Messrs Sidgwick and Jackson have sent me an advance copy of a book called Macbeth by William Shakespeare which, according to the accompanying letter, “will no doubt cause consternation and controversy”. That is because, although the text is a familiar one, it has been turned into a full-blooded strip cartoon.
The style is that of animated films on children’s television – a good deal more animated in fact, as the approach of television animators has become either lazier or stingier over the years and every little movement seems to take place in most sequences except for mouths moving, eyebrows going up and down and the occasional dramatic gesture being repeated over and over. Macbeth is much livelier.
What puzzles me is why it should be thought to cause controversy. I can remember in the 1950s a whole series of American comics called, I think, Classics Illustrated, which turned any great book they could lay their hands on into strip form. I learnt the story of The Tale of Two Cities in comic form, and many other books by Mark Twain, Stevenson, Fenimore Cooper and so on came to me in pictures before I moved on to the books of the comic. Some books, especially long novels by Victor Hugo and Dumas, seemed more suited to comic form than to the novel. How I wish, even, that I had come to Jane Austen via cartoons, as I was given Pride and Prejudice at quite the wrong age, and never really recovered from my initial boredom.
The Classics Illustrated may have raised a few eyebrows at the time, but the only reaction I can remember was the appearance in Punch of a parody by Ronald Searle. It was, by chance, a version of Macbeth, the whole play done in two pages. Shakespeare’s text was entirely in abandoned. The longest speech in the play, as I recall, was Duncan’s “The battle’s being going on a long time. I bet Macbeth’s fighting hard.” The shortest was the greeting of the witch (young, blonde) to Macbeth: “Hello, handsome!”
And I can remember the entire scene which followed the discovery of Duncan’s death:
“The King’s been killed”.
“I bet the guards did it”.
“I need some black coffee”.
Sidgwick and Jackson can be relieved to hear that little public uproar was caused by that snappy version and very little at all by a version of Hamlet which appeared in 1959 called Hammy or The Angry Young Prince. It appeared in Quintet which I co-edited at school with Alexander Cockburn, now a leading light on the Village Voice (It is very instructive to edit a paper early in life. It made both Cockburn and me decide to become free-lancer writers.)
It was Cockburn who rewrote Hamlet in a rough pastiche of Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac (pretty advanced for 1959) and included in the cast list the striking couple: “Rosy Pants, Golden Stern”. One complete scene should give the flavour…
Enter Claud and Lurt
Claud: So you take him on at checkers and I’ll fix the tranquillizers.
Lurt: Fine. After what that bum has done to Pheely…
Claud, shouting: Cut it out, will yuh! Pheely was a floozy and Hammy’s a fine guy. It’s just that Freud… (crash of piano and bongo drums. Curtain)
Even today Shakespeare is not free from interference. In his latest collection Smile Please, Arthur Marshall says: “I have to tell you with enormous regret… that I don’t really care very much for the plays of Shakespeare when performed in their entirety… His knowledge of human nature takes one’s breath away but one can’t be breathless for three hours at a stretch without seriously undermining health.”
Accordingly he suggests that the Merchant of Venice could easily come to an end in Act 11 with the Prince of Morocco choosing the right casket. Or that King Lear, as early as Act 1, Scene 1, should take a long, hard look at Goneril and Regan (“two odious girls with ‘troublemaker’ written all over them”) and says: “Know that we have decided not to divide in three our kingdom.”
Luckily for the shape of this piece, he also has a suggestion for Macbeth. Act 1, Scene V is the place to cut, he says. The bit where Lady Macbeth gets the letter from her husband that causes all the trouble. The ideal solution, according to Marshall, is a hiccup in the postal service. Has the postman been? She asks the porter.
“He hath come and gone, good madam.”
“Wast there naught for me?”
“Naught, sweet lady.”
After which Marshal invents a rude joke, too rude to repeat here, and Lady Macbeth goes back to cooking the baps as the final curtain comes down. I think Sidgwick and Jackson can sleep easy. Their final version of Macbeth is the most respectful version (O’Toole included) which has appeared for many a long year.
The Times 9th August 1982