I heard that you should have a general knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to fully enjoy and benefit from reading Ian McEwan’s novel, Nutshell. Let’s see: a brother and his brother’s wife conspire to kill the married brother and assume the marriage rites for themselves. But the wife is pregnant and her very well spoken unborn child (the narrator) is against the murder plot and has a lot of thoughts on the nature of existence even before the mother’s water breaks.

Sounds a lot like Hamlet? And how many other narratives involving a wife and her lover plotting the murder of the old, boring husband?

McEwan does toss around a lot of Shakespearean near-quotes and vaguely familiar situations, but not all from Hamlet. Here’s one from MacBeth:

Claude is merely reasonable. “What I understand is you wanted him dead and now __”

“Oh John!” she cries.

“So we’ll stick our courage to the screwing whatever. And get on with —”


Claude (Claudius) has poisoned John (Hamlet Sr.) with antifreeze mixed in a smoothie (another option was to pour the poison in John’s ear). But notice that Lady MacBeth originally spoke the line—”screw your courage to the sticking place”—not Gertrude or even Trudy. Furthermore the words were to get MacBeth to “man-up” before committing the murder and not to make anyone feel better after-the-fact. And finally, leave it to that old horn-dog Claude to turn a powerful quotations into a messed up sexual reference.

Many times I read novels which have some sort of imaginative twist. Usually I get to the end and realize that the same experiment could have been told in a short story, saving me a lot of unnecessary reading. Nutshell is one.

But that is not to say that all similar novels are somewhat less than exciting. I offer you John Updike’s excellent novel: Gertrude and Claudius. Although more of a retelling of the Hamlet story, Updike’s version is erudite and fascinating … and certainly not boring. A warning, though: a good knowledge of Hamlet is important to enjoy Gertrude and Claudius, whereas even the glitter of Shakespeare can’t save Nutshell.

Here is a partial bibliography of Ian McEwan from Wikipedia:

The Cement Garden (1978)
The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
The Child in Time (1987)
The Innocent (1990)
Black Dogs (1992)
Enduring Love (1997)
Amsterdam (1998)
Atonement (2001)
Saturday (2005)
On Chesil Beach (2007)
Solar (2010)
Sweet Tooth (2012)
The Children Act (2014)
Nutshell (2016)


Short story collections
First Love, Last Rites (1975)
In Between the Sheets (1978)
The Short Stories (1995)

Children’s fiction
Rose Blanche (1985)
The Daydreamer (1994)

Jack Flea’s Birthday Celebration (1976)
The Imitation Game (1981)

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