Book Review: Macbeth (with Graphic Novels)

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When I was in high school (maybe on my way to college) I received one of those memorable gifts. I have received many memorable gifts. (Gifts is one of my love languages after all (along with service and then, I suppose, quality time.) For me, a memorable gift is often more than you expected and makes you feel understood. My leather-bound, gold-edged Complete Shakespeare—from my aunt—was one such gift. It also goes to show you what sort of teenager I was and how little has actually changed. I have not read all of the plays (like some that look more boring; yeah, I’m talking to you Richard II and Richard III). But I have read many, some more than once, and the poetry. (My favorite, like any good fan of Sense and Sensibility, is 116.)

Well, Macbeth is not my favorite Shakespeare play, but I chose it because A) it’s one of the few Shakespeare plays that gets read regularly at the high school level and B) I am teaching five 14-16 year old males and I thought Macbeth’s gore and existential/moral darkness might interest them (especially as opposed to Romeo and Juliet). As a bonus, we were able to discuss “manhood” at just about every turn and boy was I glad when we finally got to ol’ MacDuff when he says sure, he’ll seek revenge like a man, but not until after he feels some gol-darn emotions and mourns like a man. (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have one seriously messed-up idea-web of what it means to be a man, which plays out real toxic-like in their marriage.) Anyhoo…

First, let me say, the boys didn’t hate reading Macbeth. They were really intimdated at first, but when they caught on in class discussions they were interested in both the story and characters. They didn’t hate learning about Elizabethan theater or Shakespeare, either, but they weren’t as interesting as a murderous basket-case and his murderous basket-case wife. Which I might want to explain, in case you are not a Shakespeare buff. (Also note that on my book spine staircase, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare has a stair.) Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known, well-read, and oft-performed tragedies. (It is considered the “cursed play,” so some superstitious folk call it “The Scottish Play,” at least in theaters.) In this tragedy, we meet Macbeth, who looks like the hero straight-off but it won’t stay that way for long. He’s a Scottish thane (lord) and a general/war hero. Three witches (aka. The Weird Sisters) give him a prophecy out of the evilness of their hearts: he is the Thane of Cawdor, he will be King of Scotland, and his children will not be kings but his BFF—who is standing right there—’s will. We’re already all twisted up into a juicy story when a guy comes along and tells Macbeth that he’s the Thane of Cawdor. Duh, duh, duuuuh! Will Macbeth leave well enough alone and let the other prophecies come true on their own or will he immediately feel like he has to kill the king to get what he (and his wife) wants and then become a megalomaniacal paranoid who can’t stop with the sea of blood until the third prophecy is made impossible? One guess. Macbeth features some classic icons like the three witches chanting spells around their cauldron (“Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”), a floating dagger (“Is this a dagger I see before me?”), a crazy queen/wife sleepwalking through the castle, twists based on tricky turns of phrases (which may not hold out today as well as in Renaissance England), and more Quotables than you can shake a stick at (“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” “Out damned spot!” “There are daggers in men’s smiles,” “Screw your courage to the sticking place,” “What’s done cannot be undone,” etc. Not to mention some silioquys, like Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. And then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

I am aware that not everyone loves Shakespeare or is able to easily read it. The language is about as archaic as English gets for the average, American reader and most people are forced to read it in high school. Perhaps it is not their favorite experience. In order to make this process more enjoyable and easier for my students, I pushed a number of sources beyond the original text. I’m cool like that. They were forced to read the original first (arms crossed and fingers crossed) and then, for each act, I pointed them in the direction of a number of resources. Since I had a subscription to LitCharts, I used the LitCharts synopsis as well as ShakesCleare, a great line-by-line translation in plain English. I encouraged them to find resources online, as well as read along with audio options, graphic novels, and movie adaptations. (Some of them had also seen the play performed, before.) I’ll talk about all this in the below reviews. They all had the Folger edition of the play, as it was, which has notes running on the left-hand page, an introduction, definitions, etc.

So, if you have an interest in Shakespeare, this is a must-read. If you are teaching high school English, it is a good option. Overall, I was a little bummed by this play and it is not my favorite (which I think I already mentioned). I laughed until my students thought I was insane at some of the scenes—especially the banquet scene—where Lady Macbeth is coming up with some ridiculous excuses to keep her husband’s reputation intact. But most of the play is dark and full of death. It’s also lacking in hope, and humanity is pretty easily convinced to turn depraved and lethal, leading to horror for all. There is a hero, in the end, but by then nearly everyone is dead, destroyed, or a hollow husk of their former self. The real question here, I suppose, is about prophecies and fate and how people interact with their destinies. I can’t imagine I’ll be coming back to it, especially after having watched a few of the movies. (I honestly couldn’t keep going with adaptations. I would have finished with The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), but that one is not widely available yet and I couldn’t stomach another dark, depressing version. Which they all are, even when they get all cinematographic.


