Macbeth, A Retelling for Young Readers

Macbeth, A Retelling for Young Readers

Macbeth has been retold for a children’s audience in the book, “The Young Reader’s Shakespeare, Macbeth, A Retelling by Adam McKeown” (96 pages), which captures the spirit of the original play, the plot, drama, characters, and some of the language.

Main Inspiration

​The storyline, drama, characters, and language from the original Shakespeare play seem to be the main inspiration for this book.  Some of these aspects ofMacbeth are incorporated fully and faithfully into this storybook for children.

The storyline follows quite accurately the sequence of events that develop in the original play.  This book begins in Chapter 1, which is directly from Act I, Scene 1, with the witches chanting on a lonely hilltop while encircling their cauldron.  They discuss their plans to meet with Macbeth and then disappear.  This book then proceeds in Chapter 2 to Act I, Scene 2 where the King learns of Macbeth’s victory in battle, and thus, gives Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor.  Chapter 3 retells Act I, Scene 3.  There are 33 short chapters in this book and each one for the most part retells each section of the original play, although not necessarily in a scene-per-chapter form, in a way that makes it very easy to follow the original plot.  This was not likely an easy feat, but is done very smoothly and efficiently.

The bloody dark drama of the tragedy of Macbeth was effectively and brilliantly enlivened in this book.  Events are animated and narrated wonderfully from beginning to end.  The reader is taken into the world of the play starting with the ominous witches setting up a scheme to provoke Macbeth into believing that he is the prophesized king, to the tension surrounding King Duncan’s murder at Macbeth’s castle, the absurdity in the Banquet Scene, to all of the action at the end of the play when Macbeth’s castle is charged by an army and he takes a final stand for his throne but is decapitated by Macduff.  McKeown uses descriptive and exciting language and a vivid imagination to replicate the excitement and the passion from the original play in an engaging storybook for children.

In this book the character development, and the tension and relationships between the characters are carefully and thoughtfully reconstructed.  Characters from the original play are immediately recognizable in this book and keep their original names.

Lady Macbeth, like in the original play, is ambitious and begins plotting for the throne as soon as she receives the letter from Macbeth early in the story, but she doubts whether his constitution is capable of carrying out what she imagines is necessary to achieve it.

Macbeth is afraid and conflicted throughout this story concerning the actions his wife is urging him to carry out.  He is comforted in a way by the fact that the witches seem to have a larger plan for him that is rooted in destiny.  He is internally motivated, however, by the idea of the being the King of Scotland, and the power and glory of that position.  Macbeth becomes addicted to the witches’ divine declarations.  By rebelling against his role as Thane of Cawdor and following his interpretation of what the witches have revealed to him, he spawns an incessant orgy of murder and civil destruction.

The relationship between the Macbeths is typical to the original play.  Lady Macbeth is the antagonist and for the most part, uses Macbeth as a tool, although he too is inclined, but to a lesser degree in the beginning, toward her rationale.  The power dynamic between the Macbeths is as contentious as it is in the play while they execute their strategy for the throne.  At the end of the story, as in the play, the Macbeths go their separate ways as they each deteriorate into insanity before their deaths.

King Duncan is gentle and kind, and very admiring of Macbeth.  His nature, as it does in the original play, increases Macbeth’s guilt, but this book also indicates that Macbeth thinks that Duncan may be deceptive.  For example, when Macbeth is given the title of Thane of Cawdor, it reads, “‘And now Macbeth,’ said Duncan.  ‘Everyone here has heard the stories by now, but the stories cannot do justice to the truth.  Listen.’  The crowd was silent.  ‘The man you called Thane of Glamis,’ said the King, ‘proved himself to be Scotland’s bravest champion, dismantling Macdonald’s army and beheading the traitor himself.  For this he returns to you bearing the title most coveted by the Scottish peers, Thane of Cawdor!’  ‘Hooray!’ shouted the crowd.  ‘Hail, Thane of Cawdor!’  ‘It is an honor I hope I can live up to,’ Macbeth said, but in his heart he was confused.  Hadn’t Duncan praised him as Scotland’s bravest champion?  Shouldn’t he then be the successor?  Perhaps the King was trying to build suspense.”  Then when Duncan pronounces his son, Malcolm, the successor to the throne, Macbeth is stunned and hates Duncan and Malcolm because he thinks that they are robbing him of what should be his.

