Chaos and Dissimulation in Ian McEwan's Modern Retelling of Hamlet

By Margherita Codurelli
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09 | pg. 1/1


This paper analyses Ian McEwan’s reuse of Shakespeare’s material in his retelling of Hamlet from the unusual point of view of an unborn child. By considering its plot, characters, setting and main issues, McEwan’s novel Nutshell will be investigated focusing on how his process of appropriation is both a study of a universal tale of doubt and indecision, and a way to transpose Shakespeare’s universal truths to a modern historical and cultural context. Specific examples from both texts are meant to provide insight into the similarities and the differences between them, lastly suggesting how Shakespeare’s idea of a final restoration of order is here thrown into chaos, which mirrors the lack of certainties of a time that is “out of joint.”

In act II, scene 2, talking with his university friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet gives vent to his increasing dissatisfaction with the present state of the kingdom of Denmark, which has become a prison to his young and unsettled mind:

GUILDENSTERN Prison, my lord?

HAMLET Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ Then is the world one.

HAMLET A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o’th’ worst.

ROSENCRANTZ We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET Why, then ‘tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ‘tis too narrow for your mind.

HAMLET O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.[2]

The significance of this short extract in relation to the overall tragedy lies in its bringing together the main ideas of Shakespeare’s most famous and most admired play: Hamlet, a complex tragedy of betrayal, murder and revenge, but more than anything a tragedy of the human mind, torn by doubts, uncertainties and contending passions. Hamlet’s assertion that something is wrong in Denmark echoes Marcellus’s opening claim,3 and despite its being only based on the ghost’s evidence at this stage of the play, it becomes revelatory of a thinking mind, which goes beyond the surface of things and perceives narrowness, confinement and dissimulation where everyone else sees nothing but honesty and truthfulness. What Hamlet needs is mental rather than physical space, the latter being no problem for him, since, in his own words, he could even be bounded in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space at the same time. However, he clearly doesn’t feel at ease in the ‘nutshell’ of Denmark, where blood and crime hide everywhere, with no one worth trusting and no space to think freely and voice his grief.

What in Hamlet was an abstract concept and an effective metaphor, becomes the physical condition of the narrating voice in Ian McEwan’s novel, Nutshell (2016), a captivating retelling of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, which turns the undecided prince of Denmark into a “monologuing embryo,”4 “Baby-to-Be.”5 According to Kate Clanchy, McEwan’s literary effort is “a calling together of everything McEwan has learned and knows about his art,”6 while John Boyne describes it as “certainly his most intriguing book […] recalling the darker short stories of his early career.”7 The novel is entirely told from the unusual perspective of a fetus in his third trimester. From within the warm and protective walls of his mother’s womb, this little hero overhears Trudy, a modern version of Gertrude, conversing with her lover Claude, the fetus’ uncle and a modern Claudius, and devising a plan, which involves poisoning her husband John, selling the marital home he had inherited, a decaying but still highly valuable Georgian house in north London, disposing of her child and running away with her lover.

McEwan’s appropriation and reuse of Hamlet is a reflection on an immortal tale of anxiety and indecision, and meanwhile a successful attempt to shed new light on an existential tragedy, by transposing its universal truths to a modern context. In her review of the novel for The Guardian, Kate Clanchy primarily expresses her concern about the effectiveness of McEwan’s challenging choice:

This may not sound like an entirely promising read: a talking foetus could be an unconvincing or at least tiresomely limited narrator, and updatings of Shakespeare often strain at their own seams.8

What this latter statement and other similar points of view tend to overlook in their stigmatising the novel’s supposed faults and weaknesses is the timelessness of Hamlet and all Shakespeare’s plays, which are a “repository of fundamental truths,”9 whose range of potential meanings is both extended and enriched by adapting it to a historical and cultural context that has experienced massive changes. In his essay on Shakespeare and modern popular culture, Douglas Lanier clearly makes this point:

What makes this possible is a certain universality of human nature, an unchanging core of concerns, desires, and feelings that governs how people of all eras and cultures respond to art.10

The opening sentences already set the tone of the entire novel, focusing on the baby’s contending thoughts while entering conscious life, and on his feelings of anger, fear and helplessness in front of the crime Trudy and Claude are plotting:

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against my bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in. […] I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. […] The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. […] My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, to avenge it.11

Hamlet’s longed-for loneliness and detachment from the Danish court, which makes his long and complex soliloquies our only opportunity to get acquainted with his most hidden thoughts, is here mirrored by the fetus’ being confined in doubts and impotence to a very small place, his mother’s womb. Unable to act, he is constrained to listen to the murder plot and patiently wait to be born in order to foil or, if it is too late, at least to avenge the crime that is being planned. Unlike Hamlet, he can’t truly take action.

