Do you need a modern novel to pair with the classic Macbeth? Shakespeare’s Macbeth is still one of his most wildly popular plays. I’m not saying we are all sitting around reading Macbeth, but we see countless retellings in novels and film today. Almost any story with unethical and unchecked ambition or guilt-spun paranoia has ties to the plot.
If you’re looking for something with a modern spin as you wrap up a Macbeth unit, read on to see my favorites. Let’s start with an overview of the play.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Brave and respected, Macbeth sits one night around his fire when three witches visit him. In their prophecy, they foretell he would become the king of Scotland. Skeptical at first, he is urged on by his ruthless wife. The single-minded ambition leads him down a path of paranoia, tyranny, madness, and murder.
Macbeth tells a tale that mostly centers on the dangers of corrupted power and unchecked ambition. Despite being well-loved as a courageous general, he is brought up against his natural inclinations to serve to commit evil deeds. The desire to have power and advancement supersedes whatever good intentions he had. In addition, we see the consequences of the ambition Macbeth can’t enjoy and how it plays into his eventual paranoia. Almost any work that centers on unobtainable ambition or the dealings of a guilty conscious work for a pairing.
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
This is probably my favorite pairing. It’s less about the gore of a Macbeth retelling and centers more on common themes I feel students can relate to that we can also see in the play. As told in verse, Will is set on avenging his brother. Heading out of his apartment with a weapon in his waistband, he loads the elevator and hits the down arrow. The elevator stops on the next floor, and their friend Buck gets on. As they chat about Will’s plan, Will remembers – Buck is dead. The next floor brings a childhood friend who asks what he will do if he misses. This childhood friend was hit by stray bullets on the playground when they were eight. As he gets to each floor, time is an illusion, and Will is confronted with people from his past.
The propensity for violence and our choices is a central themes in both Long Way Down and Macbeth. It’s interesting to compare Will to Macbeth and consider how each person is set on “what is owed” to them and the expectations of their position. This makes an excellent class read but also works as an independent student project.
You can check out my Long Way Down unit here.
The War Works Hard by Dunya Mikhail
While not a novel, this poetry collection would fit perfectly into a Macbeth unit. Dunya Mikhail is an exiled Iraqi woman. She has written a beautiful book centered on revolution and the human spirit. As students read through the horrendous actions of Macbeth, taking time to consider “everyone else” would be a great juxtaposition. Mikhail aims to derail the glorification of war. And, while not a typical “novel” for class reading, it would make a great addition to your class library or to pull excerpts as you navigate the play.
I also find poetry lends itself to more creative projects for students. Consider having students write their own forms of poetry, write responses to Mikhail’s work, create visual representations to a class read, or select their own excerpts.
Foul is Fair by Hannah Capin
Elle and her three friends have an untouchable power other girls only dream of. The world is their oyster until Elle’s sweet sixteen. The golden boys choose her as their next target. Too bad they picked the wrong girl. Set on vengeance, Elle plots to destroy each of the boys.
While this novel is a perfect combination of a bloody Macbeth retelling mixed with Cruel Intentions – it’s dark and violent and delves into sometimes unrealistic vengeful plots. I can think of many students who would absolutely love the American Horror Story vibes and would probably offer it as a choice read rather than a whole-class project.
As I Descended by Robin Talley
Maria and Lily are the power couple of their school – even if no one else sees it. Unfortunately, golden child Delilah is a superstar at their school. She runs it all. Maria and Lily will stop at nothing to get what they want – to unseat Delilah from her distinguished Kingsley Prize – a full scholarship that would ensure Maria and Lily stay together. This is an LGBT fantasy/horror that will blur feuds and fatalities.
This novel is definitely Shakespeare-inspired, and I love the abundance of representation in the characters. Again, I would maybe consider this a choice-read option for those students who may not enjoy the “icky” side of Macbeth retellings.
There’s no shortage of Shakespeare adaptations. Macbeth is a fairly deadly story, and often the retellings try to up the ante in story-telling gore. Another direction you might consider is to look at retellings from other characters such as The Third Witch by Rebecca Reisert or Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King. Have students consider writing from another character from the play, or an imaginary character who is swept up in the events.
Do you have favorite modern tellings for Macbeth that your students love? What activities help solidify broader concepts and themes with your students? Share here or check out Facebook and Instagram for more ideas!