Is This a Talking Mouse I see Before me?

Macbeth vs. Redwall

By Katie Sullivan (a.k.a. Snowfur)

Written for Advanced Placement English 12 after my teacher was crazy enough to let me write my Macbeth essay on anything I wanted to write about!!!  ;-)


     It may seem odd to compare one of the greatest literary works of all time with a series of novels about talking animals.  Indeed, at first glance, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the Redwall series by Brian Jacques have little in common.  The former is an Elizabethan tragedy filled with metaphor and high drama, while the latter features talking mice, shrews, moles and a myriad of other woodland creatures.  But upon further inspection, Macbeth and Redwall share many traits of characterization, mechanics and plot.
     Shakespeare may be more famous for his timeless characterization, but Brian Jacques also does a superb job in that area.  The books of the Redwall series have a much larger cast of characters than Macbeth, but many of the characters are similar.  Shakespeare often throws in “generic” characters such as Angus, Menteith and Caithness to serve as companions to highlight his main characters.  Jacques does much the same thing, especially in the case of the hares and the moles.  Both creatures have a distinct method of speech, and many times these characters seem interchangeable.  For instance, in The Long Patrol, a hare characters says, “Permission t’go with you, Cap’n.  Please, marm, I’d like a chance t’be a real part of the patrol!” (103).  In another Redwall book, Salamandastron, a similar hare says, “Just say the word and we’ll stick t’you like slime on a toad’s back, it you’ll pardon the pun, old lad!” (131).  The differences are scanty.  The
case is much the same with the moles, who nearly without exception speak in rustic tones
like this:  “Yurr, stan’ on moi ‘ead an’ climb owt now, Roser” (Martin the Warrior 55).
     Both works also harbor characters of questionable sanity.  The main villain of Mariel of Redwall, Gabool the Wild, is a raving lunatic, and the title character of Macbeth exhibits many of the same insane characteristics, including insomnia.  As Jacques described it,  “Gabool the Wild was not affected by sleep anymore.  He was driven night and day by an insane nervous energy, roaming the rooms of Fort Bladegirt” (Mariel of Redwall 204).  It is remarkably similar to Macbeth’s lament of  “...and sleep/In the affliction of these terrible dreams/That shake us nightly” (3.2.17-79).  Thus do characters from each work share sleep-related ailments brought on by insanity.  The mental instability is not limited by gender, either.  Female characters in both Macbeth and the Redwall series suffer from insanity, as well.  Lady Macbeth has fits of anxiety and sleepwalking.  “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?  No/more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that!  You mar all/with this starting” (5.1.44-46).  Queen Tsarmina Greeneyes experiences similar episodes due to her hydrophobia.  “That night, as Tsarmina sat huddled in her chamber; dripping water echoed in her imagination, never letting up.  When the fear of water was upon her, the daughter of Verdauga was no longer Queen of Mossflower, Lady of the Thousand Eyes or Ruler of Kotir.  She was reduced to a crazed, terrified kitten, trembling at the sound of  dripping water in the darkness, longing for morning light to come stealing over the horizon” (Mossflower 359).
     Another strain of characterization which Macbeth and Redwall share is that of dead characters appearing to participate in the story.  The appearance of Banquo’s ghost can be interpreted as a hallucination on the part of Macbeth, but its presence is still important to the play. “Prithee, see there!/Behold!  Look!  Lo!  How say you?/Why, what care I?  If thou canst nod, speak too./If charnel houses and our graves must send/Those that we bury back, our monuments/Shall be the maws of kites” (3.4.69-73).  The numerous visits by the benevolent ghost of Martin the Warrior are often central to the plot in Redwall books.  One of many such instances is Martin’s visit to Redwall’s blind herbalist, Simeon.  The mouse describes the experience as a pleasant one, in contrast to Macbeth’s panic.  “The blind mouse felt a light touch against his paw.  All around was the scent of woodland flowers, columbine, wood anemones, bryony, honeysuckle and dog
rose.  The voice spoke again” (Mariel of Redwall 129).
