Is this Shakespeare I see before me?
Well, yes and no.
Last week Macbeth, a Novel was published by Thomas & Mercer, a book I wrote with mystery writer David Hewson, first for audio, then for print. I am a Shakespearean academic, as well as a novelist, and am familiar with the looks I see on my scholarly colleagues' faces when I mention the project. Some are delighted, thrilled even; others border on the dismissive. But for many the flicker of thought through the eyes before it resolves into something more polite is clearly just why?
It's a fair question, and one I expect we'll see reappear from time to time in reviews. I mean, Shakespeare's words were pretty good the first time around. Why bother trying to reinvent a fast and elegant wheel?
Let me kill a couple of sacred cows right out of the gate. First, though I am a professor and dearly love the plays, this was not an attempt to proselytize The Bard. David and I never set out to forge a kind of entry-level drug, hooking people with a thrilling tale of bloodshed and witchcraft so that they may one day (God help them) graduate to reading Titus Andronicus from facsimiles of the 1623 folio. Nor was it an effort to "translate" (whatever that means) the original into something more approachable, a sugared pill which would somehow get whatever it is we value about Shakespeare into our readers.
Our initial goals were simpler, more modest. Here's this great story, we thought, full of larger than life characters, political intrigue, love, murder and assorted terrible decisions. Let's steal it!
Of course, it wasn't that easy. Shakespeare lives in his words, so to divest those words from the story leaves a kind of airy nothing, a void which has to be shaped and filled. It is, frankly, daunting. How do a couple of present day writers recreate one of the seminal texts of English literature in a new generic form and, more importantly, a new language?
Because for all my love of Shakespeare's words, I know many people (most?) find them off-putting. I tell people I'm a Shakespeare professor and I see the rising panic in their eyes, or the latent boredom, or the no-less damning reverence at the mention of the Blessed Bard. Novelists, after all, especially thriller writers, can't do much with reverence. It gets in the way of the story.
So our first real decision was to find a voice for the project. How would this story, dotted as it is with quotable lines and familiar figures, rematerialize into a novel which would grip its readers because of who its characters were and what they were doing, feeling, thinking, rather than hoping to stir up suitably respectful memories from high school? We wanted to set the story in an early medieval Scotland but we also wanted it to feel urgent and real, populated by characters we could connect with and understand.
The result is, I think, modern without being so absolutely contemporary that it becomes ordinary. We wanted to retain a little of the scale of the original, of its gravitas, while keeping it absolutely readable and immediate. We set out to do, in other words, what a good production on stage does, making the characters feel human because they are clearly embodied by thinking, feeling people, rather than being the verbal abstractions they can sometimes turn into in the school room. Finding this voice liberated the project, allowed us to interpret, adapt, construct and alter the original, so that the result is both a telling of Shakespeare's story in a new idiom but is also something else entirely. Something with roots in the familiar, but finally quite new.
Not everyone will like it, but then not everyone liked Shakespeare in his day either. In the intervening four centuries our ears have, for the most part, dulled to his raw invention, his savagery, his bawdy, his sense of contemporary politics. As a culture we have enshrined him and his plays, a process which, at least for some, tends to gild the original into irrelevance, so that it will take a particularly gifted teacher, dynamic production, or sensitive critic to rediscover what it was we valued about the work in the first place. You shouldn't have to blow the dust off art before it can sing to you. It should reach out and grab you, and make you feel. It should fill you with joy and terror and the sense of something happening to you right now as you experience the story.
David and I found a story of patriotism and duty, ambition, lust, fear and a maelstrom of human feeling as rich and savage as the landscape on which it takes place. For some readers it will be an aberration, even a violation, though it's not like our version will ever replace the original, so that doesn't worry me. People who would rather read Shakespeare's play can always do so. We're okay with that. Others who would no more read a Shakespeare play than go to the moon will find something in our telling they would otherwise have missed entirely. Still others will find a place in their heads and hearts for both the original and our reimagining of it, and we're okay with that too. That last group, the ones who will hear echoes of the original in our retelling, who will see where we've deviated from Shakespeare's story to find a new angle, a new edge, are, perhaps, closest to our hearts. They are, after all, people like us.
Is this Shakespeare I see before me?