Thursday, July 5, 2018

Macbeth as Summer Reading: No, Not That One!

Having taught high school seniors for many years, I can't even count how many times I have read Shakespeare's great tragedy Macbeth. Far too many of the lines trip off my tongue from simple repeated exposure. Yet I never tired of it.  Like most of the Bard's plays, too, I find so many connections to current events, politics, popular culture.

Jo Nesbo, known for his dark Scandinavian thrillers has taken the story, the characters, plot, and even some of the lines, setting the story in the late 1990s in a Scottish town that has lost is main industry, resulting in a boom in crime and drug trafficking.  At odds with law enforcement are Hecate, a local drug lord who has created his own narcotic product known as "Brew," and his main competition Sweno, the head of a drug trafficking motorcycle gang.

Macbeth is the head of SWAT, working for police commissioner Duncan. His (common law) wife, known as Lady runs the most exclusive casino in town, the Inverness. Duff, his colleague is especially intent on stopping Sweno, giving the impression of ambition.

Nesbo builds the backstory, with Macbeth having met Duff after both boys landed in an orphanage after losing their parents. Banquo, an older policeman, had taken Macbeth into his own home, like a son, even before he and his wife have their own son Fleance.

Anyone familiar with Shakespeare's tragedy knows the basic plot, but will still find the way the story unwinds fascinating. It's worth noting that even when the play was new, the audience at the Globe knew the basic story before it even began, even though the playwright took liberties with the accounts in Hollinshed's Chronicles. Shakespeare's real talent was not so much plot as characterization and theme. Nesbo develops many of the same threads: meaning (or meaninglessness) of life, loyalty, ambition--and the ongoing question: Can people really change?

As I read, I realized that readers who don't know a thing about the play on which it was based can read this novel as the suspense thriller it is. The dramatic irony as one reads, anticipating but dreading the inevitable, creates a perfect summer reading experience.

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