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Macbeth, the Novel

Classics Illustrated MacbethWhen is Shakespeare’s play not a play but a novel?

I don’t mean adaptations of Macbeth. There are lots of those — Paul Illidge’s Macbeth: A Prose Translation, the filmscript to Akira Kurosawa’s classic Throne of Blood (or, in Japanese, Spider’s Web Castle)the Classics Illustrated comic-book version, the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø’s forthcoming noir fictionalization — to name just a few.

That’s already a lot of nonplays. At least one even sounds like it might be a novel.

So let me put the question another way: Is there anyone teaching Shakespeare today who has never had a student paper in which the writer refers to one of the plays — say, Macbeth — as a novel?  (“At the beginning of the novel, Macbeth meets the witches and learns the future.”)

My friend Ed Gieskes, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, recently reminded me of the Shakespeare-as-novelist phenomenon.

For us academics, this is an irritation second only to the spelling MacBeth.

I soon learned, however, that the problem of recognizing a novel when you see it was wider than I had thought.

Fellow Lingua Francan Ben Yagoda addressed this puzzle last year, on the occasion of discovering that he had been described as a novelist (a claim he denies).

This is not a matter of attributing authorship of real novels to Ben, but rather of misrecognizing his books on language as novels.

Although Ben Yagoda is not a novelist, or has not been one so far, nothing prevents him from veering off into novelistic territory at some future date. On the matter of Shakespeare, however, we can be pretty certain that Warwickshire’s favorite son was not a novelist at any point, and absolutely certain that Macbeth is not a novel.

A novel is a fat book that tells a long story and not in verse. Although not all novels are fat, and some fail to tell much of a story at all. And a couple are in verse. Otherwise the definition is solid.

Nonetheless, we seem to be approaching a point where many students, and even some journalists, refer to books as novels. Maybe not all books — repair manuals, textbooks, and the collected Calvin and Hobbes are probably safe. But anything else booklength — a work of journalistic reportage, a memoir, a play, anything in a genre not recognized by the reader — all these nonnovels are, at least sometimes, getting called novels.

When students — and others — equate book and novel, they’re pointing to the collapse of genre (play, history, novel) and form (codex). Your student’s copy of Macbeth is probably a paperback,  and in the dark indistinguishable from a similar pile of paperbacks that are this semester’s required reading.

Yes, the student may be unfamiliar with or indifferent to the silos of literary production, but  I wonder if  this is also happening because the digital age — which is the only age most of our students can know — compresses every  genre delivered by codex, every hard-copy object assigned for study, into one megagenre whose dominant characteristic is its hardcopyness. For some readers, that megagenre needs a name. Novel seems to fit.

It’s the paper-and-glue form in which our hypothetical student encounters Macbeth that precipitates the student’s identification of the play as a novel. The same student would go to the theater, see a performance of the work, and report on having seen a play, or go to the multiplex, view a film adaptation (like the one just out with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard), and call it a movie.

As annoying as this might be to those of us who teach, the student paper that misnames a play as a novel commits a minor infraction. I wouldn’t let my correcting pencil incarnadine the student’s paper over this (incarnadine: a good Macbeth word for making something turn red, as a sea might be turned red with blood). What’s important is what the student has to say. Pick your battles.

But I might show the student any number of adaptations of the play — a film, a graphic (yes) novel, the libretto of an opera — to make the point that forms have useful identities, even as we continue to make new ones up.

And by the way, if the student gets Macbeth, I’ve got 37 other novels by the same guy.

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