    Also, warrior virtues are common in both works.  Loyalty, honor, revenge, bravery and friendship are prevalent themes.  In Act Five of Macbeth, Siward is grieved little by his son’s death, for it was an honorable one in battle.  While the characters in Redwall are usually more emotional about death, even in battle, their warrior sensibility is present, too. The main plot of the book Martin the Warrior is driven by the title character’s quest for vengeance on the warlord who killed his grandmother and stole his father’s sword.  In addition, it is worthwhile to compare the mechanics with which Shakespeare and Jacques wrote their stories.  An obvious difference is that of language.  No detailed footnotes are needed to understand Redwall books, but Macbeth can at times be nearly incomprehensible to the untrained eye.
     Another clear dissimilarity is the fact that there are no humans in Redwall.  Just as Shakespeare’s plays might have been wildly different if Macbeth were a rat and Macduff a squirrel, Jacques’ style is affected by the animal cast.  For instance, it would be difficult for Malcolm or Banquo to have achieved what Cheek does on page 250 of Mattimeo.  “Cheek could not deny his birthright; he was an otter through and through.  As skillfully as any fish, he cut through the water surrounding the raft, appearing alongside Basil.  The hare looked at him suspiciously.”  Such uniqueness adds sparkle to Jacques’ work.  Also, Macbeth is dated in places by Shakespeare’s desire to please the king.  This is evident when the doctor discusses an issue of healing which clearly referred to James’ contemporary situation.  “There are a crew of wretched souls/That stay his cure: their malady convinces/The great assay of art; but at his touch,/Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand,/They presently amend” (4.3.142-4).
     In the tragedy of Macbeth, at least, Shakespeare is much more stingy with his humor than Jacques.  The only humor in Macbeth is droll, subtle irony and the occasional play on words.  Redwall, on the other hand, is peppered with light moments.  On page 40 of Mariel of Redwall, some young ones drink an unexpectedly fizzy drink and burst into giggles.  Their comments include “Whah!  Ooh, it’s gone right up my nose!” and “Woogolly!  It’s like having a tummyful of mad butterflies!”  In addition, Gingervere delivers the following silly lines: “Now, if a ferret looks like a ferret, or a stoat like a stoat, or a weasel looks like a weasel, don’t trust him.  But if a fox that looks like a fox says that his name is Mask and he’s been sent by the Corim, we must do exactly as he says, quickly and without question.”  To which his young companion replies, “Supposing it’s a stoat that looks like a weasel with a ferret’s nose and a fox’s tail, Mr. Gingervere?”  Such open
frivolity is plainly absent from Macbeth.  Overall, Redwall takes itself much less seriously than Macbeth.
     Despite these differences, the mechanics of the two works do have some aspects in common.  A minor point is the nationality of the two authors, who are both British.  Both Redwall and Macbeth are set in a vaguely medieval time, so the level of technology is much the same.  This is especially evident in the weaponry.  In the final battle of Macbeth, Macduff mentions, “...bear their staves.  Either thou, Macbeth,/Or else my sword, with an unbattered edge,/I sheathe again undeeded” (5.7.18-20).  The same types of weapons are used in Redwall.  “Swift javelin thrusts and throws found their way around pikes and spears...” (Martin the Warrior 348).
    Another similarity lies in the rich sense of history, whether real or fanciful, which pervades these tales.  Macbeth has the luxury of drawing on actual historical events.  Indeed, much of the play is based at least in part on past happenings throughout the British Isles.  Jacques has to invent a history for his lands, but does so with great detail.  Some of this heritage is seen on page 26 of Salamandastron: “They said that the family of Gonff lived down at old Saint Ninian’s church for six generations.”  Jacques frequently refers back to events in previous books, as the series spans many generations.
    Redwall and Macbeth share characteristics in plot, as well.  The supernatural figures in both, although it seems to have more importance in Macbeth.  It is especially interesting to note how alike the plots of Macbeth and Outcast of Redwall are in this regard.  In Macbeth, the title character gains false confidence by the cryptic prophesies of the witches and the apparitions in the first scene of Act Four.  In Outcast of Redwall, the primary antagonist, Swartt Sixclaw, is led into a false sense of security by his seer’s prophesies.  “You are not defeated yet, Lord.  I follow my visions.  I see the badger laid low at your footpaws, you standing atop of a mountain, smiling and victorious...” (Outcast of Redwall 309).  This comes to pass, but Swartt is eventually defeated on that same mountaintop, just as Macbeth met his end in battle.
