At least since Freud proposed that Hamlet delayed the murder of his uncle because of an unresolved Oedipus complex, Shakespeare’s play has been seen as a psychoanalytic chamber piece. For modern readers, the fact that Hamlet is about a difficult moment in a royal succession pales next to the adultery, the betrayal and revenge, and the love turned sour. The drama began long before the curtain went up on the “enseamed bed / Stewed in corruption.” And perhaps for this reason, the two women in the play—quiet, sorrowful, empathetic Ophelia and concupiscent, unrepenting, immovable Gertrude—are its enigmas. Isn’t Ophelia, to whom Hamlet had professed his love, disloyal to her feelings when she lets her father watch her return Hamlet’s love letters? How could Gertrude not know her first husband and Hamlet’s father was murdered? While Hamlet often finds himself soliloquizing his own motives, even at the end of the play, he and the audience are still unclear as to what these two women’s are.
In retelling the story of Hamlet from within its adulterous mother, Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell literally climbs inside one of the play’s enigmas. Set in the wealthy neighborhoods of London, Nutshell makes the Oedipus complex biological rather than mythical: Hamlet becomes the helpless unborn child of a marriage that’s breaking apart. He is trapped inside a mother he cannot be sure loves him and bequeathed to a stepfather who’s already worked out how to hand him off. Drunk on his mother’s glasses of Sauvignon, he listens with growing disgust as they plot the murder of his father, worry about Europe’s existential crisis, and obsess over fluctuations in London real-estate values. It is perhaps no surprise then that Nutshell Hamlet thinks the anxieties of the modern age are antithetical to family life. “So bleak, so loveless,” he mourns from in utero. “We’re alone then, all of us, even me, each treading a deserted highway, toting in a bundle on a shouldered stick the schemes, the flow charts, for unconscious advancement.”
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McEwan has long been interested in questions of lineage, parentage, and corrupted innocence. His first novel, The Cement Garden, which he published in 1978, follows four orphaned children who sink their dead mother into cement in the hope of preserving a semblance of their lost family life. His third novel, The Child in Time, documents the disappearance of a young girl during a mundane trip to the supermarket and then slips back in time to a moment when her father’s parents discuss having him aborted. And McEwan’s last novel, The Children Act, centers on the moral and legal quandaries of parental responsibility, following a childless High Court judge who is deciding on whether to defy a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and force a blood transfusion on their nearly 18-year-old son.
McEwan’s plots turn (and twist) smoothly; his research is almost always deep and detailed. But his technical mastery is so often in the service of the most banal, and even pernicious, ideas about family life in our times. The appealing and sometimes naive romance of Atonement and Sweet Tooth aside, at the core of most McEwan novels is a fear that the nuclear family is done for. Families don’t always break apart in McEwan’s novels, but there is always a midcentury sense that the traditional family can be the place of an individual’s salvation, rather than a more contested, Freudian site of blame and responsibility. When the serial adulterer and misanthropic physicist in Solar is tricked into fatherhood, it has the effect of compensating for his faults, even humanizing him. In the middle of the climactic burglary scene in Saturday, Daisy, the pregnant daughter of Henry Perowne, comes to everyone’s rescue by reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” And in Atonement, while Briony Tallis destroys her older sister’s happiness by placing her lover at the scene of a rape, she is the only one that can make amends, of a kind, by writing her sister a happy ending she didn’t get in life. In McEwan’s fictional universe, only the family destroys and only the family saves.
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McEwan’s preoccupations are no different in Nutshell. The novel adapts rather than reconstructs the historical world of the play. Shakespeare’s Gertrude transforms into Trudy, the 28-year-old wife of John Cairncross, a shambling but revered publisher of poets. Trudy has asked John “for space,” and he has moved out of the £8 million marital home in St John’s Wood, an upscale neighborhood in London. Meanwhile, she has taken up with John’s rich but doltish brother, a property developer whose name is (no, don’t guess) Claude—as in Shakespeare’s Claudius.
