Macbeth by Jo Nesbo: A review

Shakespeare's Macbeth is his shortest tragedy and one of his shortest plays. Jo Nesbø's Macbeth, which is the latest in the Hobarth Shakespeare project in which modern writers are invited to reimagine one of the bard's works, goes on and on and on for nearing 500 pages of dense prose. It took me a full week of reading whenever I had the opportunity to finish it. Admittedly, I was occupied with other things as well, but still.

But the description of the book as 500 pages of dense prose is not meant to imply that it is in any way boring or not worth the trouble. In fact, it is a bit of a page turner in the Nesbø tradition of tightly plotted thrillers, but it is not an easy read.

Nesbø sets his reimagining of the classic in 1970s Scotland in a city that is never actually named but a couple of the reviews that I've read have inferred that it is Glasgow based on the description and the evidence presented. Apparently, Glasgow in that period was a pretty grim place fighting loss of jobs and rise in drug abuse with all the attendant problems that those two facts would suggest.

This Macbeth is told as a crime noir tale. This is a city that has been led by corrupt men out for their own empowerment and enrichment. It is mired in a mud made of that corruption that has encouraged gangs and drugs and the debasement and cheapening of human life and dignity.

In his play, Shakespeare didn't spend much time on the backstories of his characters. Nesbø, in contrast, is very interested in the psychology of the characters and he gives us a pretty complete picture of how these people came to be who they are. We learn, for example, that Macbeth and Duff (Macduff), who are now policemen, were orphans who grew up together in an orphanage. They were friends who looked out for each other, even to the point of one of them committing a murder to protect the other.

Lady, Macbeth's wife, was raped and became pregnant at age 13. She was unable to care for the baby, whom she named Lily, and dashed the child's brains out rather than see her suffer. This is the blood of the original sin that stains her hands and that she continually tries to wash away. She, almost inevitably it seems, became a prostitute and, from that position, the owner of a swanky casino, which was where she met Macbeth.

At the beginning, Nesbø's Macbeth is a good policeman in a corrupt system, doing his best to uphold the law and rid his city of crime. But soon enough his hunger for the power and success that promotion in the department will bring leads to his corruption. He becomes addicted to power as to a drug, but he's addicted to actual drugs as well.

The drug which here is called "brew" entraps Macbeth as it has so many of his fellow citizens. The entrepreneur who produces it, Hecate, becomes all powerful, in effect ruling the city. Hecate is opposed by a motorcycle gang that does its own drug dealing called the Norse Riders. These forces vie for control of the city.

So, as we expect, Duncan is killed, Banquo is killed but continues to haunt Macbeth, and the blood flows freely. Almost everyone in this story is ethically compromised in one way or another and yet the ending that Nesbø gives us offers a sliver of hope that if the brave stand together they can defeat the dark forces that seek to overwhelm them. It is a story that is relevant for our times. Perhaps our times are not so different from those of Shakespeare after all.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars       


  1. It sounds awfully dark, but it seems, from what you said in your review, rewarding as well.

    1. "Dark" pretty well describes it. The author stays true to the plot arc of the original.

  2. Wow, you read this already! I have fallen behind on this series but will be reading New Boy by Tracy Chevalier soon for a reading group. Can't wait to get to this one. I am impressed that Hogarth picked Nesbo for one of the books. Puts him in a new light for me. He is indeed so dark and bloody and all those words! I have only read one of his books but can't find it in my reading records. Guess I never gave him another chance but I will for Macbeth.

    1. I finally had to give up on his Harry Hole series because it was so bloody, but he seemed the perfect choice to do Macbeth and he fully justified Hogarth in its selection of him.

  3. I'd need to be in the right mood to tackle this! Cheers

    1. Well, it's certainly not a fun or uplifting read but it is interesting and thought-provoking.


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