Interesting. That’s the word that springs to mind when trying to sum up my thoughts on Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. It is very interesting.
It is an interesting concept; the idea of modern-day Hamlet as foetus. And it works. Assuming, that is, that you suspend your disbelief for a moment, and go along with the idea that a foetus is capable of cognitive thought. (My favourite review of this book refers to it as a ‘Womb with a View’. Very droll).
I’ve been trying to write my review of this for a while. I keep circling back to it – not quite sure on which side of the fence I am sitting on. (How very Hamlet of me, indeed). For the most part, I enjoyed it, but there was something that wasn’t quite right at the same time.
But let us start at the beginning.
Nutshell is set in the present(ish) day. We find Trudy, 9 months pregnant with Hamlet as foetus. She has left her husband, John, a struggling poet, but taken up residence in his multi-million pound, but dilapidated townhouse in London. She has taken as a lover, Claude, playing out the betrayal we see in the play, and the novel follows the course of their relationship as they decide how to eliminate John (and his claim to the house) from their lives.
In Nutshell the betrayal is very much more tangible than in the play of Hamlet. For starters, Trudy has actively betrayed her still living husband – not the memory of him. And, as the book unfolds, we see the differences between Trudy and Gertrude. Trudy is a much less sympathetic character, actively complicit – indeed a driving force – for her ex-husband’s murder. The motivation of Claude and Trudy are much simpler, being as they are purely financial. It’s not just Trudy who has different characteristics than the book. John is a weak character, easily pushed about – unlike what we hear of Old Hamlet in the play. The inactiveness of Hamlet himself is down to physical restrictions, rather than mental. Claude is often closer to Polonius than Claudius, with his self indulgent pontifications.
Ay, there’s the rub. Nutshell is similar yet different to its source material. Hamlet, itself, is a very complex play, full of intricacies, double-meaning, and bits to puzzle out, so by changing and simplifying the plot in the way that McEwan has, you are going to lose a lot of this. Even by just removing the royal-family element of the plot and replacing it with financial gain, you lose the complexity of court life, and the real motivation of usurping power. And with a purely financial agreement, the story and the motivation is, by implication, weaker. Added too that we have a Hamlet in the know, indeed a Hamlet trying to prevent, rather than revenge – which turns the original on its head. So much of Hamlet is about him learning who he can trust, and indeed, doubting what he has seen – this is not the case for the self-assured Foetus Hamlet that we meet in Nutshell.
Perhaps then, it is this which has had me sitting on the fence, because Nutshell is a very clever book in a number of ways, but it falls down in comparison to the original. Shakespeare is a lot to live up to; Hamlet itself has a huge heritage. It is a lot to live up to. It is impossible to view Nutshell without comparing it – and indeed comparison should be welcome (since why would you write something like this if it wasn’t). But it will always be a harsh comparison. For me, some of McEwan’s authorial decisions weaken the overall novel. But, nevertheless, there are still a number of interesting elements to the book that has been written.
Firstly, of course, the concept of Foetus as narrator. I believe this has been explored before – but I have to confess, I’ve not read anything which uses this device. Now you have to take this, and the “science”, with a pinch of salt. The foetus is clearly biased, and we are relying on his interpretation of events (which mirrors the play, where the audience is told much more than it ever sees). However, the interpretation is much more straightforward in many respects, because it is peppered with events which are also reported in a fairly straight manner (more on them, later). The foetus – just as play Hamlet does – has an obsessional love for his mother. He overlooks many of her failings (her over-indulgence in wine, lots of wine, at nine months pregnant, for example) and although he does reprimand her for certain things, his anger is largely directed at Claude. So far so similar, but then of course, it diverges. As a foetus, he has what play Hamlet so desires – utter closeness to his mother. He is literally at one with her. Where she goes, he goes; they cannot be separated (until he is born, which does seem to cause him some anxiety); she is his.
And that changes things. He is complicit in his father’s murder. He sees their plotting. He knows the plan. It’s the opposite to the play because we meet Hamlet before. Whereas play-Hamlet is paralysed from acting after from his own indecision, and his fear of what may happen next, book-hamlet is paralysed physically. Although he knows what is going to happen, he is unable to stop it because there is a physical barrier between him and the world in which the action takes place. The future is more certain – at some point Hamlet will be born, and they will murder his father – and it is the foetus’ powerlessness that we feel very keenly as readers. Though he does consider devising a plan of action to save his father, it is ultimately his loyalty to his mother which wins.
There are further costs to him being so close to his mother. The things that Play-Hamlet accuses Gertrude of are literally played out in the book. The relationship with Claude; the ‘frailty’ of women – all of it. In many respects, the closeness that Play Hamlet dreams of, is also his worst nightmare. We see his breakdown in the play when he thinks of Gertrude and Claudius together – and there he only has supposition and assumption. Here, he has a front row seat – literally. He is there when they make love. He is there when they plot. He is always there and he cannot escape.
Because Hamlet is always there, and because of the setting of the novel, it does lose a lot of the play’s metaphorical power. One example – being poisoned in the ear has the double meaning of words and act. A glycol laced smoothie is far too millenial for that. The grand and impressive Hamlet’s father is reduced to a snivelling and somewhat pathetic shell of its origin character. It’s hard for us – and indeed for Hamlet – to admire him. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, stemming from the poison in the ears and in the minds of the characters in the play. This is not so here – a delipidated house does not have the same power. Neither does the motive of money. Trudy stands only to lose, not gain, from her ex-husband (a man so clearly besotted with her that he will let her have anything if it means she will not leave him). That Trudy is so involved with the murder seems a little forced. She becomes almost the Lady Macbeth to Claude’s Polonius.
Something else I feel is a little lacking is in the characterisation. Trudy lacks the emotional and intellectual nuances that we see from Gertrude. She doesn’t go through the state of realisation that Gertrude does as she starts to see Claudius for who he really is. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic, but for me a large part of the tragedy in Hamlet is that for all their flaws, there are some sympathetic characters and with a little more understanding, perhaps a different ending may have been possible. I can’t see that in Nutshell. It’s a shame too to miss out on the more endearing or steady characters (Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, and Gertrude as she is portrayed in the play). Without these Without these buffers the whole cast is dangerously close to being completely unlikeable, self-absorbed and selfish.
For all my criticisms, I do think it is an exceptionally clever book – if a little unsatisfying to read. It is not designed to be a copy of the play, so perhaps it is a little unfair of me to contrast it so sharply. Being a short novel, based off the longest Shakespearian play comes into it too. If you were to explore all the themes set up by Shakespeare you would need something along the lines of War and Peace in length! Hamlet has a lot of heritage, it is a particularly well studied play, and it was a particularly ambitious project with McEwan chose. Bearing that in mind, should I even be surprised that the idea was better than the execution? One of the next books I intend to read is Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her retelling of The Tempest. I’ll be interested to see how that compares….
3 out of 5 Stars.