The usurped kingdom of Elsinore is here replaced by a London terraced house in St John’s Wood, where Trudy, his mother, lives with her lover, the property developer Claude, after forcing her husband and Claude’s brother John to move out, pretending to be in need of more space during the last months of her pregnancy, and claiming that “the separation is to give them each ‘time and space to grow’ and renew their bonds.”12 The detailed description of the three characters contributes to the portrayal of the “adulterous triangle”13 which surrounds the unborn child, providing at the same time the starting point for a reflection on the breakup of the modern family. The baby’s recurring worries about the failure of his parents’ marriage, defined as “the unweeded garden of their marriage,”14 substitute Hamlet’s more widespread preoccupation with the state of Denmark after his father’s death. Nevertheless, the metaphor they use is exactly the same, as is often the case throughout McEwan’s novel.15

Claude’s is the only name which has been faithfully transposed from the play into the novel. Indeed, Claude is the perfect 21st-century villain in the Shakespearean writing style, to be compared with characters such as King Claudius in Hamlet, Iago in Othello, King Richard III and, most of all, in line with the model of villain carefully described in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe.16 Unlike Trudy, after poisoning John he is not even remotely agitated by remorse, but he immediately regains control of his thoughts: he sleeps peacefully, whistles, sings, dances and, on top of that, he takes on a casual and dismissing tone while reading the news of John’s sudden death, making it sound as something natural. In short, he is master of the situation. This is how McEwan describes him, highlighting his remarkable similarity with Machiavelli’s villain:

Claude, unlike Trudy, owns his crime. This is a Renaissance man, a Machiavel, an old-school villain who believes he can get away with murder. The world doesn’t come to him through a haze of the subjective; it comes refracted by stupidity and greed […]. Claude doesn’t know he is stupid. If you are stupid, how can you tell? He may blunder through an undergrowth of clichés, but he understands what he did and why. He will flourish, without a backward glance, unless caught and punished, and then he’ll never blame himself, only his bad luck among random events.17

As this passage plainly shows, not only is Claude devilish and satanic, but he is also a dull and vulgar man, whose lack of culture, sensibility and human values is replaced by empty sentences full of commonplaces, by his love of food, alcohol, cars and, most of all, sex, which is the only ‘valuable’ thing he can offer Trudy. There is something brutal and wild in the way he acts. During sexual intercourse, for instance, he is compared to a horse, Trudy merely being a submissive animal at his disposal, a mouse ready to be trapped in order to satisfy his eager and violent appetite,18 but, at the same time, fully aware of her powerlessness. As such, Claude becomes the embodiment of a superficial and materialistic society like the current one. By scattering countless Shakespearean references along the way, the baby labels him “maggot-uncle,”19 then he accuses him of usurping John’s bed and turning it into a “nasty sty,”20 and he ironically refers to him as “a piece of work,”21 the Renaissance definition of the complete man’s characteristics, as summed up in Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s achievements. What’s more, there is a world of difference between Claude and John, as the fetus points out, echoing Hamlet’s first soliloquy. The terms of comparison are different, but the same idea of inferiority, lack of dignity, culture and beauty is conveyed:

My uncle – a quarter of my genome, of my father’s half, but no more like my father than I to Virgil or Montaigne. What despicable part of myself is Claude and how will I know?.22

Whereas Claude is a like a satyr, John is a new Hyperion.23 McEwan turns him into a failed poet and poetry publisher, overweight, suffering from psoriasis, full of debts, but still eager to please his wife with his “outdated, stiffly formal, too ’beautiful’”24 love poems. The choice of such a common name, John, to refer to this modern King Hamlet could suggest the universality of his condition of estranged and betrayed husband – he may actually embody each one of us -, while his surname, Cairncross, might stand for a hidden prefiguration of his death, which thus acquires a deeper religious meaning, hinting at Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Nevertheless, John is everything else except a modern character: the clothes and shoes he wears, his sharp sensitivity to poetry, art and music, his refined use of language and his traditional vision of love determine his being out of place in the impoverished society which finds its perfect embodiment in Claude’s vulgarity. While Claude is always around, John is already a ghostly father, whose visits fade as time goes by, and despite his being aware of Trudy’s love affair with his own brother, he likes losing himself in the memories of the former idyll of their marriage. His broad reflection on the relationship between true love and time recalls, with little variation, the player king’s monologue in Hamlet’s ‘play within the play’: love is no universal principle, it’s rather subjected to external circumstances, such as the passing of time and a change in fortune.

When love dies and a marriage lies in ruins, the first casualty is honest memory, decent, impartial recall of the past. Too inconvenient, too damning of the present. It’s the spectre of old happiness at the feast of failure and desolation. So, against that headwind of forgetfulness I want to place my little candle of truth and see how far it throws its light. […] Our love was so fine and grand, it seemed to us a universal principle. […] May it never been denied, forgotten, distorted or rejected as illusion. It happened. It was true.25

In order to trigger Trudy’s jealousy, John pretends to have found a new life and a platonic love in Elodie, a young and pretty aspiring poet, “who writes about owls, and whose name rhymes with ‘threnody’ – a lamentation to the dead,”26 not to forget McEwan’s symbolic choice of his characters’ names. Elodie is in all things a modern Ophelia: she is pure, authentic and, unlike Trudy, she is deeply in love with John’s love poems. Following the news of John’s supposed suicide, she doesn’t succeed in concealing her thoughts, and she gives vent to her deep and sincere grief, which is at odds with the two lovers’ imperturbability. In a succession of teary and broken sentences, she provides a revealing description of John’s greatness as a poet, a portrait which is completely different from Trudy’s lying about John’s depression and self-doubt:

All John’s instructions are engraved on my heart. […] We loved the poets he loved, his opinions became our own. We listened to his radio talks, we went to the readings he sent us to. And we went to his own. We knew his poems, his anecdotes, his catchphrases. We thought we knew him. It never crossed our minds that John, the grown-up, the high priest, had problems too. Or that he doubted his poetry just as we did ours. […] If only we’d known.27

In a society otherwise ruled by duplicity and dissimulation, as we will discuss in more detail over the next pages, her musical voice is one of the few instances of authenticity that can be found in McEwan’s novel. However, as the unborn child listens to Elodie’s perhaps too worshipping words, one question spontaneously arises:

Elodie eludes me, like a half-remembered song – an unfinished melody indeed. […] This is my Elodie problem. What is she doing here? […] Should I like her or distrust her?28

Is Elodie trustworthy as she praises John’s poems? She may be pretending in her turn, but the question is bound to be left unanswered, since she is and will remain an ‘elusive’ character, to use McEwan’s own words, one of the less explicit of the novel. What’s certain is that she helps enhance Trudy’s inner conflict, by revealing that there was no love affair between John and her. It was just a plan devised by John to win Trudy’s affection again.

Besides the fetus, Trudy is perhaps one of the most complex characters of the novel. When comparing her to Queen Gertrude, what immediately draws the attention of the reader, apart from her name, which is slightly different from the one in Hamlet – with an ironical emphasis on Trudy’s untrue and inauthentic behaviour29 – is the focus on the inner struggle she experiences due to her conflicting passions towards John and Claude. Whereas in Shakespeare’s play we had no certainties about Queen Gertrude’s being privy to the murder of her husband and about the feelings hiding below her enigmatic and apparently immovable surface, Trudy is clearly involved in the crime which is meant to get rid of John, her formerly dear husband. Their once powerful love is over, as she tells Claude, echoing Hamlet’s words to Ophelia.30 She no longer loves him, or, at least, this is what she claims. Does she really hate John if his hinting at a love story with Elodie seems to be enough to provoke her jealousy and increase her agony? As it happens in Othello, jealousy becomes that “green-eyed monster”31 which helps speed up the action and make her pronounce the fatal words: “I want him dead. And it has to be tomorrow.”32 However, it’s soon after her husband’s death, the indifferent and unaffected Claude being the only person in the world she can still rely on, that she fully realises what she has done. To her, John is now the innocent victim of a cruel murder, she mourns his death as Gertrude does with poor Ophelia,33 and she addresses Claude with the same words she had previously employed to refer to her husband: “I hate you.”34 She hates Claude for involving her in a terrible act, but, at the same time, she is physically attracted to him, like a trapped mouse, a chess piece in his hands. She is a helpless woman ruled by a brutal man, as is often the case in contemporary society.

Without being fully aware of it, Trudy is Claude’s prisoner in a dilapidated house, where the whole action takes place, recalling Aristotle’s three unities in classical plays. John’s former marital home is now the place where Trudy and Claude devise their plan. It’s a small kingdom of Elsinore, a dusty and corrupted microcosm, which mirrors the macrocosm of society, and where everything conveys an idea of ruin, decay, depravity and suffocation: in short, Shakespeare’s metaphor of a ‘rotten place’35 acquires in this case a more literal meaning. In chapter 8, after Trudy’s resolution to speed up John’s murder, McEwan lingers on the description of the house. Bad and stormy weather36 further contributes to the creation of an apocalyptic scenery, mirroring the chaos which has entered the characters’ souls:

It will end badly, and the house feels the ruin too. In high summer, the February gale twists and breaks the icicles hanging from the gutters, scours the unpointed brickwork of the gable ends, rips the slates – those blank slates – from the pitching roofs. This chill works his fingers past the rotted putty of the unwashed panes, it backs up through the kitchen drains. I’m shivering in here. But it won’t end, the bad will be endless, until ending badly will seem a blessing. Nothing will be forgotten, nothing flushed away. Foul matter lingers in unseen bends beyond the plumber’s reach, it hangs in the wardrobes with Trudy’s winter coats. This too solid stench feeds the timid mice behind the skirting and swells them to rats.37

Compared with the musty atmosphere which permeates his future ‘kingdom’, the fetus’ condition in Trudy’s womb is to him one of perfect bliss, having nothing to do with the condition of “not being” commonly associated with prebirth. He enjoys this privilege of pure solitude as if he found himself within the protective walls of a castle, far from the external world and from the evil side of mankind. He clearly points it out in one of his countless soliloquies:

Just think: nothing to do but be and grow, where growing is hardly a conscious act. The joy of pure existence, the tedium of the undifferentiated days. Extended bliss is boredom of the existential kind. […] In here I’m owed the privilege and luxury of solitude.38

Furthermore, by way of his mother’s addiction to radio, audiobooks and self-improving podcasts he has educated himself, reaching an all-round knowledge of the state of the world he is about to enter, which he repeatedly describes as “a bad dream.”39 Hamlet’s worries for Fortinbras’ invasion of Denmark acquire here a broader meaning, becoming a pessimistic fear for the crisis of Europe’s secular dreams of union and for the emergence of self-loving nationalisms, together with terrorism, financial disaster, political conflicts immigration, poverty, global warming and a possible nuclear war, all this leading to an unavoidable crisis of human values. He sees no alternatives for the world to which the folly and ambition of mankind have helped give birth.

