When Professor Ewan Fernie of The Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham and Professor Simon Palfrey of the University of Oxford met over a decade ago, they each had established reputations as Shakespeare critics, but they each also wanted to go deeper into the passionate experience of reading and responding to the plays than formal literary criticism permits. They decided to try to find a way to open up the black heart of Shakespeare’s most soul-shaking tragedy, Macbeth. They take up the story as follows.
‘We began working on the project with a very simple desire. We wanted to get inside Macbeth's murder chamber - something Shakespeare never allows. This meant imagining what it would be like to be Macbeth, captured in the act. We wanted to possess the terrible passions of the play - even to be possessed by them - rather than to pretend to master or explain them. How else to touch the play’s intense moral life? How else to enter and suffer its wounds? Inevitably this meant identifying with terrors and temptations in a way that critical writing almost never does. Of course any actor playing Macbeth or Lady Macbeth has to do this as a matter of course. Perhaps we could learn from that. Perhaps we could write something with the emotional directness and the ethical fearlessness of the best performances of the play.
But we also wanted to enter the consequences beyond Shakespeare's tortured protagonists, to enter the pain of the victims; to recover their experience, their voices. It was a political as much as a sympathetic ambition.
At first we had no idea how even to attempt our goals. We tried various ways in, but they all felt stilted and fake, unlikely to embody anything like the human variety and spiritual pathos of Macbeth. We knew that a great gift of the imagination, such as Shakespeare's, had to be received imaginatively. But what written form could a really imaginative response take? How could we make something that might speak to the adventure of passionate literary responsiveness, and encourage it in others?
The breakthrough came when we were talking, as we often did in the first days of our friendship, about the books or music that had meant most to us when growing up. It turned out that at 16 or 17 we were reading very much the same things, albeit on different sides of the world. One of these writers, no doubt typically for hungry young minds, was Dostoevsky. It occurred to us that Macbeth shares the same basic structure as The Brothers Karamazov, pivoting on a primal act of parricide. And we realized that the four sons of Karamazov - the errant sensualist, the atheist intellectual, the apprentice saint, and the bastard in the shadows - uncannily evoked different aspects of Shakespeare's anti-hero. What if we had a story in which each one of these sons, in their own awful way, proceeded to repeat the tragedy of Macbeth? We would write a sequel that was also a multi-pronged repetition, at once a tale in its own right and a critical reflection upon Shakespeare’s original.
But in our story, again taking our cue from Dostoevsky, the temptation wouldn’t be a crown, but a woman: one whose possession might prove to each man how truly exceptional he was. Dostoevsky’s femme fatale, Grushenka, became our heroine, Gruoch (the Queen’s name in Shakespeare’s own source). Of course, true to our wish to enter the lives of those damaged by war and atrocity, she is not so easily possessed. She has her own longing, and her own resistance to the claims of men. And she too re-suffers the temptations of Shakespeare’s dark originals.
The challenge was daunting and exciting – to set foot in Macbeth, into its scorched and turbulent consequences, to risk making a whole new world in its image!
That, at any rate, is what we tried to do. Whether we succeeded or not is for our readers to say.
Macbeth, Macbeth is published by Bloomsbury. It features original illustrations by Tom de Freston. Fernie, Palfrey and de Freston present Macbeth, Macbeth at the Hay Festival on 1 June.
Homepage image courtesy of Tom de Freston.