‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan – To Be or Not to Be


‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan    (2016) – 197 pages


‘Nutshell’ is an English low comedy about a nasty modern-day murder told by an eight-month fetus who is still inside his mother.

Two of the protagonists in this novel are Trudy and Claude.  Do these names ring a bell?  They might.  Remember Gertrude and Claudius in ‘Hamlet’?  Claudius is the King’s brother, Gertrude is the King’s wife, and Hamlet is the King’s son.  The same setup is here in the novel with Claude fooling around with Trudy behind the father’s back, except our Hamlet is still unborn, still in the womb.  Being inside he feels every aftershock from Claude and Trudy’s frequent sex escapades.  At one point our unborn Hamlet is so disgusted, he tries to strangle himself with the umbilical cord.  This is a scene which brings to mind McEwan’s early black humor phase.

So our Hamlet in ‘Nutshell’ is a troubled young fetus instead of a troubled young man. ‘Hamlet’ is high drama; ‘Nutshell’ is low comedy.

If you recall the play ‘Hamlet’, you probably remember that Hamlet does not have much respect or use for his uncle Claudius.  The same is true in ‘Nutshell’ with Claude being a particularly self-serving dolt who speaks in the lamest of clichés. Claude is the joke figure of the novella, especially when Claude and Trudy are plotting the murder.  However our unborn prince still loves his cheating mother.

The father here, named John Cairncross, is a poet instead of a King.

Our unborn first-person narrator speaks like a hyper-articulate English aristocratic twit since Trudy listens to self-improving podcasts.  This is all great comic fun for the reader with none of the sincerity that had crept into McEwan’s work of late.

Of course ‘Nutshell’ could not be a take on ‘Hamlet’ if the father’s ghost did not appear.  The ghost does show up.

The play ‘Hamlet’ does have that effect on writers.  The plot of the play is so vivid that writers like to do parodies of it which ‘Nutshell’ essentially is.  The American writer John Updike also did a parody of Hamlet called ‘Gertrude and Claudius’ which I consider Updike’s finest work.

‘Nutshell’ is great fun to read although it, being a pastiche, is not at all original or profound, unlike the original play ‘Hamlet’.  There is no one with the wisdom of Polonius here, and Hamlet himself being a fetus, his ideas are kind of unformed.


Grade:   B+


5 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Tony, is this one of those in the series where they rewrite Shakespeare’s plays? I borrowed one from the library (Jeanette Winterson’s one, I think) but abandoned it. This one sounds a bit better, but still, I’m not really very tempted…



    • Hi Lisa,
      This one is not part of that series rewriting Shakespeare with modern writers (I don’t believe) which I have avoided so far. I liked it in that this is the old wild McEwan from his early days which I have missed recently. Also I am a Hamlet obsessive, so this appealed to me. Still it is more of a pastiche rather than a stand alone.



      • Sorry for the late reply, WP’s notifications window is up to mischief. It notifies me about the same ‘like’ over and over again, but I only found this one when I scrolled way down the unread list (which I mostly *had* read. What is going on, WP??
        If it’s not part of that series, I might like it. I like the old wild McEwan too, just as I like the old wild Peter Carey and was pleased to see him back again with The Chemistry of Tears. Strange how piqued we feel when our favourite authors go to play in another sandpit, isn’t it?



        • I wasn’t very excited either when they announced that series where famous authors were to rewrite Shakespeare. If I had any indication that Ian McEwan was part of that series I would not have read it. In fact I was about a fifth of the way through Nutshell before I realized that it was a take off on Hamlet. I read an article about that series, and McEwan wasn’t mentioned.



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