Through my mother’s bones I encountered a bad dream in the guise of a formal lecture. The state of the world. An expert in international relations, a reasonable woman with a rich deep voice, advised me that the world was not well. […] We’ve build a world too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage. […] It’s dusk in the second Age of Reason. We are wonderful, but now we are doomed.40

Therefore, from the very beginning “the neonatal narrator feels himself properly locked in the older binary of ‘to be or not to be’,”41 though in reverse. Indeed, the condition of ‘being’ is associated with the warmth and protection of his mother’s womb, whereas ‘not being’ is what permeates the world which is waiting for him, and which the baby is already experiencing by way of Trudy’s and Claude’s plotting. However, he cannot but listen to them planning the murder, being utterly powerless and unable to stop them. From this peculiar point of view, the womb ceases to be a castle, a kingdom, a nutshell, and it becomes a prison, a place of isolation and ‘not being', which prevents him from taking action and unmasking the two plotters. What in Hamlet’s situation was primarily a psychological obstacle, causing his conscience to postpone vengeance over and over again, is turned into a condition of physical imprisonment, the walls of the utero being a symbol of the mental chains which paralyze Hamlet’s conscience. Unlike Shakespeare’s hero, the baby overhears the entire plan, thus possessing something more than Hamlet’s mere evidence of the ghost, but he is also alone, with no Horatio to talk with. All he can do is ask and answer questions himself and hope to be born as soon as possible in order to avenge his father. But things are more complex than they appear to be, and he is aware of it: if revenge is an instinctive and as such a forgivable impulse, what might it happen if it is violently enacted? It might end up threatening human civilisation, this is what the baby foresees, and making it return to Hobbes’ old visceral fear. In this way, as he plainly admits, he is “absolving” himself of “cowardice,”42 and his prenatal condition is turned into a kind of Hamletic self-justification of inaction and powerlessness, rather than a real impossibility to take action. By now, the reader will have noticed how difficult it is to enter the narrator’s mind and grasp what is actually taking place in it.

Although his body is compressed in a small place, his melancholic thoughts are “light-footed”43 and they move relentlessly. In one of his most beautiful soliloquies, he reveals all his disappointment for the degeneration of mankind, which is here summed up in the crime to which he’s about to be witness:

[…] lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire or earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench. The brave polity I’m soon to join, the noble congregation of humanity, its customs, gods and angels, its fiery ideas and brilliant ferment, no longer thrill me. A weight bears down heavily on the canopy that wraps my little frame. There’s hardly enough of me to form one small animal, still less to express a man. My disposition is to stillborn sterility, then to dust.44

In these thoughts we glimpse a faithful though updated retelling of Hamlet’s well-known soliloquy on melancholy, containing the same pessimistic tone and exactly the same words and images, here highlighted in italics:

I have of late – but wherefore I know notlost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire – why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me […].45

One of the reasons of the baby’s lack of delight, perhaps the main one, is dissimulation, the opposition between things as they really are and things as they are perceived. Such a question is also at the core of Hamlet’s view of the court of Elsinore and of his search for truth against pretence and deceit. To him, not only is Elsinore a prison, but it is also a place of trappings, masks and shows, the same semantic field we find in Nutshell, where the starting point of the baby’s reflection is the certainty that his mother’s doesn’t just seem but is involved in a crime.46 While listening to the conversations around him, he perceives theatrical attitudes, artificial gestures, fake expressions and voices.47 There is a world of difference between the characters’ external appearance and their most hidden thoughts, this resulting in his constant inability to establish trustworthy relationships and to find out “what’s not being said.”48 Although the fetus is granted special access to some of Trudy’s thoughts and worries by way of her digestive system and the sudden acceleration of her heart’s rhythm, his perspective remains limited, since what he can penetrate is merely a small part of the many-sided reality surrounding his ‘kingdom’. He has to rely on supposition alone, and this is a further reason of his frustration:

I think she doesn’t like Claude’s casual, even dismissive tone. Just my guess. However close you get to others, you can never get inside them, even when you’re inside them. I think she is feeling wounded. But she says nothing yet.49

The plan devised by Trudy and Claude is repeatedly described as “theatre,”50 a play of cards, a game of chess, a “fly,”51 where each actor is called on to perform some lines learned by heart and make them sound as natural and convincing as possible. In short, a modern ‘play within the play’, whose aim is to catch not one but two mice: John, of course, and, though indirectly, Trudy, who is manipulated by Claude to achieve his own dubious goals. However, this is not the only instance of theatrical attitude in the novel, since in the last chapters McEwan introduces a character which is not in Hamlet. This additional character is none other than the police, represented by the impenetrable Chief Inspector Clare Allison, who replaces Hamlet, and so the baby, in the carrying out of the surveys. Through Hobbes’ words, the state is described as a big and powerful monster, as a Leviathan, acting as a higher moral force, whose “latticework […] lies invisibly across the city”52 and whose apparently simple questions are a “trap”53 that is hard to escape.