     Readers of Redwall are encouraged to root for the underdog, while Macbeth, in the style of a classic tragedy, centers around the upper crust.  Yet even here there are ties.  Despite the difference in status of the protagonists, they all get help from afar.  Macduff journeys to England to ask for Malcolm’s help.  In the Redwall book The Long Patrol, a great badger warrior and her army of hares travel across the land to assist the endangered abbey.  Also, in The Bellmaker, travelers from Redwall Abbey help free the kingdom of Southsward from a tyrant’s rule.  These are just two of many examples of this theme in the Redwall series.
     The source of the peril is often from invading forces.  In Macbeth it was the Norwegians who were attacking; in Redwall it is often rats who invade.  And once the battles commence, the amount of violence is about the same.  No gory details are described, yet acts of great violence do occur.  At the end of Macbeth, Macduff beheads Macbeth, much as Macbeth himself is described doing in the play’s first act.  Gabool the Wild executes a disloyal officer in the same way.  “Even the hardened searats moaned in horror as the head of Bludrigg thudded to the floor” (Mariel of Redwall 17).  In addition, during those climactic battle scenes, the main hero and the main villain inevitably come face to face.  Macbeth growls to Macduff as their duel to the death begins, “Before my body/I throw my warlike shield.  Lay on, Macduff;/and damned be him that first cries ‘Hold, enough!’” (5.8.32-34).  This is certainly reminiscent of the climax of Redwall, when Matthias the Warrior bursts through a doorway and challenges the villain, “Cluny the Scourge, I have come to settle with you!” (Redwall 341)
    Not all deaths are so chivalrous, however.  Both Macbeth and Redwall tell of numerous characters killing to gain power.  Some characters hire murderers to dispose of  enemies.  Macbeth hires mercenaries to kill Banquo and Macduff’s family.  There are two cases of hired murderers in Redwall.  In Salamandastron, Ferahgo the Assassin hires a black fox named Farran to poison his enemies.  In Outcast of Redwall, Swartt Sixclaw hires the mysterious Wraith to kill his foe.  Neither of the aforementioned animal assassins have the success Macbeth’s murderers met with, however.  And, as Macbeth ordered Macduff’s family killed, Ferahgo the Assassin killed Urthstripe’s family to avoid opposition.  There are also frequent assassinations of prominent figures to attain personal
glory.  The driving force of the play is, of course, Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan and the consequences thereof.  Macbeth proclaims, “I am settled, and bend up/Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.7.79-80)  Tsarmina has her own father poisoned to gain the throne.  She asks her accomplice if the poison was administered, and her accomplice replies, “Twice.  Once before the mouse came in, and just now before we left.  He’s taken enough poison to lay half the garrison low” (Mossflower 31).
     Another recurring theme is that of trickery.  The famous incident concerning camouflage from Birnam Wood fooled Macbeth’s sentries.  “Let every soldier hew him down a bough/And bear ‘t before him.  Thereby shall we shadow/The numbers of our host, and make discovery/Err in report of us” (5.5.4-6).  Disguise is also utilized in The Long Patrol and Mossflower, wherein two hares and an otter, respectively, infiltrate enemy strongholds.  In Martin the Warrior, a group of protagonists hold a fake magic show as a diversion while others help slaves escape.  They are all in disguise and use assumed names.
     Another plot similarity between Macbeth and Redwall is the idea of male characters journeying to get help from an absent patriarch.  In Macbeth, Macduff must bring Malcolm back from England to help their ailing home of Scotland.  “Let us rather/Hold fast the mortal sword, and like good men/Bestride our down-fall’n birthdom” (4.3.3-4).  In Mossflower, Martin and his companions quest to bring back the long-absent ruler of Mossflower.  Martin vows, “Bella, I have decided.  I will find Boar the Fighter--I will undertake the journey to Salamandastron” (Mossflower 126).
     In a myriad of ways involving characters, writing technique and plot, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Brian Jacques’ world of Redwall are surprisingly similar.  Although nearly four hundred years separate these two works, they both take advantage of wonderful literary techniques.  Their numerous assets allow them to endure for the entertainment of generations of readers.

For those who care...I got an A.  :-)

All page references for Redwall books refer to the American hardcovers, except for The Long Patrol, where I used the British hardcover.

1997 Katie Sullivan, except parts quoted from Redwall books, which are   Brian Jacques.  

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