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So, there are a lot of Shakespeare plays made into graphic novels out there, especially for the “big” plays. Macbeth is no exception, and somehow I narrowed it down to the No Fear Shakespeare version and Gareth Hinds (who I seem to either have a thing for or not be able to avoid). Despite the fine reviews elsewhere, I was not impressed by the No Fear Shakespeare graphic novel. Sure, it would be helpful to kids who are having a hard time understanding the original, but other than that it has no real merit. And since there are many other ways of understanding Macbeth (including other graphic novels), I would not rush out to get a copy of this. I suppose its one redeeming feature is that it sticks closely with the original story and says and shows it as obviously as possible, since the point of it, I believe, is as a learning tool. Other than that, the illustrations are lackluster, I totally lost track of who was whom, I was mystified by how much sweating and how many candles there were, and I felt not the least bit more enlightened as to the meaning of Macbeth. Just, ehn.

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Well, Gareth Hinds has gotten a kind of fame over the last decade or so for his graphic adaptations of classics. (Bloody, dark classics, I might add.) I have read his versions of Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. He did Macbeth earlier, and quite frankly it’s not as innovative or even pretty as the others. It’s sketchier, and I mean that literally, lacking the finished, colorful look of the Homer epics. Beowulf was also sort of sketchy, though more inky, but it has this artistic flare to it, an atmosphere of sorts conveyed in the panels. So, what I’m saying is I don’t know if there are better graphic novels of Macbeth, but I found this one to be disappointing because his later graphic novels are more realized artistic visions. It’s okay. It shows promise and it shows us the story, but without much to make it a special. Except the notes at the end. I enjoyed those inordinately.

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I bought a subscription to LitCharts at the beginning of the school year (at, I think, $10 per month) to be able to access the resources for most of the novels that we would be reading (and a few others I might use). I have found the resources to be super handy. If I had gone for another subscription, I could have had access to teacher resources (technically, they have those, but I didn’t find them to be much different from the student resources and there were no teacher plans, activities, or worksheets or anything), but I guess I wasn’t thinking that way. I wanted something that my students could likewise use, and maybe even something that they could invest in in the future, for some college literature class, perhaps. Overall, I would say the information is accurate and that it makes literature pretty accessible. Synopses, etc. can sometimes be quite long-winded, and there isn’t much creative teaching going on (like a timeline or infographics or something). There are also no quizzes or whatever. What you have is something like 20 pages of background, themes, quotes, synopses, etc. For Shakespeare, as well, there is access to the ShakesCleare version, which I found to be super helpful. It goes line by line, converting Shakespearean language into modern language and I dare any average person to read it and not understand what is happening. (Sure, they might miss some literary stuff, but that’s what the LitChart is for). Eamon (my 14-year-old) and I used the ShakesCleare to re-read the scenes together after he had listened to (he’s an auditory learner) and read along with the original in his Folger. So just a little plug for LitCharts, ShakesCleare, and reading helps in general. Though I grew up in a generation that balked at and had a fear of reading helps (SparkNotes!) put in them, I fully endorse using these in high school and college (and teaching) along with a reading of the original. In other words, I’m a fan of study guides and I totally get that not everyone is a naturally skilled reader.

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MACBETH (1948):

 I know it’s a hard sell to get teens (okay, anybody) to watch movies from the 1940s, but this Orson Welles’ version of Macbeth is probably the best for general audiences. In other words, it’s not full of gore and even sex. (Obviously, there was no actual sex or nudity in the original play, especially on-stage (though plenty of innuendo, at times), but movie makers manage it, anyhow.) It’s still dark and drags on (especially since it is black and white and very old-fashioned) but it follows the story-line pretty close and would provide a visual to help with understanding Macbeth without blowing it up considerably to somehow find meaning in the pieces of Shakespeare’s play (which is obviously what some of the other versions do).

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 I would have recommended Roman Polanski’s version, too, for understanding, as it’s not too crazy-adapted, but it’s a bit violent and sexy (Playboy Productions?) for the classroom. It won some awards (like the Best Picture Oscar) way back in the 1970s and does have a 70’s flare, but it’s also mostly Macbeth. Considered by many to be the best version of Macbeth on film, it usurped the 1940s version I was just talking about. If you are curious, there are some interesting backstories related to this movie in regards to the director. So if you’re mature and don’t mind some gore and nudity, then this is probably the best version to key you in to the real Macbeth.

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MACBETH (2015):

 This somewhat popular version is visually stunning and well-acted by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cottilard and cast, but the directions and screen-writing made it a different story with a different meaning. Plus, it can be pretty confusing and much of the would be lost on people who are not familiar with the story, since so much is shoved into a short-ish movie. So, like I said, it is a slightly different story with a quite different meaning. Great reviews, awards, but… phew! It’s a depression slog (not to mention violence and depravity both in close quarters).

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 So I haven’t seen this one because—thanks in part to its Oscar for Denzel Washington, I’m sure—its still only available on AppleTV. Despite being completely over the Macbeth movies by now (they are so dark and depressing), I will be screening this one once I can.

Actually, there are a few more adaptations that I would like to see, but they are all of the “based on” variety, as opposed to more versions of the play. They are: Scotland, PA and Throne of Blood. I’m also sure the Patrick Stewart/BBC version is great, but I couldn’t figure out a way to currently watch it.

Stay tuned for a scene-by-scene synopsis by yours truly.


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