The distance which separates Shakespeare from modern society is remarkable: the omnipresent, inquisitive role of the state has now replaced Hamlet’s father’s request of revenge, thus relegating the mysterious and the supernatural to the sidelines, when not aiming at their complete disappearance. In the Age of Reason, there is indeed no longer room for folly and ghosts’ appearances. Consequently, what in Hamlet was a fascinating cultural heritage of the Middle Ages,54 in which most people still firmly believed, and, at the same time, a way to attract the attention of a mixed audience, becomes here the unborn child’s hallucination, a vision due to his mother’s addiction to alcohol. A third glass of Claude’s Scotch unsettles his mind, causing its gates to open and enabling him to see his own father, with “rotting” lips and “maggot-friendly flesh,”55 coming from the mortuary to take revenge himself, killing Claude, now in his turn a helpless mouse, and kissing Trudy one last time. As the fetus remarks, the apparition is not a ghost but a corporeal father, the kind of vision which best fits a materialistic society.

The Scotch, my first, sets something free. A harsh liberation - the open gate leads to struggle and fear of what my mind might devise. It’s happening now to me. I’m asked, I’m asking myself, what it is that I most want now. Anything I want. Realism not a limiting factor. Cut the ropes, set the mind free. […] I asked myself. And that’s what I wanted. A childish Halloween fantasy. How else to commission a revenge in a secular age? The Gothic has been reasonably banished, the witches have fled the heath, and materialism, so troubling to the soul, is all I have left.56

Though frightening and disgusting, such a vision grants the baby with a temporary escape from a harsh reality, but simultaneously, as is often the case with his conflicting thoughts, it becomes a stimulus to enter the world through birth, and to act.57 A similar dynamic can be observed in chapter 11, after the description of Trudy’s dream58 to which he is involuntarily witness. Here McEwan succeeds in drawing a picture whose Shakespearean flavour is undeniable: a cold mist, a journey on horseback, rutted lanes, flooded meadows by the Thames, aroma of roasted meat and rosemary, a handsome young man, and, in the midst of this old-style atmosphere, a funeral procession with a bell tolling,59 calling for an action that cannot be put off any longer:

Outside in the street a bell tolls. We crowd outside to wait for the funeral cortège. We know this is an important death. The procession doesn’t appear, but the bell keeps ringing.60

It’s interesting to notice how up to this point the baby’s initial ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ dilemma has been reversed. If he previously identified his pre-existence in utero with a condition of ‘being’, opposing it to the nightmarish ‘not being’ of real life, now this feeling has been replaced by a great willingness to be born, a strong faith in life after birth and a dream of happiness, which spurs him to imagine “the world as golden,”61 full of real objects instead of shades, illusions and abstractions. He eventually acknowledges that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy, and in the ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ debate, he lands firmly on the side of life,”62 It’s exactly this belief which prevents him from committing suicide in Trudy’s womb, using the umbilical cord, “[…] three turns around my neck of the mortal coil,”63 In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet chooses ‘being’ instead of ‘not being’, ascribing his feeble resolution to his fear of death and of the afterlife:

HAMLET Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought […].[64]

Unlike Hamlet, to the baby’s mind post-birth existence is neither an ‘undiscovered country’ nor a place of mere agony. He strongly wishes to be witness to his age and to be given the chance to experience the colours, shapes and sounds of a multi-faceted world, while, carrying out his plan of revenge against his “incestuous uncle.”65 As usual, he states it in one of his well-spoken soliloquies:

It’s not the theme parks of Paradiso and Inferno that I dread most – the heavenly rides, the hellish crowds – and I could live with the insult of eternal oblivion. I don’t even mind not knowing which it will be. What I fear is missing out. Healthy desire or mere greed, I want my life first, my due, my infinitesimal slice of endless time and one reliable chance of a consciousness. I’m owed a handful of decades to try my luck on a freewheeling planet. […] I want my go. I want to become.66

In order to ‘become’ and act, there is only one thing left to do, a final decision to be made, which the baby approaches boldly, leaving all doubts and indecisions behind. His words echo Hamlet’s resolution in front of Fortinbras’ soldiers:67

After all my turns and revisions, misinterpretations, lapses of insight, attempts at self-annihilation, and sorrow in passivity, I’ve come to a decision. Enough. My amniotic sac is the translucent silk purse, fine and strong, that contains me. It also holds the fluid that protects me from the world and its bad dreams. No longer. Time to join in. To end the endings. Time to begin.68

His “relentless ejection”69 from the waters of Trudy’s womb, becomes to him a new beginning, the passing from an illusion of existence to a real and authentic condition of being. Set naked on his ‘kingdom’, like “a shipwrecked sailor on a lucky beach,”70 he now keeps faith to his resolution and takes his longed-for revenge, by ruining Claude’s planned escape from London to avoid further confrontation with the police. However, nothing is more rewarding than the moment in which the baby and his mother exchange a first, long look. By losing himself in the eyes of the woman who gave birth to him, he gets an insight into the world that is waiting for him, with its opposing features: “Beautiful. Loving. Murderous.”71 This will be his future.