Although this book does not include a significant number of actual lines from the original play, a sufficient number of lines are used in order to get a feel for Shakespearean language.  Since this book was written for children, this makes sense.  Segments of memorable language, not always verbatim, from the original play are placed within the narrative and dialogue created by McKeown.  For example, in Chapter 25 in this book, when Lady Macbeth is in a trance and trying to remove an imagined spot of blood from her hand, it reads (pieces from the original play are underlined), “Lady Macbeth finished rubbing the phantom spot on her palm and seemed for a moment satisfied.  But then she looked at her other hand.  ‘Here’s another,’ she said, and began to rub.  ‘And another.’  She was rubbing her hands, her wrists, her arms.  ‘And another.  Out, damned spot!  Out I say!’  She knelt and scoured her hands against the apron of her gown.  ‘Ha.  Hell is murky.  What are you afraid of, my lord?  You’re a soldier.  What?  Afraid of a little blood?  Why, who cares who sees it when no one has the power to punish us?’  The doctor wrote it all down.  Lady Macbeth examined her hands and smiled, as if they were clean.  ‘Yet who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him?’  The doctor scribbled, not believing what he heard and yet knowing, as everyone in Scotland did, that it was true.  As Lady Macbeth stared at her hands, her smile faded.  ‘Blood,’ she said.  Her voice became dark and husky.  ‘The Thane of Fife had a wife.  Where is she now?’

Significant Aspects that are Omitted/ Changed and Why

Significant aspects of the play that are omitted or changed are those that would perhaps appear to be inappropriate for children to experience.  For example, in Act I, Scene 7, when Lady Macbeth is ordering Macbeth to keep his promise to murder King Duncan because she would never break a promise to him, she says, “I have given suck, and know How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:  I would, while it was smiling in my face, Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums, And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you Have done to this.”  In Chapter 9 in this book, she does not say this in quite such graphic terms, and leaves out some of these words, “I have nursed a baby,” Lady Macbeth said, “and I would, even while it was smiling in my face, have dashed out its brains if I had sworn to do it, as you have sworn to do this!” Granted, there is no way to eliminate the horror of this statement, but it was reconstructed with children in mind to be less violent and obscene.

Significant aspects that are changed are some details that are embellished in order to create more clarity and understanding of the play for children.  For example, some of the dialogue is simplified by taking the Shakespearean language from the play and translating it into modern words and conversations that a child can relate to.  In this book, Adam McKeown adds details, such as dialogue and narrative that are not in the original play.  In so doing, the story is expanded and interpreted, and details are elaborated upon, which allows a younger reader a better appreciation and comprehension of Macbeth.  For example, when the Macbeths are planning for their banquet upon Macbeth becoming King, and Banquo is invited in Act III, Scene 1, and in Chapter 15 of this book, the dialogue and narrative is changed to the following.  “Party?” said Banquo glumly.  “Yes,” said Macbeth, “we are moving the royal court to Dunsinane, and we thought we would warm that venerable castle with a party.  At which I hoped you would be our chief guest.”  Dunsinane?  Banquo thought.  It was more of a bunker than a castle.  An old and ghastly block of limestone built on a hilltop centuries ago to repel Vikings, it had served the kings of Scotland as a last desperate refuge.  Hardly a place for a royal court—or a party.  “It should be grand,” said Banquo.

Still Shakespeare?  Why?  What is Shakespeare?

This book is still “Shakespeare” to the extent that some of the language is original and the plot structure of the play is faithfully adhered to.  As far as experiencing the essence of the play is concerned, this book does an admirable job for its intended audience, namely young readers.  Beyond that, there is no comparison.  Shakespeare’s works are considered to be the most influential in literature.  400 years after his death, his plays remain the sine qua non of writing.  Comparing McKeown’s book to the originalMacbeth is like comparing a Sunday school story to the King James Bible.

Shakespeare’s characters are among the most complex and fascinating ever created.  His plays have been staged more or less constantly around the world over the past four centuries.  No other author enjoys his universality.  Indeed his brilliance has transcended the theatre and helped form the basis of modern thought, i.e. how we look at the world and how we look at ourselves.  McKeown’s Macbeth is not a shadow of Shakespeare, it is more like the penumbra, but if it plants a seed of Shakespearean interest in young minds, which it should, then he has succeeded admirably in his task.

Macbeth, like all of Shakespeare plays, was attended by every strata of society, rich and poor, educated and illiterate.  The spectacle and the message resonated with everyone.  Perhaps the greatest testament to Shakespeare genius is that his plays are still as relevant today as they were four centuries ago.  McKeown’s lavishly illustrated and simplified version of Macbeth provides us with a valuable introduction to Shakespeare for children.

Because Shakespeare’s characters are so complex and fascinating, they are diminished proportionately to the amount of original text removed for an adaptation.  An illustration does not adequately compensate for character development.  Few directors edit Shakespeare.  They realize that any absence of the original text diminishes the production of Shakespeare.

Characters, as well as original language, are vital to Shakespeare’s plays.  Although McKeown has included passages in his book, we are still left bereft of some of the most engaging words and beautiful poetry ever written.

Adaptations are still Shakespeare when they are left virtually intact.  Other works are created in inspiration of Shakespeare, but do not compare to the original works of Shakespeare.  They are imitations.  If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, Shakespeare’s works are the most glorified in literature.



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