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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt - 'Decorating a Room of One's Own' by Susan Harlan

Susan Harlan,
Susan Harlan,

Susan Harlan, "Decorating a Room of One's Own: Conversations on Interior Design with Miss Havisham, Jane Eyre, Victor Frankenstein, Elizabeth Bennet, Ishmael, and Other Literary Notables" (2018)Have you ever thought of borrowing interior design ideas from Lady Macbeth? (Tip: “I like bearskin rugs from very large bears.”) Or have you wondered about decor insights from such fictional characters as Ishmael from Moby-Dick, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, or Miss Havisham of Great Expectations?

If so, Decorating a Room of One’s Own may be just what you need, with illustrations by Becca Stadtlander that evoke design interviews with any number of literary figures. Given our focus on Shakespeare, we’ve decided to share the most Shakespearean passage from the book, an interview with Lady Macbeth (the book also includes a sidebar on Hamlet and decorating challenges at Elsinore).

The following excerpt includes in-depth information that Lady Macbeth doesn’t share with just any interviewer, but we were not surprised that Susan Harlan was able to provide it. Harlan, who wrote the whimsical column Great House Therapy on fictional decor for the former website The Toast, is an associate professor at Wake Forest University and was a Folger Shakespeare Library fellow.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth


Names: Lady Macbeth, witchlike queen of undaunted mettle known for her strong opinions on masculinity and fondness for multiple homicide, and her husband, Macbeth (tragic figure)

Location: Scotland, near a heath and not far from a forest

Size: Kingly

Years lived in: Since the Macbeths’ recent regicide; owned (at least for now)

It has been a nonstop year for Lady Macbeth, whose husband’s recent promotion to Thane of Cawdor and then to King of Scotland meant a new home for them both. After grueling negotiations with their movers and the weird sisters out on the heath, they said good-bye to their only-okay castle in Inverness and moved into the royal domicile, recently vacated by Duncan, whom they killed while he was visiting them.

“I know what you’re going to say: It’s a total violation of the codes of hospitality to murder your guest,” she says. “But it’s a rat race out there, and I wasn’t about to just wait around for my husband to become king. We wanted to be proactive and really blue sky it. In the end, bloody murder seemed like the best option.”

Lady Macbeth “leans in” not only in the professional world but also in her approach to decorating the new castle.

“There are challenges with inheriting a property that belonged to someone you plotted to stab repeatedly while he slept,” she says. “You want to put your own stamp on it and make it personal, but you also want to respect the memory of the former king to keep the rabble happy.”

Macbeth is also a big fan of the property, which boasts a large dining room, dark and foreboding chambers, drippy candles, and lots of thunder and lightning. Lady Macbeth hopes to use the dining room for more hostessing in the future. When it comes to tablescapes, she favors a rustic vibe and is always on the lookout for pinecones, bark, pilots’ fingers, and other things one can generally find in cauldrons.

“The good news is that we don’t have to have Malcolm over anymore because he’s raising an army against us,” she says. “God, he’s so boring. Good luck with your boring army, Malcolm.”

Becca Stadtlander. Lady Macbeth's dining room. For Susan Harlan, "Decorating a Room of One's Own" (2018).

Lady Macbeth’s dining room. Becca Stadtlander, for Susan Harlan, Decorating a Room of One’s Own (2018).


I like bearskin rugs from very large bears, red velvet drapes, knives with bone handles, and statues that are extra menacing. When it comes to floral arrangements, my taste tends toward snapdragons, burrs, and those flowers that are green and spiky and don’t look like flowers at all.

I’m inspired by the aesthetic of shrieking owls and crying crickets, but that can be challenging to translate into a scheme for an antechamber. I love an industrial vibe—lots of metal, high ceilings, exposed pipes, brick walls, a concrete floor, and maybe a Sputnik chandelier. What we have here is more classic, but that was Duncan! I once saw an abattoir that I thought was just lovely.

Our old castle featured a drunken porter who mostly just talked about erectile dysfunction, but I kind of miss his high jinks. Here, we have some nice Disney-esque turrets where I hope to hide some bodies one day.

Last week, I went to an estate sale for yet another guy killed in battle and picked up some fluffy Mongolian lamb pillow covers. We also have a collection of gorgeous severed heads. Severed heads aren’t just for sticking on pikes anymore—you can bring them into the home as memorable embellishments. For example, if you’re thinking about styling a bookshelf, I suggest a neat stack of coffee-table books with an eye of newt and toe of frog on top.

That they’re sorry, but something came up and they can’t come over after all.

I love our plush sofa by the hearth, but Macbeth’s taste is a bit, well, soldierly, and he wanted to reupholster it in camo. I told him absolutely not.

We also have some gorgeous family crests, although they’re not exactly ours because of the whole usurpation thing.

After the spirits unsexed me and filled me from the crown to the toe top full with direst cruelty, I decided that I needed a dedicated room for myself. I have a proper bar in there and a lot of taxidermy, including a wildebeest and a squirrel paddling a canoe.

I adore my decorative raven, which I actually shot and stuffed myself. Macbeth doesn’t really like taxidermy, but he always says, “Happy wife, happy life!”

Banquo’s ghost, no question. The absolute worst thing about killing people is that they always turn into ghosts and show up at your dinner parties. Macbeth really lost it, which was mortifying for me, particularly as I wasn’t feeling superconfident about my soufflé that evening.

Finding a comfortable bed for the master suite. We don’t sleep well. Apparently, I have been walking around at night, folding pieces of paper and trying to wash imaginary blood off my hands. I just finished Arianna Huffington’s latest book, which has some great tips about how to get the best sleep for maximum rich-white-person success, but my husband is all, “SLEEP NO MORE! MACBETH DOES MURDER SLEEP.” He thinks that the problem is reckoning with our heinous crimes, but I think we’re dealing with a mattress issue. It’s time to go Tempur-Pedic.

I’d like a red Sencor toaster. And maybe central heating; it’s cold as balls here. I don’t know if this is our dream home, but it’s great for now— and much better than Macduff’s castle, although we haven’t been over there recently.

Just because we’re in Scotland doesn’t mean that you have to incorporate a lot of tartan. You don’t need your home to look like a university club filled with asshole bankers. Hey, when it comes to decorating, fair is foul, and foul is fair, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Excerpted from Decorating a Room of One’s Own. Copyright © 2018 by Susan Harlan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.