What will happen next? Will Trudy’s and Claude’s involvement in John’s murder be discovered? Will the child be imprisoned with them, or, instead, will he be sent away for adoption elsewhere? Will the truth eventually come out? While turning the pages and approaching the conclusion of the story, the reader cannot help asking these and many other questions, eagerly waiting for the last line. Surprisingly, McEwan provides no answer, but an open ending, whose four meaningful words definitively move away from Shakespeare’s vision of life, thus revealing the changed cultural and historical context in which he writes: “The rest is chaos.”72 The reference is to Hamlet’s dying words, “The rest is silence,”73 which are in line with Shakespeare’s and the Elizabethan Age’s idea of a restoration of order, both an allusion to classical tragedies and a further medieval heritage, according to which order on earth mirrored the superior perfection of the universe.74 This prevailing idea of an order finally restored75 can also be perceived by considering the last lines of two among Shakespeare’s most representative plays: Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. In Hamlet, the hero dies after succeeding in killing King Claude and avenging his father’s death, and the surviving Horatio proclaims Fortinbras King of Denmark, following the last words of Hamlet, who also asks him to speak of him truly after his death:

HAMLET O, I die, Horatio.
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.
I cannot live to hear the news from England,
But I do prophesy th’election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited – the rest is silence.[76]

Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet, the final words are pronounced by the Prince of Verona, who restores order by declaring that the death of the two lovers helped end the long-enduring enmity and opposition between the Capulet and Montague families. It was a sacrificial death, a pharmakos for the whole city:77

PRINCE A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.[78]

Whereas in Shakespeare the concluding words usually mark the end of chaos, and the beginning of peace, order and stability, McEwan’s final words throw order or, at least, a semblance of order, into uncertainty and doubt, thus voicing the chaos of a society on the brink of the abyss, the dismal prospects of a time which is “out of joint,” with the baby hoping to be able to “set it right.”79 The classic ending of Shakespeare’s plays is no longer possible in contemporary society, in which objectivity and universal truths have been banished in favour of individual feelings. The old Cartesian ‘Cogito, ergo, sum’ seems to have been replaced by a new motto, as the baby soon perceives and states: “I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. […] My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth.”80 A triumph of subjectivity over objectivity.

The result is chaos and the proliferation of countless points of view. In this light, Ian McEwan’s and, through him, the child’s final words mark the beginning of a life of doubts, in which his much hoped-for days of happiness and bliss might not come. There is only one certainty: “The rest is chaos.”


ADAMS, T. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – a tragic hero in the making.” In The Guardian, August 30. Accessed June 10, 2017.

BIGGS, J. 2016. “Baby Hamlet.” In The Nation, November 2. Accessed June 10, 2017. https://www.the

BOYNE, J. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review: ridiculous or rather brilliant.” In The Irish Times, September 2. Accessed June 10, 2017. ewan-review-ridiculous-or-rather-brilliant-1.2763491.

CATTANEO, A. 2011. A Short History of English Literature (vol. 1). Milano: Mondadori.

CHARLES, R. 2016. “Ian McEwan’s ‘Nutshell’: A tale of betrayal and murder as told by a fetus.” In The Washington Post, September 12. Accessed June 10, 2017. ment/books/ian-mcewans-nutshell-a-tale-of-betrayal-and-murder-as-told-by-a-fetus/2016/09/121ba2 2-7694-11e6-b786-19d0cb1ed06cstory.html.

CLANCHY, K. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – an elegiac masterpiece.” In The Guardian, August 27. Accessed June 10, 2017.

DONALDSON, E. 2016. “Ian McEwan’s Nutshell narrated, with great fun, by a fetus.” In The Toronto Star, September 11. Accessed June 10, 2017. 09/11/ian-mcewans-nutshell-narrated-with-great-fun-by-a-fetus.html.

KAKUTANI, M. 2016. “‘Nutshell’, a Tale Told by a Baby-to-Be (or Not-To-Be).” In The New York Times, September 5. Accessed June 10, 2017.

LANIER, D. 2002. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LEWIS, C.S. 2015. The Discarded Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MCALPIN, H. 2016. “‘Nutshell,’ by Ian McEwan.” In The San Francisco Chronicle, September 22. Accessed June 10, 2017. php.

MCEWAN, I. 2016. Nutshell. London: Jonathan Cape.

MEDWED, M. 2016. “A sparkling, witty reimagining of ‘Hamlet’ starring an unborn baby.” In The Boston Globe, September 9. Accessed June 10, 2017. 09/08/sparkling-witty-reimagining-hamlet-starring-unborn-baby/7Nqiuqfs4XSSkwXHUnUOsJ/story .html.

MELCHIORI, G. 2010. Shakespeare. Bari: Laterza.

MUKHERJEE, S. 2016. “An Unborn Baby Overhears Plans for a Murder in Ian McEwan’s Latest Novel.” In The New York Times, September 9. Accessed June 10, 2017. 2016/09/11/books/review/ian-mcewan-nutshell.html.

RUGGERI, M. 2016. Shakespeare Sceneggiatore. Milano: Vita e Pensiero.

SHAKESPEARE, W. 1998. Macbeth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SHAKESPEARE, W. 2000. Romeo and Juliet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SHAKESPEARE, W. 2001. Othello. London: Wordsworth Classics.

SHAKESPEARE, W. 2008. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

TAYLER, C. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – womb with a view.” In Financial Times, September 2. Accessed June 10, 2017. ce54 b926.

TREUER, D. 2016. “How does Ian McEwan pull off Hamlet told by a fetus in ‘Nutshell’?.” In The Los Angeles Times, September 16. Accessed June 10, 2017. ewan-nutshell-20160907-snap-story.html.


