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A Bookish Mind At Play In 'Nutshell'

There are more dumb Shakespeare adaptations on heaven and earth, dear readers, than are dreamed of in your performance studies seminars.

I have seen (fatal vision!) an all-nude Macbeth, a Wild West Romeo and Juliet, a Soviet Lear, a Basquiat Hamlet and one painful "Oriental"-themed Tempest (think gongs and kimonos). I have stood in a room while Lady Macbeth dropped single marbles on the floor for minutes on end, seen another smear herself in chocolate syrup.

So I approached Ian McEwan's fetal Hamlet with the healthy skepticism of one who has drunk a vial of "witch tears" thrust upon her during an immersive Shakespeare experience.

But wit and self-awareness will go far in making improbable adaptations work. In Nutshell, we see a bookish mind at play. And it turns out that a fetal Hamlet — bound, watching the inevitable event grow nearer, an extravagant and erring sprit confined in doubts and impotence — is actually just about right.

Snug, enwombed, wearing his mother's cervix like a cap, our unnamed narrator listens while his mother — "untrue Trudy" — and his uncle — "priapic, satanic Claude" — plot the death of his poet father. Trudy has sent her husband packing while she lives in his priceless and derelict family home in London, drinking wine, listening to podcasts and plotting murder with the dull Claude, who is "vapid beyond invention, his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque."

In 'Nutshell,' we see a bookish mind at play. And it turns out that a fetal Hamlet — bound, watching the inevitable event grow nearer, an extravagant and erring sprit confined in doubts and impotence — is actually just about right.

This nascent Hamlet, like the Dane in wheeling indecision and incandescent intellect, is not, however, a particularly sweet prince. Shakespeare's hero is eagerly egalitarian, self-questioning, skeptical of pomposity. Much of the humor of Nutshell comes from the fact that this baby-to-be is a tiny elitist, absorbing fussy tastes through placenta and podcasts. As his mother self-medicates on the balcony with wine, he thinks, "I would have gone for a Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol. A degree of flinty mineral definition would have mitigated the blunt assault of direct sunlight ..." He despises Claude as much for his taste as for his character, the way he whistles Nokia ringtones and likes the theme from Exodus ("Grandiose, in a corrupted romantic style, to my newly formed ear, redemptive orchestral poetry to Claude's.") He dreads being given up for adoption lest he is sent to live among the lower classes: "raised bookless on computer toys, sugar, fat and smacks to the head."

At least, I think that's meant as humor; Nutshell fails when McEwan turns earnest. I initially took the fetus's long monologues on world events as part of the larger joke, but it's clear after a while that some of them are sincere. Inserted whole and unwelcome into the texts are grumpy little cultural commentaries, including a memorable one about identity politics: "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 new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self. A social-media site famously proposes 71 gender options — neutrois, two spirit, bigender ... any color you like, Mr Ford."

Passages like these belong in some crabby magazine article bemoaning the fads of the young, those coddled iPad users with their lattes and their gender identities. Is this our generous, sweet prince? Never believe it.

Nonetheless, Nutshell is a joy: unexpected, self-aware, and pleasantly dense with plays on Shakespeare. It isn't Hamlet, and doesn't particularly illuminate Hamlet, but dances beautifully with it. McEwan mostly remembers that seriousness only goes so far: For a good adaptation, play is the thing.

Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.