Nutshell by Ian McEwan: The Day My Shakespeare Class Finally Paid Off

Fall semester, senior year. The real world and its rapid shift in values was a-coming. My college bliss could not hold. Might as well, I decided, get really serious about academics. Take the classes not for the grades, but for the knowledge. Radical idea, I know. Lucky for me, class I took on Monday and Wednesday mornings of that semester was one of the most challenging — and rewarding — courses of my life: Shakespeare I with James Shapiro. As any Shakespeare aficionado can tell you, Shapiro is the leading Shakespeare academic, and one of the rare few who’s crossed over into trade book relevance. In class, Shapiro was an animated, leaping, terrifying maniac. He’d prowl at the lectern and pick off actors from the seats.  We’d drag ourselves onto the stage to play Romeo, Juliet, King Henry — dredged up that mortification I thought I left behind in 6th grade. Some arrived stiff with self-consciousness; others, the ones I admired, spooled out soliloquies earnestly, and with a dash of goofiness. As for when it was my turn? It turns out out all your past yous are still there, waiting for James Shapiro to call you on to a makeshift stage and pretend to be Anne in King Richard, about to be seduced.

The most electrifying and excruciating moment in class was the Hamlet unit. Shapiro drilled in his point for Hamlet: that each Shakespeare play is bursting with limitless possibility, that the execution of one line — one word in one line — can have significant reverberations for character and plot, that the decisions a director makes on stage are what make the play. While reading Hamlet, then, we tried to envision the impossible number of Hamlets contained in the play. Wussy Hamlet, vengeful Hamlet, noble Hamlet. Hamlet who loves his mother. Hamlet in love with his mother. Hamlet with an overactive imagination. Hamlet gone mad by betrayal. Hamlet the academic, Hamlet the boy, Hamlet the man. An ending gone sinister. An ending gone peaceful. It was overwhelming: there was no “right answer,” there was no one Hamlet.

All this Hamlet talk led to quite a bit of Hamlet memorization.

So you can’t imagine how delighted I was when, reading Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, I realized the entire book was littered with little variations on Shakespeare’s plays. McEwan’s book is unabashedly clever. Narrated by an unborn fetus made privy to his mother’s and his uncle’s schemes to kill his father, the very premise is clearly a spin on Hamlet. Take the characters’ names: his mother, Trudy (Gertrude) and his uncle, Claude (Claudius). Claude orders Danish food after he kills his brother.

Of course, there’s more to this book than allusion. But for an English major, catching allusions in words of literature is akin to catching coins in Mario. Who cares, in the end, if no one is keeping track but me. After finishing this book, I wanted to award myself a Level Up and stomp around like Big Mario after eating a mushroom. Reading this book was an utter blast. First, there’s the title, an obvious reference to a Hamlet soliloquy: “Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” Or, when Claude, the fetus’s unimaginably dense uncle, says, “So we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever,” a botching of Lady Macbeth’s “Screw your courage to the sticking place” — my favorite motivational line, spoken by a true snake 🐍..  I don’t even care if the Shakespeare references were overdone or heavy handed. I was too busy playing “gotta catch ’em all” to be critical on the art as a whole.

“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”  (This quote stopped me on my vigorous plowing through the pages. I even took a picture.)

I can just imagine Ian emerging from the shower, wiping down his legs with a towel, and thinking — wouldn’t it be funny if a baby narrated a book? And, since he is Ian McEwan, he probably sat down, and out came a devastatingly clever stunt of somersaulting soliloquies. While I found the book to be lacking in elements of character (Trudy is slippery and impossible to really know) and plot (the most ill-conceived murder in history), the book achieved great heights with its clever language and its novel take on Hamlet. For people as amused by literature as I am, read the book, and pat yourself on the back for being part of the club.

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