1.) McEwan 2016, 29: “In my confinement I’ve become a connoisseur of collective dreams. Who knows what’s true? I can hardly recollect the evidence for myself. Every proposition is matched or cancelled by another. Like everyone else, I’ll take what I want, whatever suits me.”

2.) Hamlet, II, 2, 241-254.

3.) In act I, scene 4, as the ghost of King Hamlet appears again and invites Hamlet to follow him, Marcellus pronounces the well-known line: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet, I, 4, 65). Something unusual must have taken place, and the appearance of a ghost clearly witnesses that.

4.) Adams, T. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – a tragic hero in the making.” In The Guardian, August 30. Accessed June 10, 2017.

5.) Kakutani, M. 2016. “Nutshell, a Tale Told by a Baby-to-Be (or Not-to-Be).” In The New York Times, September 5. Accessed June 10, 2017. ell-a-tale-told-by-a-baby-to-be-or-not-to-be.html.

6.) Clanchy, K. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – an elegiac masterpiece.” In The Guardian, August 27. Accessed June 10, 2017.

7.) Boyne, J. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review: ridiculous or rather brilliant.” In The Irish Times, September 2. Accessed June 10, 2017. ewan-review-ridiculous-or-rather-brilliant-1.2763491.

8.) Clanchy, K. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – an elegiac masterpiece.” In The Guardian, August 27.

9.) Lanier 2002, 14.

10.) Ibid., 96. Mario Ruggeri also recognises the universality of Shakespeare’s plots by referring to five among his most admired tragedies: “Se nel corso di questi quattrocento anni il pubblico ha continuato a seguire la vicenda tragica di Otello, Lear, Amleto, Romeo, Giulietta, persino Macbeth, è perché i problemi tragici e i conflitti tematici ad essi collegati appaiono universali. Sono cioè conflitti e problemi che tutti noi, al di là del tempo e dello spazio, possiamo condividere. ‘Temi’, come l’amore contrastato dai vincoli familiari, l’odio distruttivo, la brama di potere, la sete di vendetta, la fedeltà e la fiducia coniugale, l’amore paterno e quello filiale, a cui non possiamo non essere interessati, o quanto meno coinvolti, in quanto costituiscono la nostra sostanza umana” (Ruggeri 2016, 41).

11.) McEwan 2016, 1-3.

12.) Ibid., 10.

13.) Kakutani, M. 2016. “Nutshell, a Tale Told by a Baby-to-Be (or Not-to-Be).” In The New York Times, September 5.

14.) McEwan 2016, 13.

15.) “’Tis an unweeded garden / that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature / possess it merely. That it should come to this!” (Hamlet, I, 2, 35-37). During the Elizabethan Age, the properly tended garden was a common literary image of the world as it should be: ordered, productive and wholesome.

16.) “Machiavelism became synonymous with atheism and a treacherous way of killing, especially with poison – a favourite practice of Cesare Borgia, the supposed model of Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Popular fantasy came to identify Machiavelli’s name, Niccolò, with ‘Old Nick’, the devil’s popular nickname” (Cattaneo 2011, 93).

17.) McEwan 2016, 147-148.

18.) “His mouse! What humiliation. In the palm of his hand. Pet. Powerless. Fearful. Contemptible. Disposable. Oh to be his mouse! When she knows it’s madness. So hard to resist. Can she fight it? Is she a woman or a mouse?” (Ibid., 122). The choice of the ‘mouse’ metaphor to emphasise Trudy’s submission is a further allusion to Hamlet, where the play performed to prove King Claudius’ guilt is called The Mousetrap, and where Hamlet kills Polonius pretending to have exchanged him for a rat (see Hamlet, III, 2, 223; III, 4, 25).

19.) McEwan 2016, 35.

20.) Ibid., 117 (see Hamlet, III, 4, 87).

21.) McEwan 2016, 24. See Hamlet, II, 2, 301: “What piece of work is a man, how noble in mind, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!.”

22.) McEwan 2016, 33. See Hamlet, I, 2, 51-54: “[…] married with my / uncle, / my father’s brother, but no more like my father / than I to Hercules.”

23.) See Hamlet, I, 2, 139-140: “So excellent a king, that was to this / Hyperion to a satyr […].”

24.) McEwan 2016, 11.

25.) Ibid., 68-69 (see Hamlet, III, 2, 182-183; 188-191: “What to ourselves in passion we propose, / the passion ending, doth his purpose lose. […] nor ‘tis not strange / that even our loves should with our fortunes change; / for ‘tis a question left us yet to prove, / whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love”).

26.) Mukherjee, S. 2016. “An Unborn Baby Overhears Plans for a Murder in Ian McEwan’s Latest Novel.” In The New York Times, September 9. Accessed June 10, 2017. 09/11/books/review/ian-mcewan-nutshell.html.

27.) McEwan 2016, 151-153.

28.) Ibid., 149-150.

29.) The first part of her name, “Trudy,” clearly recalls the sound of the adjective “true,” but as McEwan portrays her, she appears to be everything but true, honest and authentic.

30.) McEwan 2016, 56-58: “’You know, Claude, I loved him once.’” […] “’Anyway, I hate him now’” (see Hamlet, III, 1, 115-116; 120: “I did love you once. […] I loved you not”).

