It can sometimes be difficult to turn youths onto the works of Shakespeare, which is understanding given that even adults struggle to read Elizabethan English. For this reason, it is nice to see publishers like Spark Notes/No Fear Shakespeare try to make these classic works accessible to youths, such as they did with a graphic novelization of Macbeth (or ‘the Scottish play’ for those who are superstitious). Though Shakespeare’s purists would likely see this work as a bastardization of the original text, especially given that it is abridged and uses modern English, the language, coupled with the images, makes that narrative much easier to follow for younger readers. By doing this, it allows youths to go to the source material and navigate the original text more easily as they are already familiar with the narrative. The work, though, does not capitalize on the opportunity effective, primarily because the art work, though adequate, does not bring the work to life as well as it could have. That said, some of the themes still come through, most notably the feminist themes. The play also has interesting parallels with contemporary politics and employs some interesting ecocritical metaphors.
The artist who illustrated the play is Ken Hoshine, and though his work is not bad, neither is it particularly great, or perhaps even worse, unique. The illustrations look rushed and lack an engaging vision of the play. In terms of style, the images look bland and give the reader the impression that the artist was likely doing a work for hire and simply wasn’t passionate about the project. This is reinforced by the fact that the jacket notes that the book is Hoshine’s “first major venture into the graphic novel world” (193). For a work this ambitious, the publishers likely should have commissioned an artist with more experience in the genre. With so many engaging styles and approaches to graph work, be it traditional North American comic books, or the more stylized work of artists like Frank Miller, there are any number of styles that could have been more effective. It would have been curious, for instance, to see Macbeth told through the sharp and dramatic lines often featured in manga comics. Hoshine and Spark Notes failed to capitalize on this project and instead of creating some iconic images, offer characters that seem unemotional and drab.
Though the work is abridged, the role of Lady Macbeth still serves to challenge the stereotype of subservient women. Lady Macbeth, in many instances, seem to embody masculine characteristics that are utterly lacking in her husband. When Macbeth proves reluctant to chase after the crown of Scotland, Lady Macbeth puts the ‘fighting spirit’ in her husband, as she aims to “pour… into [Macbeth’s] ear, and with [her] brave words… [and] drive away everything that stands between [Macbeth] and the golden crown” (30). This challenges the subservient stereotype projected onto women by patriarchal society as Lady Macbeth questions the masculinity of her husband and offers to give him some of her own masculine spirit to compensate. She tells Macbeth that he wishes “to see that act done but are too afraid to commit it (30), and reinforces this ‘emasculating’ fear when she asks her husband if he is too “afraid to be the same man in action as [he] are in [his] desires” (39). Lady Macbeth seems a kindred spirit with Spartan women who expected their husband to fight bravely and challenges her husband to fulfill his role by suggesting his fear is a symptom effeminacy.
Whilst this emasculation of Macbeth can be read in a feminist light that suggests that Lady Macbeth better encapsulates masculine characteristics than does Macbeth, thereby subverting gender roles, it could also be read as a reinforcement the misogynistic mentality that women are to blame for the fall of man. Macbeth promotes a loyalty to the king great than the loyalty he has for his wife, a trait that is common in the homosocial relationships in Elizabethan plays. When Lady Macbeth prescribes murder, Macbeth claims that they “can’t go on with this plan” because “the king has just honored [him], and [he has] earned the good opinion of all sorts of people”, concluding that these “glories should be worn now while they are fresh, not tossed away so soon” (39). Macbeth then goes onto state that he hopes “to do only what is proper for a man to do” and that “He who dares to do more is no man at all” (40). This is akin the Milton’s Paradise Lost where the angel tells Adam not to reach beyond his station, only to see Adam end up doing so under the influence of Eve. Like Adam, Macbeth’s fall can be blamed on Lady Macbeth for spurring him to commit homicide. This parallel is reinforced by the fact that Lady Macbeth is linked with the poison apple offered by Eve to Adam when she calls upon ‘murderous thoughts’ to “Come to [her] woman’s breast and turn [her] milk into poison” (31). The vice up for critique seems to be ambition as Lady Macbeth claims that wickedness should accompany ambition (30), and it was likewise ambition that spurred Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge.
