Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Book Note: Nutshell

McEwan, Ian. Nutshell: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Whole handfuls of Hamlets have filled bookshelves and DVD racks around the world. There's even a collective noun for a bunch of Hamlets.

It's "a vengeance of Hamlets" for those of you keeping score (for which, q.v.).

Productions of and retellings of Hamlet fill every genre out there: tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

There are male Hamlets and female Hamlets, truly insane Hamlets and cagey Hamlets, skeptical Hamlets and religious Hamlets, old Hamlets and young Hamlets.

Speaking of young Hamlets, Ian McEwan retells the story of Hamlet from a record-breakingly young Hamlet. His Hamlet has not yet been born—though he's very nearly ready to do so.

The epigraph for the book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, from Hamlet: "Oh, God—I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space" (II.ii.254-55). That's our narrator—bounded in the womb, he thinks and plans and schemes . . . but cannot act—or can he?

That's a clever device, but McEwan makes more of it than just a passing, fleeting idea. Our narrator overhears the plots his mother and uncle concoct—in this modern setting, juice of cursed hebenon in a vial has been replaced by antifreeze in a smoothie (and it's ingested rather than poured in the ear)—and contemplates the fate that awaits them all

I found it to be a compelling novel, providing an interesting reading of Hamlet's helplessness. Let me give you a sample of the narrator's voice. At the beginning of Chapter Nine, he imagines what he might say to his father (who's a published poet rather than a king)—and contemplates the fallen world:


I've done some preliminary searching to see if anyone has taken a stance on just which Shakespeare sonnet Hamlet alludes to, but I'm not finding anything definitive. It does sound like an awful lot of them, but I wonder if it's Sonnet 74 ("But be contented: when that fell arrest / Without all bail shall carry me away . . ."). If you have another suggestion, please leave a comment!

The novel may not become a mainstay of my modern Shakespearean fiction class, but it's important to know and pretty amusing.


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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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