William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play whose plot is propelled by various murders/deaths done out of greed, fear and revenge. It explores the nature of various types of murder and the results that each brings. This essay will look at two attempts to find meaning in a rather destructive play. The first look is at Alan Sinfield’s essay, “Macbeth: History, Ideology and Intellectuals.” Sinfield’s Marxist approach to Macbeth, however, is a play, a story to be experienced, not to be merely read and examined. So, then, how are these multiple deaths interpreted when experienced in a more oral form? The second part of this essay addresses this, looking at reader response in a unique way, through the adaptation of Macbeth for children. The first adaptation is a traditional picture book, soliciting images to help interpret this tale. The second adaptation is for “stage” and has examples of children’s actual responses to the play. What is revealed in both adaptations by the authors/illustrator in their portrayal of the various killings is their unconscious judgement of what is an appropriate murder.
As mentioned at the start of this essay, Macbeth is violent play. There are narratives of slayings that are gloriously gruesome and horrifyingly bloody. As Sinfield pointed out, some of these are approved of, others are not. So, then, to adapt such a vicious tale for children, the distressing nature of murder must be managed in a clear and non-troubling style. Two adaptations of Macbeth that take on this challenge are Bruce Coville’s and Gary Kelly’s William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Lois Burdett’s Macbeth For Kids. The Coville/Kelly, (children’s writer/illustrator, respectively), adaptation is a large picture book that relies on both prose narration and pictures to convey the story in the 32-page format of a picture book. It is meant to be read aloud, with adult guidance.
Burdett’s adaptation is a teaching tool developed by Burdett, a Canadian educator. She has rewritten the play in rhyming couplets for her students to perform, then given them assignments asking them to express how they feel or imagine the characters feel about the events occurring in the play. Included in the small book with Burdett’s adaptation are the student responses to the play. There are two types of reader response occurring in both books. In the Coville/Kelly book, you have an adult writer and an adult illustrator responding to the text, making judgements, and translating it into what they deem as acceptable for children-one with words, the other without. Burdett’s adaptation, like the Coville/Kelly book, is also an interpretation of the text, but included are the non-censured responses of the children (spelling errors included).
The adaptations must deal with and relate the six death scenes of the Macbeth. The death given the least amount of significance in both these adaptations is that of the traitor Macdonald. Shakespeare relates Macbeth “unseam(ing Macdonald) from the nave to th’chaps / And fix(ing) his head upon (the) battlements” (1.2.22-23). This is the first inkling readers have to what kind of man Macbeth is. Instead of presenting a Macbeth whose sword “smoked with bloody execution,” the adaptations simply have King Duncan pronounce the Thane of Cawdor’s death. This presents a Macbeth that is neither bloodthirsty nor vicious. And, in a sense, Macdonald never dies at all.
The first murder is the political murder of King Duncan, who represents many things. Duncan is a father of two sons, a patriarchal figure for all of Scotland and also the cousin of Macbeth. His murder becomes all forms of parricide. In all of the Macbeth tales, Duncan’s murder is the most anticipated and dramatic of the murders. It is not like the deaths of Macdonald, (done in battle), Banquo, (done in secret), or those of Fife, (done in a fit of anger). It is calculated, fully discussed and cold-blooded.
Lady Macbeth, while discussing the act and nature of murder with Macbeth, confesses to being able to kill her own children. Later, she reveals she would not be able to kill her father, or someone who looks like him. There is an implication of dependency on her part. Macbeth, on the other hand, is worried more about being caught than the morality surrounding the act of murder. He is a practiced killer, after all. The adaptations follow this build up drama quite closely, but deviate in the reactions to the murder.
While the discovery of the King’s murder brings the appropriate responses from the other characters, the focus is quickly shifted to Macbeth’s seemingly rash killing of the guards. The reader/audience has been privy to the planning of the murder, but the other characters have yet to discover Macbeth’s true nature. The guards themselves are inconsequential because they are unseen characters, but also because there is the implied understanding if the King dies while you guard him your life is forfeited.
Coville and Burdett deal with the murder of the guards in slightly different ways. Coville uses this opportunity to build the character of Macduff by giving him the ability to see through Macbeth:
Macduff eyed him with suspicion, but asked no further questions. There was too much to be done. The men agreed to dress quickly, then meet again in the courtyard.
But the king’s sons hung behind. Like Macduff, they sensed that it was not the guards who had committed the crime. (WSM)
Macduff zeros in on Macbeth as the guilty party and Donalbain and Malcolm are sided with Macduff. Teams are being drawn up. Burdett, however, keeps more closely to Shakespeare by shifting the focus off Macbeth through the action of Lady Macbeth’s swooning. This event is followed by the escape of King Duncan’s sons as merely an act of self-preservation.
