the ranks. Whatever it takes.

Macbeth as a gritty crime thriller perhaps isn’t all that surprising. One notable element is the lack of the supernatural: in Shakespeare’s play, the otherworldliness is one of the most memorable elements, from the weird sisters to visions that could be madness or magic. In Nesbo’s version, Hecate is a crime boss and visions come from drugs and trauma. Macbeth isn’t so much caught up in fate as caught up in the world of gangs and police corruption, where promises are made and broken and allegiances quickly cast off. Some will be disappointed in this grittier focus, but it foregrounds the fact that it only takes a few suggestions of potential power to push Macbeth forward, even without the showmanship of the supernatural.

The large cast of characters are woven together as questions of who is a traitor to who run throughout the novel. This element feels very Shakespearean; it is, like with many of Shakespeare’s plays (and indeed as with many crime novels), easy to forget who is who to begin with. Macbeth has an extended past with Duff, giving the novel a central relationship that is far more powerful than Macbeth’s with Lady (Macbeth), who in this version seems downplayed.

Nesbo has created a solid rewrite of Macbeth, placing the titular figure’s ambitious and bloody story amidst a grim drug-stricken landscape. Perhaps impressively, one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays becomes a long novel. Sometimes it drags, but a lot of the time the length is to follow conventions of the crime genre: following numerous characters through set ups, personal problems, and remembrances of their tormented pasts. Using a specific genre gives this addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series a sense of purpose, a reason for existing that highlights how the original play is similar and different to a crime story.

Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn

King Lear the dark comedy: Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn

Dunbar is a modern retelling of King Lear in which Henry Dunbar, a Canadian media mogul, finds himself battling two of his daughters after they get him confined to a care home in the Lake District whilst they take over his company. At the same time, his youngest daughter Florence, who he recently removed from the company due to her lack of interest in his business, is on a mission with some of his other former allies to find and save her father before her scheming half-sisters succeed in their plan.

The novel is St Aubyn’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which aims to retell Shakespeare’s stories in novels by bestselling modern writers. The series has been a varied one, and Dunbar is another instalment with its hits and misses. King Lear is a fairly obvious choice for a business-related retelling and this world of Murdoch-esque media empires strikes a modern chord whilst giving Dunbar a questionable morality even in the face of the more overt amorality of his eldest daughters.

One of the main issues with the novel is the fact that the plot line—old man wrongfully imprisoned in care home and escapes, whilst daughters battle for power and deal with their own personal issues—is more darkly comic than tragic. This retelling takes the ridiculousness of Lear with its infamous Fool and dashing about in the dark and doesn’t quite make it feel more than the narrative of a dark comedy drama (there is also a similarity to one of the plot lines in Cloud Atlas). Even keeping somewhat to the ending of King Lear, the novel’s ending does not feel tragic, particularly as Florence, the Cordelia figure, isn’t really given enough space to be anyone (though the same could be thought about Cordelia).

This isn’t to say that Dunbar can’t be an enjoyable read. The transformation of Lear’s Fool into Peter Walker, alcoholic TV comedian who Dunbar befriends in the care home, is a good choice, and the way his storyline gets bolstered by some of Gloucester’s from the original text adds nastiness to Abigail and Megan, St Aubyn’s Goneril and Regan. Indeed the earlier parts, with Dunbar and Peter’s strangely witty conversations and references to Freud are a clever opening and more enjoyable than Lear’s discussions with the Fool in the play.

Dunbar turns King Lear into a dark caper for the most part, and whilst this might make it more enjoyable for people who don’t enjoy the tragedy of Lear, it is a retelling that has definitely chosen some elements of the original over others in a specific way. In this context, the exaggerated villainy of the modern counterparts to Goneril and Regan makes them almost comic bad guys, sometimes too busy having sex to keep an eye on their plotting, and Dunbar is not so much caught out in a storm than rambling around the Lake District. There’s no reason why King Lear shouldn’t be turned into this kind of story, of course, and Dunbar is a decent novel, but it doesn’t really say or do anything interesting with Lear beyond highlighting elements of ridicule.

[See my reviews of other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series here.]

Shakespeare Continually Retold

I love a modern retelling of Shakespeare. They can be insightful, thought-provoking, or just damn fun. For 23rd April—Shakespeare’s deathday/possible birthday and World Book Night in the UK—I’ve gathered together my thoughts on the current (and upcoming!) Hogarth Shakespeare series of modern novel retellings of his plays.