Trudy and Claude eat out, pour themselves glasses of fancy wine, and have a lot of noisy, untender sex. Whereas John used to recite poetry to his wife, Claude and Trudy have a single topic of conversation: They’ve decided to murder John, sell the house, and run off with the proceeds to Primrose Hill, another wealthy but more bohemian neighborhood in North London. But there is one catch: Trudy is pregnant with John’s baby, and the fetus has heard everything they’re planning. And not only that, but he has gleaned enough of a vocabulary from Trudy’s insomniac podcast habits and their murderous chatter to narrate a novel about it—and in the high literary register of many of McEwan’s later novels.
While Trudy and Claude seem like a dinner-party real-estate joke spun out of control, McEwan’s Hamlet is more ridiculous still. A hyperarticulate unborn baby fond of Romantic poetry and Latin tags, in-utero Hamlet worries about climate change, Russia’s expansionism, and the constancy of his mother’s love. Not unlike McEwan, he also has the taste of a baby boomer. Modern poetry leaves the fetus cold. (“Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others, too many gripes in too short a line.”) He doesn’t like the “puerile blasts of synthetic trumpets and xylophone” that punctuate the serious talk of the BBC World Service. Without ever having watched it, he believes that much of television is of “meagre utility,” and he loses patience with Claude for criticizing menu-speak like “pan-fried” and “steel-cut” as if he were “the first ever to spot these unimportant absurdities.” Grumpy, disdainful fetus Hamlet has developed all the cultural snobberies of the liberal metropolitan elite—and in record time!
But it is when baby Hamlet turns his eye away from the ruination of language and culture that he becomes even more transparent a vehicle for McEwan’s discontents. Contrasted against the podcasters and the announcers on the wireless who insist that Western civilization is in ecological, economic, and moral crisis, fetus Hamlet wants us to remember how lucky we are to ride in fast cars, to have not already died of polio, and to have not had our teeth drawn without anesthetic. Despite his misgivings over menu-speak and cell-phone ringtones and the conspiracies being hatched by his mother and stepfather—modernity for him is the best of all possible worlds. Why fear the Russians? Catholic Spain’s armies once were expected on the beaches, but “like most things, it didn’t happen.” The climate crisis—yes, it’s frightening but it will be solved by “solar panels and wind farms and nuclear energy and inventions not yet known.” Pessimism, for baby Hamlet, comes “too easy, even delicious.” It is “the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.”
This blithe and un-Hamlet-like sunniness is hard to take as the worldview of someone who will be born into a Brexiting Britain, but one suspects the relentless prenatal optimism might just be a way of soothing baby Hamlet’s more immediate anxieties. When his mother’s arm rests on her bump, the narrator worries about her intention: Does she mean to caress his head or is she contemplating her late-pregnancy bloatedness? Are his mother’s biological drives suggestive that she’ll always care for herself first or will she eventually come to care for her little Hamlet? Does the fact that his father is so hapless and well-intentioned mean it’s better, in evolutionary terms, to be raised by his uncle?
“Who knows what’s true?” fetus Hamlet asks, sounding, at least in this moment, a bit more like his predecessor.
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If McEwan has little new to tell us about the fate of the family in the modern age, perhaps he has something more interesting to say about Hamlet? The surface of the novel is strewn with references to the play, so we are led to believe this might be the case. Danish takeout is eaten; the first sex scene begins “Enter Claude.” Trudy and Claude discuss pouring poison into John’s ear.
The voice McEwan has constructed for his 21st-century baby is glossily faux-Shakespearean. Hamlet refers to Gertrude at the beginning as “cold mother,” and so Trudy appears as “untrue Trudy” or “ruthless mother.” John is “my underestimated father.” Our in-utero Hamlet often playfully invokes the language and imagery Shakespeare used in his play. Lamenting his fate at the hands of Trudy and Claude, the fetus observes, while Trudy is crying:
It should be me who weeps. But the unborn are po-faced stoics, submerged Buddhas, expressionless. We accept, as our lesser kith the wailing babies don’t, that tears are in the nature of things. Sunt lacrimae rerum. Infantile waiting entirely misses the point. Waiting is the thing. And thinking!
In Shakespeare, Hamlet describes his uncle as “not twentieth part the kith” of his father. He also compares Gertrude to Niobe, who even when she was turned into a stone statue continued to weep for her dead children. The paragraph’s final flourish turns Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing”—his attempt to get the grounds to permit him to act—into a justification of the fetus Hamlet not doing anything. McEwan may not have done any of his usual research, but it’s clear he kept his Arden Shakespeare on his desk.