Reading Macbeth through a feminist lens makes the work interesting from a contemporary perspective, but the work also seems prophetic in the context of contemporary politics as well, especially in the context conflicts in the Middle East. Banquo, when discussing the prophecy of the witches, notes that “agents of evil often tell us partial truths to lead us to our destruction” (21). This certainly seems consistent American approach to the ‘war on terror’ where the government gains support by giving the public partial information, for instance claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but not revealing the questionable nature of the ‘intelligence’. It is also noted in the play that “on Earth, doing evil is often praised, while doing good is often regarded a stupid and dangerous foolishness” (142). This likewise is prevalent in contemporary politics. Whilst America’s aggressive imperialist offensives are framed as justifiable pre-emptive strikes and the tens of thousands of innocent people who have been killed are labeled as ‘collateral damage’, people who try to expose the corruption of government, like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, are vilified for speaking the truth. Likewise, environmentalists are often dismissed and ignored while policies that facilitate big business’s abuse of the environment protect the wealthy instead of the environment.
The cycle of violence that has resulted in terrorist organizations like ISIS (not to be confused with Isis) is also an issue present in Macbeth as Macbeth notes that the “tombs and graves will return our dead” (106), much like the ideologies associated with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have re-emerged in the form of groups like ISIS. This is linked to Lady Macbeth’s observations that it is “Safer to be the thing destroyed than the destroyer whose joy is wracked by anxiety” (89). This is the symptom of imperialism. Every country that is invaded or occupied is sure to generate an insurgency, so to ‘conquer’ or ‘colonize’ a country is to foster enemies and create anxiety for one’s own nation. After using Afghanistan as a battle ground in in the 1980’s, America created a generation of enemies culminating in the 9/11 attacks. Now, a 14-year war in Afghanistan and an almost equally long conflict in Iraq has created similar antagonists like ISIS who, through fear mongering, have created a startling level of national and international anxiety. Japan, who lost WWII and, as Lady Macbeth says, was ‘destroyed’, suffered far less anxiety in the post-WWII era than America as American rebuilt the country, turning Japan into an economic juggernaut. American, meanwhile, sat in the fear of nuclear annihilation in the grips of the cold war. The play certainly engages with contemporary politics as well as it would have engaged with politics at the time of its original performance because, sadly, little has changed since then.
As is the case with much of Shakespeare’s writing, the work also engages is ecological metaphors to enhance his poetic language, validating the authority of nature. When a messenger is regaling the king with stories from the front, he is asked if the opposing forces frightened Macbeth on the battlefield. The herald replied: “As much as sparrows frighten eagles, or rabbits frighten lions” (7). In order to express the bravery and strength of Macbeth, the herald relies on a simile borrowed from nature, drawing on the hierarchies within nature. This comes across later in the play as well when Lady Macduff notes that “Even the poor wren, the smallest of birds will fight against the owl when it threatens the young ones in her nest” (137). In this passage Lady Macduff also employs an ecological metaphor that illuminates the kind bravery that humanity should exude by documenting the bravery present in nature. What makes this metaphor especially empowering from an ecological perspective is the fact the human realm seems to be lacking the bravery that is present in the natural realm, demonstrating that humanity lacks what is present in nature and ought to simulate the natural realm. Though not a significant part of the narrative, the ecological language is present and does enhance the reading.
Outisde of Titus Andronicus, Macbeth is likely my favorite play by Shakespeare, and as a fan of graphic novels, I was extremely excited when I first came upon the work; however, the work is ultimately disappointing for a number of reasons. I simply do not see a passion in art work, which appeared more rushed piece of work for hire than an artistic expression. I forgive the work for being a ‘modern English’ version of the play, as I understand the spirit of the work is to introduce youths to Shakespeare’s masterful storytelling, but at the same time, I believe that the publishers could have done a better job of capitalizing on the graphic novel genre to bring this story to life. The spirit of the narrative is still present, and it is easy to read, but with the style of Shakespeare’s original text diluted by this works modernization of the language, and a lack of style in the art work, it simply isn’t representative of the beauty of the story. Hopefully the upcoming film production starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard will be more fulfilling, and perhaps they might even correct Shakespeare’s biggest mistake: letting Lady Macbeth, the play’s most interesting character, die as a side note off stage.
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