Shakespeare's Timeless Tragedy Inspires a New Novel

15/06/2016 12:51

Macbeth, Macbeth. You cannot pronounce this in a level tone. It has internal intonation - creepy, deep, polyphonic. Just like the book it titles. Two Shakespeare academics, Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey, well-known for their unconventional and deep engagement with Shakespeare, have written a novel based on Shakespeare's Macbeth and inspired by Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. They have dived into the depths of Shakespeare's play wearing Dostoevskian lenses and emerged with a philosophical novel of their own that shines for its literary and linguistic quality.


The story begins where Macbeth ends but is neither a sequel nor a repetition. The atmospheric Scottish landscape becomes the throbbing wound of the story, the world of Shakespeare's play repeated with surprising originality. In the meanwhile, Tom de Freston's antic illustrations give a fairytale-like tremble to this novel.

The Porter is on the scene with his three sons, himself cutting a fine father Karamazov figure. A woman, Gruoch, is the pivot for the subsequent actions of all lead men involved in the novel, including Macduff. She is a cross between Lady Macbeth and Grushenka.

But perhaps the most explicit inspiration from the Russian masterpiece is Dostoevsky's 'Grand Inquisitor' scene alluded to with very effective contextual consequences. Macduff is the Inquisitor and Fyn, one of the twin boys, is the Christ figure whom Macduff conceives as Macbeth. On the plot level, it is an insight into Macduff's uneasy conscience and his reputation as the Baker in England; the scene also homes in on fundamental religious and existential paradoxes. Morality is revisited in Macduff's argument as to why people prefer to be fed than to be free, confronting the issues humanity has with freedom of moral choice and the forever timely mystery of the human need to cling to an idea or subject freedom to a religion. Macduff's triumphant "The time is free" after he kills Macbeth gains a new resurgence and a new meaning in the novel, exposing the cyclic nature of human ambition and vanity. And all is left for Scotland is to cover up her ravished wounds with a summer snow.

"How hateful that every human should be so at the centre of their own sorry universe; as though theirs was the only life that mattered; as though their paltry sin was exceptional."

The language is rich, exposed, and anatomical. Fernie and Palfrey seem to have reshuffled the English language into new collocations - unashamedly literal, raw, obscenely possible. New coinages turn up on pages characteristic of Shakespeare's own word-formation techniques - 'rat-arsed', 'un-ambitious', 'unburied', 'piss-yellow' - to name but a few.
It is the dialogues in the novel that are in the spirit of Dostoevsky, while the storytelling itself resounds with Shakespeare. The English tongue is bent and twisted with scandalous ease, climaxing into epileptic dialogues and releasing a frenzied texture of English words.

'But what if you are?'


'Truly - perfectly - recognized.'

'Even in your secrets?'

'Even in - even as.'

'Who could know such things? It is not for human hearts. It is for God alone. Or, or, it is demonic.'

'Precisely. Precisely! This world - all of this - ' and Fyn flicked at his sleeves and around the messy room - 'me, you, this pathetic vessel - it is not the thing at all. Not at all!'

On a parallel dimension, Macbeth, Macbeth, as well as Macbeth, is a tragedy of a woman with motherhood unhad. And this is in no way pushed to the edges in the novel. Fernie and Palfrey's created nunnery reminds of an idiosyncratic illumination in a medieval manuscript of a burning cauldron where nuns with shaven heads, who are all mothers who lost their sons, indulge in self-infliction, hoping to regain their virginity. A mute collective of weird sisters devoted to they know not what. The insight and impact derived from this part of the novel could not be exaggerated.

Similarly profound are the characters of Sod and Lulach who are one idea split into two characters. What the authors do with them goes beyond anything found in their sources of inspiration and well beyond the conventional portrayal of a holy fool. Almost randomly, Sod and Lulach are both the illegitimate sons of Macbeth but it is their relationship with the woman of the novel, Gruoch, that bears the most significance to the conundrum of the story. Lulach is Gruoch's lost boy; Sod is all at once the Thane of Ross, Sister Rose, and a goblin - Sod and then Sodomite. This baffling creature accounts for some of the most poignant, and embarrassing scenes in the novel. Like his poor vile body, Sod embodies the pathos of humanity with all its infinite beauty and vice, a weeping organ of the collective soul.

There is a tendency in some of modern day fiction when the author evades tackling complex scenarios in the story under the pretence of a purposeful stylistic technique. But there is a fine line between artfulness and art, between the sentimental shock effect that sadly defines some of modern art today and a genuinely paralysing intellectual and emotional impact. No such defects here. In other words, Macbeth, Macbeth is not a construction of a novel - it is an idea. And the language, much like the character of Sod, keeps regenerating. Fernie and Palfrey confront in the raw - with unblinking openness - complex feelings and give name to things silent, our darkest thoughts, fears, and desires, hardly dared outside our own intimate dialogues with our own selves.

"Oh, the ordinary man is a beastly thing!"

With the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Crime and Punishment overlapping this year - it is a beautiful time for such a novel. Macbeth, Macbeth is crying for a translation, and not only into Russian.