The illustrations for these scenes are also quite different. Kelly shows the body of the King almost as if he were sleeping, except for the blood trickling down his arm and the table tipped over. Donalbain and Malcolm are hardly discernible in the gathering on the stairs. Burdett’s classroom children, however, go for the blood. It drips off the daggers (pp. 27,28) and down the King’s chest and onto the bed (p33). Their letters are from characters tormented by the death of the King. Donalbain and Malcolm almost look as if they are shouting in fear to one another and their letters to one another convey a panic not found in the texts of Shakespeare, Burdett or Coville. It is very clear that the children are imaging what it would be like to lose a father and fear for their lives.
Banquo’s murder is another political murder. He is a rival and a soldier, but also a loyal friend. Where Duncan’s murder was an example of treachery towards kin, Banquo’s murder is akin to murdering a spouse, or acquired love. It is all the more insidious because it is impersonal and is hired out with no regret or anguish. There is a hint as to where Shakespeare is going to take Macbeth’s character. Macbeth comments briefly on the defiling of his mind, a foreshadowing of the madness that will visit Macbeth. Again, later when Lady Macbeth is sleepwalking, Macbeth and the Doctor have the following conversation, which reinforces the idea of madness afflicting not only Lady Macbeth, but Macbeth as well, (emphasis mine):
MACBETH How does your patient, doctor?
DOCTOR Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.
MACBETH Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
DOCTOR Therein the patient
Must minister to himself. (5.3.38-48)
This is the madness brought on by power and greed that infected both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Macbeth is fully aware of what he has done and the repercussions of his actions. He is not evil so much as he was afflicted with a sickness: an idea that is not accepted or used in the modern adaptations.
The adaptations bring in the idea of a corrupt soul. Macbeth wonders if his soul is “stained” (MFK) or if he has “sold” (WSM) it. It is the morality of murder that is becoming an issue, but not just a type of murder-all murder. Burdett goes so far as to state this in her introduction: “…[It] reveals the depth of the children’s understanding of the character and the inherent morality of the play itself” (MFK). And at the end of the play is a collection of morals written by her classroom children.
Banquo’s ghost, for Shakespeare, was a means of showing guilt and madness. Coville, Kelly and Burdett, however, use the moment to show, not only the darkness of Macbeth’s soul, but also the very murder of his soul. There is a concept of evil associated with the soul of Macbeth in these adaptations that is not found in Shakespeare. Coville and Kelly go a little further and show Scotland as suffering from this darkness as well, as if the very land was possessed.
The most important of the murders are those of Lady Macduff, her children and the servants of Fife, because they are the most innocent and defenseless of all the characters. The family is likened to chicks: cute, fluffy, fragile and defenseless, while Macbeth is a predatory kite. This act becomes both the turning point in the plot and the impetus for the decision of the characters opposing Macbeth to not just end Macbeth’s reign, but to kill him. Before this moment, Macbeth was a tyrant and not opposed. After this moment, the remaining characters are able to unify and fight Macbeth. All the major murders, Duncan, Banquo and those of Fife, have one thing in common: they are all survived by someone-Fleance, Malcolm, Donalbain and Macduff-who is in a position to exact revenge. Of these four, only Macduff is granted the right of retribution. Malcolm, whose title was usurped, will be the new king at the end of the play, but Macduff will be the one to bring Macbeth down. It is the memory of his wife and children that drive him to find Macbeth and ultimately kill him out of revenge.
This murder is also the most dangerous one in an adaptation because it would be the easiest one for children to relate to. Kelly does not illustrate it and Coville, in one paragraph, describes it as a “slaughter” and tells the reader that Macduff grieves. Burdett’s classroom children illustrate the murders in a newspaper article, but there is no illustration of this act. Macduff is shown crying and there is a diary entry. Burdett writes of the “little ones dear” and Macduff’s grief is not merely stated but expressed with tears and declarations of a broken heart. This is the only murder that brings about this kind of reaction. And in both adaptations Macduff’s revenge as the driving force behind his desire to fight Macbeth is avoided. Instead, they rely on the magic of the witches and the fable-like predictions of Macbeth’s downfall and death. It isn’t really Macduff that kills Macbeth, but Fate and magic. Macduff can only be represented as a good man with no blackness in his heart.
While the Burdett and Coville adaptations present the multiple murders, they deal less with the realities of murder and it’s many aspects, than with the morality of murder itself. Tied up in this morality is the idea of a soul, a core or foundation, that is bad through and through. Murder is presented as purely an evil act committed by a man with an evil soul so that finally, it is easier to present this story as having black and white issues with purely good and evil people.
The book jacket of Coville’s adaptation describes Macbeth as “a tormented man who is at once heroic and evil,” but neither adaptation can allow Macbeth to be that complex. He must, in the end, be simply a “villainous tyrant” driven by greed.