Review | Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

A brave, if not entirely successful adaptation. 3/5 stars.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Thank you to Random House UK and Netgalley for giving me an e-copy of this book.

The blurb: He’s the best cop they’ve got.

When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess.

He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past.

He’s rewarded for his success. Power. Money. Respect. They’re all within reach.

But a man like him won’t get to the top.

Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel. He’s convinced he won’t get what is rightfully his.

Unless he kills for it.

My take:

Last year I read Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a reimagining of The Tempest. This was my introduction to the Hogarth Shakespeare project for which several well-known authors have been invited to write adaptations of some of  Shakespeare’s stories. When I saw Nesbø had written a version of Macbeth I thought it was a brilliant choice. He’s enjoyed great success writing dark stories and only an author good at wrangling darkness could successfully take on the Scottish play.

Like The Tempest, I also studied Macbeth at school, so I went into Nesbø’s adaption with fore-knowledge of what was going to happen. I’ll come back to whether this was a good thing or not later in my review.

There is a lot in Nesbø’s reimagining which is ingenious. How the characters and events of Shakepeare’s play are transposed into a 1970s’ police noir is clever and well thought-out. I was particularly impressed with how the author managed to incorporate the supernatural elements of the play into a realistic genre.

However, while I thought the novel was good, it wasn’t great. Firstly, one of the best things about Shakepeare’s Macbeth is its terrific economy. It’s one of his shortest plays, something which keeps the action rocketing along and holds audience interest. In contrast, Nesbø’s Macbeth comes in at just over 500 pages and several times I felt events were dragging along unnecessarily. But this may have a silver lining: the length of Nesbø’s story is the main reason I think readers who have no prior knowledge of the events of Shakespeare’s Macbeth may actual enjoy this retelling more because they won’t be waiting for certain events to occur; they won’t be wondering when on earth we’re going to get to the next big moment because they won’t see them coming.

Also, while Nesbø trying to pay homage to some of the original Shakespearean dialogue was a nice touch, I’m not convinced it worked when the characters were otherwise speaking naturally in modern-day English. In fact, the dialogue felt a little clunky in places.

Macbeth is a tragedy and, in performance, works or not depending on whether the actor playing Macbeth can make us feel sympathy for him before he starts committing foul deeds. We have to believe he was a basically good man who had potential to be a great one, but that circumstances and weakness led him down the path to evil. I didn’t get this sense with Nesbø’s Macbeth. In fact, I didn’t feel much sympathy for any of the characters and so wasn’t too bothered when things started to turn towards the tragic.

Finally, Shakespeare could write black and grim, but he also knew the value of a funny bit with a dog. While Shakespeare’s Macbeth is bloody and dark, it also contains one of the funniest scenes the Bard ever wrote, because Shakespeare wants to gives his audience a break from the unrelenting horror or the story. This comic relief, or even a glimpse of levity, was sorely lacking in Nesbo’s version which is unrelentingly grim from top to bottom.

Overall: if you’re after a jet-black story, don’t know or remember much of the original version and are a fan of Nesbø’s writing, I’d give this a go. Otherwise, read the original!

Claire Huston / Art and Soul



14 thoughts on “Review | Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

    • Thank you! I see other readers have been very harsh, which I think is unfair. He’s done his best and even the bits which fail are interesting. Plus I’d never take on adapting Shakespeare – I’d be terrified!


    • Thank you 🙂 I think he was a great choice because it would be difficult for anyone to write a modern Macbeth but he has a good go at it. It doesn’t entirely work, but he had some good ideas and made some bold choices which I give him a lot of credit for. It can’t be easy taking on Shakespeare!

      Liked by 2 people

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