  • The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson – A transatlantic, slightly alternate universe version of our modern world in which The Winter’s Tale unfolds as a story still full of jealousy, grief, and discovery. The complex relationship between Leo, his wife MiMi, and his best friend/ex-lover Xeno is a highlight, turning a strange plot device in Shakespeare into an interesting look at three characters falling apart. The book that really sparked my interest in the series (read my full review here).
  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson – Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice is a little different to the rest of the series in that instead of updating Shylock fully, he parallels the sixteenth century character with a modern version, the art dealer and father Simon Strulovitch. The backdrop is rich side of Manchester and the updated plot line is quite impressive, but the merging Shylock’s world with Strulovitch’s and the writing style of the novel make for a dense read.
  • Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – In my original review, I said that this book wasn’t necessary because 10 Things I Hate About You exists. I stand by this statement, though more because I found the message of Vinegar Girl confused rather than ambiguous and its ending downheartening without illuminating on Shakespeare’s ending than because I think the enjoyable teen film is a work of genius. You might enjoy it. I didn’t.
  • Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood – There is something endearing about the way that Atwood takes Prospero’s slightly flimsy plot for making his enemies see their bad deeds and turns it into an equally flimsy plot in which Felix tries to show the injustice done to him through a performance done by the inmates he has been teaching The Tempest to. The in-jokes about the existence of Shakespeare’s plays in these modern worlds really reaches its peak, with Shakespeare as a double meta-narrative. Read more in my review here.
  • New Boy by Tracy Chevalier – New Boy isn’t out until May, but I highly recommend you grab it when it is. Othello is retold in a tense and claustrophobic day in a 1970s Washington schoolyard, as new boy Osei finds himself out of place in the entirely white school. The strange timeline and irrational jealousies of Othello find themselves a good home in this novel, where intensity is heightened because this schoolyard is the world for most of these students. I review it in more detail here.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

Othello retold through schoolyard drama: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier


New Boy is the latest book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello with the action transported to a schoolyard in 1970s Washington. Osei is the new boy and the only black kid in a suburban school. He meets Dee, Ian, Mimi, Casper, and Blanca and the stage is set for a first day unlike others. These sixth graders are the big fish in a small pond and their dramas are fast-paced, with relationships and arguments made and broken between lessons. Chevalier uses this setting to make her novel a tense exposition of jealousy, anger, and race, showing how Othello’s themes do not only defy time, but also age.

The book is structured around a single day, with the weird sense of time matching Shakespeare’s strange timeline in Othello and making the novel seem like a play, with far more limited movement of place than in the original text. The characters are bound by the edges of the school grounds, making a claustrophobic setting that cannot contain Osei’s eventual anger or Ian’s manipulation. The presence of the teachers on the edges is similar to the officials and outsiders in Othello who appear but are never able to halt the action. In the case of New Boy, the teachers’ implied and overt racism and uncertainty about how to deal with Osei’s presence actively encourage the pupils in some ways, like Brabantio’s initial opinions of Othello in the play.

Shakespeare’s characters are mapped pretty straightforwardly onto their playground equivalents, though Chevalier is able through the form to give them greater internal lives and backstories, particularly the girls. Dee’s desire for something exciting explains her sudden interest in more worldly Osei, who has lived around the world and whose older sister has given him an awareness of Black Power and other political movements. Ian’s quest for power over fellow students and his desire for self-control are clear, manifesting themselves in his manipulative actions when interfering with schoolyard activities and his anger at his own failings. The stand out character is Mimi, an uncertain girl prone to headaches who, uncomfortable with Ian’s attention, helps him out and later regrets it. She is Shakespeare’s Emilia given more of a chance to have thoughts and emotions about Ian’s actions and about her friend Dee.

The narrative too is obviously that of Othello, with details changed yet the stakes still feeling high. From the vivid picture of childhood jealousies and fears that Chevalier paints, it is easy to be drawn into the world and feel that the reputations and relationships at stake are real to the characters, not just childish preoccupations but how they see their place in the world. Some scenes are clear updates of Shakespearean ones, for example when Mimi re-plaits Dee’s hair whilst they sing along to ‘Killing Me Softly’ and talking about how confusing boys are. This scene is Shakespeare’s made into a 1970s image of two white girls singing along to a song sung by a black woman, not fully aware with how this intersects with exactly what is going on that day.