31.) Othello, III, 3, 169.

32.) McEwan 2016, 72.

33.) “’He’s dead…dead’” (Ibid., 116). See Hamlet, IV, 7, 159: “Drowned, drowned.”

34.) McEwan 2016, 126.

35.) “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Hamlet, I, 4, 65).

36.) Referring to the symbolic meaning of the storm in King Lear, Ruggeri highlights the close relationship between unusual natural phenomena and man’s behaviour: “La ribellione della natura come metafora di un rivolgimento etico-morale […] di una natura sconvolta che reagisce ad un mondo morale oramai sottosopra” (Ruggeri 2016, 40).

37.) McEwan 2016, 73-74.

38.) Ibid., 74.

39.) Ibid., 25 (see Hamlet, II, 2, 252-254: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad / dreams”).

40.) McEwan 2016, 25-27.

41.) Adams, T. 2016. “Nutshell by Ian McEwan review – a tragic hero in the making.” In The Guardian, August 30.

42.) McEwan 2016, 135. See Hamlet, II, 2, 559: “Am I a coward?”; III, 1, 84: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”

43.) McEwan 2016, 179.

44.) Ibid., 91. The italics are mine.

45.) Hamlet, II, 2, 291- 306. The italics are mine.

46.) “Seems, Mother? No, it is. You are. You are involved” (McEwan 2016, 2). Similarly, in act I, scene 2, Hamlet addresses his mother with the following words: “Seems madam? Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems’” (Hamlet, I, 2, 76). Both the baby and Hamlet are fighting against falsehood and pretence.

47.) The recurring words and expressions employed by McEwan prove this: “Put up a show of resistance” (McEwan 2016, 54), “[…] a sickly fascination to know his scheme, as one might the ending of a play” (Ibid., 58), “But to the world my mother appears serene” (Ibid., 82), “[…] a projection of ease rather than the thing itself” (Ibid., 86), “’Oh,’ says Trudy, with an appearance of true regret” (Ibid., 87), “Theatrically, she lowers her voice” (Ibid., 88), “[…] Claude’s exit line […]” (Ibid., 91), “[…] this too-well timed entrance, these clumsy, improbable lines […]” (Ibid., 94), “Summoning this fact […] lifts her performance” (Ibid., 108), “She devised a plot, pure artifice” (Ibid., 110), “[…] Claude’s face – an illuminated mask that gapes without expression […]” (Ibid., 125), “Her tone is impassive” (Ibid., 172), “Clare Allison’s manner is impenetrably neutral” (Ibid., 173). The italics are mine.

48.) Ibid., 66.

49.) Ibid., 114.

50.) Ibid., 94.

51.) Ibid., 153.

52.) Ibid., 185.

53.) Ibid., 176.

54.) See Lewis 2015, 122-138. For a discussion of melancholy and the medieval humors, see pages 169-174. At page 172, for instance, Lewis refers to Hamlet as an example of Melancholy Complexion.

55.) McEwan 2016, 187.

56.) Ibid., 186-188. The reference to the ‘witches’ is probably an allusion to another tragedy written by Shakespeare, Macbeth, where the supernatural also plays a crucial role.

57.) This imperative hovers from the very first pages: “Don’t waste your precious days idle and inverted. Get born and act!” (McEwan 2016, 46).

58.) Ibid., 105-106.

59.) The reference is here to John Donne’s well- known Meditation XVII: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” There are two other passages hinting at John Donne in McEwan’s novel: the first one is at page 94, where the poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning is directly referred to; the second, indirect one is at page 189, through the expression “an air of valediction.”

60.) McEwan 2016, 106.

61.) Ibid., 163.

62.) McAlpin, H. 2016. “‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan.” In The San Francisco Chronicle, September 22. Accessed June 10, 2017.

63.) McEwan 2016, 127 (see Hamlet, III, 1, 68: “[…] when we have shuffled off this mortal coil […]”).

64.) Hamlet, III, 1, 77-86.

65.) McEwan 2016, 46. See Hamlet, I, 2, 156: “incestuous sheets.”

66.) McEwan 2016, 128-129.

67.) “O, from this time forth, / my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth” (Hamlet, IV, 4, 57-58). See also Hamlet’s resolute words in act V, scene 2, before the final duel: “If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, ye it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be” (Ibid., V, 2, 167-169).

68.) McEwan 2016, 192.

69.) Ibid., 196.

70.) Ibid., 198.

71.) Ibidem.

72.) Ibid., 199.

73.) Hamlet, V, 2, 311.

74.) See Lewis 2015, 92.

75.) Ruggeri speaks of a moral order, which, in the end, always restores a world that has been disturbed by evil forces, such as hate or crime: “La tragedia shakespeariana appare dunque come l’esibizione di una reazione violenta al male che ha turbato l’universo moralmente ordinato. […] Reazione violenta che porta in fine al ristabilirsi di quell’ordine” (Ruggeri 2016, 39).

76.) Hamlet, V, 2, 305-311.

77.) Ruggeri 2016, 139-140.

78.) Romeo and Juliet, V, 3, 305-310.

79.) Hamlet, I, 5, 196-197.

80.) McEwan 2016, 146.

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