But what is left unclear is why and to what effect. McEwan does no more with these wordplays than turn certain phrases on their heads. When Hamlet accepts Ophelia’s returned remembrances, he gives the half-line confession: “I did love you once.” But to her sorrowful iambic reply—“Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so”—he’s unrelenting: “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” By contrast, McEwan puts Hamlet’s line into Trudy’s mouth as she is discussing with Claude how to conceal the antifreeze they plan to use as poison: “You know, Claude, I loved him once…. I mean, we met too soon.” In addressing her regret to her new lover rather than her old one, the line loses its barb.
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To whom is a woman’s loyalty due, Shakespeare’s Hamlet seems to ask—her lover, her husband, her child? McEwan’s novel appears to circle around the same question, though it also proposes an answer. Trudy spent years unsuccessfully trying for a baby with her husband and conceived just at the moment she fell out of love: a much-wanted baby becomes a burden. Are modern mothers too selfish? Trudy addresses her baby just once, in front of both her husband and Claude. “Oh, oh, little mole,” she says as he kicks in an attempt to stop his father drinking from a cup he fears is poisoned. A mole, which is to say a spy. Trudy sees her own baby as a conspirator against her—as indeed he is.
As the novel progresses, we come to realize it’s not only in-utero Hamlet but also Trudy who is trapped. Drinking expensive wine appears to be her way out, and she drinks so much that fetus Hamlet becomes something of a connoisseur himself: “We’re sharing a glass, perhaps a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc,” he observes early in the novel. “Not my first choice, and for the same grape and a less grassy taste, I would have gone for a Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol.”
The bottles keep coming in Nutshell. “Oh, a joyous blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling.” McEwan pours forth his most ornate prose. As a joke, it works the first time and then it palls. But as an explanation of some of the protagonist’s rants, and as a way to moralize about Trudy’s irresponsibility, it’s rather simplistic. (In fact, when the definition of a good mother in many developed countries means limiting intake to a glass of wine per week when trying for a baby, you might even cheer on her defiance.)
Baby Hamlet comes to mime some of McEwan’s most simplistic views of familial love and duty. At dinner, Trudy covers her glass when Claude offers her more wine, and the baby coos: “But no, she restrains herself for love of me. And I love her—how could I not?” His only desire is to “remarry” Trudy and John, “like every child of estranged parents.” His only worry is that his mother doesn’t love him: “I thought I could take her love for granted.”
For a fetus who seems so knowing about the world outside the womb—a world of IVF and surrogacy, genetic modification and embryos fashioned from skin cells—one would have thought he might be more enlightened and adventurous when it came to thinking about new ways family life might be arranged. But baby Hamlet is not concerned with the question of what makes a mother a mother, or what it might be like to grow up communally, outside of the conventional family unit. “I’m recalled to my mission,” Nutshell Hamlet says. “The sacred imagined duty of the child of separated parents is to unite them.”
McEwan has joked that Nutshell will never make it onto the school syllabi—where his books have become an unavoidable fixture—because of “all those speculations from my narrator about what it means to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your face.” But one suspects there are other reasons as well, perhaps related to the profligate number of antique views about family life and women’s bodies expressed in the novel. In fact, at points it seems like Nutshell is directly targeting this future generation of readers, perhaps even goading them on with its gleefully incorrect views. Take, for example, our baby Hamlet’s views of the “new politics in university life”:
A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in a new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self…. I declare my undeniable feeling for who I am. If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vice versa. I may announce myself as disabled, or disabled in context. If my identity is that of a believer, I’m easily wounded, my flesh torn to bleeding by any questioning of my faith. Offended I enter a state of grace.
McEwan has said that he sees the young’s concentration on gender and identity as political issues, when there are more important ones to fight for, as dismaying, and so it is no surprise that his in-utero narrator might share his opinions. But an irony that has perhaps escaped McEwan is that his own worldview is also caught up in identity: The only ideological fighting that’s done in this book is for women to be women, or even better, good mothers; for men to be poets and stand their overpriced North London ground; and for the traditional family to be the institution that is raised above all others.