“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.”

I chose the above quote to open this little jotting of my thoughts about Jo Nesbo’s retelling of one of my favourite plays because it is a reworking of one of the best-known quotes from Shakespeare’s play, and it summarises a number of issues I had with Nesbo’s offering.

BE AWARE that there are SPOILERS ahead for both the play and Nesbo’s book.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

William Shakespeare – Macbeth (Act V, Scene 5)

The first issue I had was that Nesbo and I apparently read different plays. Well, I thought, that is fine. After all, the whole point of the Hogarth project is to experience how different authors understand the original material and how they would work the timeless concepts of the plays into new material.

The trouble is, for me at least, while I recognised many of the proposed re-workings, the underlying point of the reworked material was changed, and in some cases this change somewhat destroyed the original point made in Shakespeare’s play. (For clarity, I’ll keep referring to Macbeth as “Shakespeare’s” play even tho the version familiar to modern readers is likely to include material from other playwrights such as Thomas Middleton.)

So, when I look at the first quote above, which seems to be about loneliness rather than the futility of life (as proposed by the original play) I start to wonder whether the re-interpretation makes sense. And to me it doesn’t.

Sure, by the time the quote appears in the text, Macbeth is all alone in his endeavours. However, since he is talking to another character as part of an ongoing conversation (and receives an answer), the reworked statement doesn’t really work as a deep truth.

This was not the only time that the re-imagined story butchers the original ideas of the play – there are too many to mention – but this is the most famous scene, so I am focusing on that one.

The characters, too, were altered. Some laughably so. The reimagined Lady Macbeth irked me most. First of, Nesbo only calls the character Lady, therefore positioning her without any kinship to either Macbeth or anyone else. Sure, this makes it easier to see her as a selfish, detached character, but it also denies her the fundamental conflict of conscience between her aspirations and her undeniable humanity, a conflict that is very much at the heart of the play. Referring to her as Lady only also denies her the role and position of wife, which adds to the complexity of the play but which is completely taken away in the re-telling.

When Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth talks about what she would sacrifice if she had made promises such as Macbeth had, she talks about the hypothesis. It’s a thought experiment as much as it is a piece of persuasion.

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 pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

William Shakespeare – Macbeth (Act I, Scene 7)

I suppose, it is what some of the existential philosophers of the 20th century would refer to as an experience that has to be made to know how it will influence the person making it. When we meet Lady Macbeth in the play, she may have known loss (we don’t know what happened to the child), but she’s not (as far as the text reveals) actually killed anyone.

When Nesbo’s “Lady” relates to the scene, this is presented as fact. It is no longer in the subjunctive, no longer a thought experiment. Lady has had the experience, and it has been a long time since the event.

Her words were unreasonable but still hit home. ‘You know that’s not how it is,’ he said in desperation. ‘So how can’t you keep the promise you made to me, Macbeth?’ He gulped. Searched feverishly for words. ‘I … Can you say you keep all your promises?’ ‘Me? Me?’ She emitted a piercing laugh of astonishment. ‘To keep a promise to myself I wrenched my suckling child from my breast and smashed its head against a wall. So how could I break a promise to you, my only beloved?’

Jo Nesbo – Macbeth (p. 103)

Given this, it then makes no sense to me that the act that follows, should have the effect on Nesbo’s Lady that it has.

In the original play, consequences of the actual act of killing is something that Lady Macbeth can’t live with because she either overestimated her ability to “unsex” herself and deny her innate compassion and remorse, or she underestimated how difficult and unnatural it is for her to kill.

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’ 

William Shakespeare – Macbeth (Act I, Scene 5)

In Nesbo’s book, we are supposed to believe that killing Duncan has a more devastating effect on Lady than killing her own child. (Or are we supposed to believe that one triggers a buried remorse over the earlier event? I don’t know. To be fair I had lost track and interest by the time we get to it.) We are also supposed to believe that Lady following a descent into a severe depression is able to simply “snap out” of it to help Macbeth with day-to-day business dealings.

‘Darling, I’ve had a long and interesting conversation with one of our Supreme Court judges today. Capitol has few or no sanctions, provided that the measures Kenneth introduced don’t conflict with federal laws.

Jo Nesbo – Macbeth (p. 366)

Lady’s character just did not work for me at all.

Nor did Macbeth’s actually, but I was less irked about his portrayal than about Lady’s … or the witches. (There really are too many to list here.) What I found entirely laughable, however, was that Nesbo felt it was necessary to explain Macbeth’s character at the end of the book by telling us about his horrible childhood. Why did we need this? Apart from being yet another deviation and simplification of the original character, there is something very “tropey” and ridiculous in the attempt to explain an evil or violent character by relating back to childhood trauma.

Which brings me to my last main issue with Nesbo’s book: whatever ideas were included from the original play – butchered or otherwise – they have been entirely dumbed down. Seriously, this book was so shallow that I at some pooint stopped reading it as the retelling of Macbeth that it was advertised as and tried to read it as a plain crime thriller about a corrupt police force. I hoped that this would at least salvage some of the reading experience for me.

It did not.

Of all of the things that really don’t work for me, the absolute worst is that Nesbo managed to make this story absolutely mind-numbingly boring. It’s like an action movie that is all car chases and gun fights … without much else. What character development there is so shallow, it’s stupid. Apart from Lady and Macbeth, most of the other characters seemed entirely lifeless. Also, the portrayal of the story as a 1970s drama based on a corrupt police force is just … lazy. It doesn’t even rise to a good 1970s police drama. All the way through this, I have been much reminded how well-written Val McDermid’s early Karen Pirie novels are. They are also full of the atmosphere and local colour of her stories’ settings. This was another thing that was entirely absent from Macbeth.

Instead of atmosphere and character we were presented with an abundance of violence.

And you know what? Usually, I am put off by descriptions of violence, but in this case the descriptions of horribleness didn’t work for me for reasons other than the depictions blood, guts, and gore.
It didn’t work for me because was almost no context to it and there was so much of it that it was laughable. I.e. the descriptions of horribleness kinda lost any sense of terror and revulsion they would evoke when reading a book that was written well. Instead, in this book they just became a lame excuse to throw in more of the same violence.
Again, it made the book incredibly boring.

That is all. 512 pages of incredible boredom brought on by repetitive descriptions of violence and dialogue that I at some point felt could be reduced to:

“Tell me where he is or I’ll shoot you.”
“Is that so? Ok, then, shoot me.”
“What? Didn’t you hear me? I will shoot you.”
“Uhu, I heard. Go on then.”

It was like an endless loop of pointlessness.

I’m sure Nesbo tried to depict some sort of nihilism in this as well as a cycle of corruption that cannot be broken by changing out the players, but to me this two-line summary of the book was fluffed up by 512 endless pages of the most underwhelming action scenes I have ever read.