As part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, New Boy is fairly typical – updating character names, mentioning Shakespeare and his plays in a casual way, changing plot points but giving them the same tension in the narrative as the original – but it is the way in which Chevalier creates a claustrophobic world of childhood jealousy and mistrust set within the larger adult world that makes the novel stand out. It isn’t news that the racism, jealousy, and power struggles in Othello have not lost their relevance four hundred years later, but in New Boy it is glaringly obvious that such issues can be incited to escalation in all kinds of environments. The tragedy of Othello becomes both the tragedy of one dramatic schoolyard in 1970s Washington and the tragedy of how Othello just cannot seem to lose its societal comparisons.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Brave New World, Brave Old Questions: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood


What does it mean to adapt Shakespeare? Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a take on The Tempest titled after an insulting name for Caliban, asks this question, with knowledge that it is a old question without an easy answer. When discussing previous novels in the series, I have pointed out how many reworkings of Shakespeare there have been and how these end up inevitably compared with each other. Hag-Seed is open to comparison for sure.

For starters, comparisons with the Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows are beyond obvious. Hag-Seed is also set in the world of Shakespeare festivals, breakdowns, and life imitating art. In both, actors and directors fail to see the divide between the play and the world, inhabiting a certain famous line of Shakespeare’s. Reworking Shakespeare often requires this sense that Shakespeare’s world can easily bleed into ours, as is required in Atwood’s novel to engage the inmate actors.

Hag-Seed also focuses upon the use of Shakespeare in prison rehabilitation, a subject discussed both academically and in theatrical productions like the Donmar’s current trilogy (which also uses The Tempest). However, in Hag-Seed the rehabilitation is more focused upon the central character of Felix than the prisoners who, while important, do not learn as much as the grief and revenge stricken man who teaches and directs them.

Atwood’s method of combining performance of The Tempest with a man who – delusional or not – sees himself as a version of Prospero creates a metanarrative about trying to fit Shakespeare to particular purposes that ultimately ends up more ambivalent than perhaps to be expected. It is true that the plot concludes in keeping with the ending of The Tempest, but the play is also something that must be broken away from, with Felix needing to relinquish his version of his dead daughter Miranda. The actors imagine afterlives for their characters, performing more reworkings suggesting how Shakespeare can be full of possibility.

The novel is both enjoyable and at moments a touching look at grief, but also feels in some ways to be a comment on the Hogarth series: full of literary references winking to those in the know, but also questioning the usefulness of projecting Shakespeare onto everything. A late written play that questions genre and all-mighty authorial power, The Tempest can be both a strange and an engaging play. Like The Tempest, Hag-Seed questions what comes before it but also uses these tropes and expectations. Felix’s plot involving the play may seem contrived, but it has to work, because it works in The Tempest.

Vinegar Girl, Vinegar Taste


The problem with writing a modern American-set version of The Taming of the Shrew is that 10 Things I Hate About You exists. For anyone, myself included, who grew up with that film, with its lightly sprinkled references and liberally changed plot, it is perhaps difficult to read another version without comparing. Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is another book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which I am broadly for (loved The Gap of Time, medium on Shylock Is My Name because I didn’t get along with the writing style). It moves The Taming of the Shrew to America, makes Kate’s father a scientist trying to arrange a marriage in order to keep his beloved research assistant in the country.

Although relevant to the source material, I didn’t feel Kate had enough character. Her sense of wasting her life thus far was apparent, but her textbook vague crush on the one guy in her workplace was pointless. Her eventual husband Pyotr was ambivalently dealt with, a guy trying to get on in a foreign country but also prone to fits of anger. Kate’s younger sister Bunny was the character I found most engaging: warning her sister off the scheme, rebelling against her dad, and constantly referred to as stupid by the other characters. Obviously, she has intelligence they don’t understand, as blunt and logical scientific thought comes up against other ways of thinking.

Kate’s choices weren’t totally nonsensical. She wanted to first help her father, who she mostly looked after, and then get out of his house to try and start a fresh chapter in her life. To follow the play, she has to commit to the wedding even when the need to keep Pyotr in the country is under threat, but it was hard not to root for her to just up and leave, both the wedding and her father’s house. The required ending speech was a bit forced and something that men’s rights’ activists might appreciate: her pity for the difficulties men faced seemed a bit too apparent in other points in the novel, as she realised how much they had to hold in their feelings, for the speech to seem particularly ironic.

Vinegar Girl was, for me, close to the original but without doing anything particularly interesting when updating it. The ending, whilst it gave Kate the freedom and second chance at college that she wanted, left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Going back to college and achieving success required her to marry a guy with anger management issues. Sure, things can be tough for men too, but what Vinegar Girl suggested was that women should bend to them because of this. And there was no Letters to Cleo playing ‘I Want You To Want Me’ at the end, either.