Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape


There is a current vogue for leading novelists to write contemporary works loosely based on plays from the Shakespearean canon.

The Hogarth Shakespeare series has already reached its fourth offering and now Jonathan Cape has got in on the act by publishing Nutshell, a modern novel cleverly influenced by Hamlet.

It seems hard to believe that there could be any variation left on the theme of this much-produced and -borrowed masterpiece.

However, one could safely wager that nobody to date has thought of writing a novelistic riff on Hamlet from the perspective of a protagonist who remains unborn until the novel’s final moments.

Given the circumstances, the foetus has no name but readers are left in no doubt about his putative identity.

To help them along the way, various living characters do have names. Soon to be Hamlet’s father is a publisher and poet named John Cairncross, coincidentally sharing the name with the man alleged to be the fifth Cambridge spy.

In any event, this Cairncross is kind but profligate with his money and has little interest in anything but poetry and his beautiful, beloved wife, Trudy.

Unfortunately, despite happy days in the past, the heavily pregnant 28-year-old is now in thrall to John’s brother Claude, an unscrupulous moneyman with evil tendencies.

Despite the nod towards one Shakespeare tragedy, once they get together, Trudy and Claude take on many more of the characteristics of Macbeth and his Lady, scheming for all that they are worth to achieve a position where not only can they marry but also sell the luxury family house in London’s St John’s Wood.

The tale is simply but elegantly related from within Trudy’s stomach by what is undoubtedly one of the most original narrators in literature.

The not-even-youngster’s knowledge impresses, though, if one wanted to be unfair, there are some inconsistencies in his abilities to think and observe, which do not in any way detract from the humour and power of the novel.

Pleasingly, Nutshell is not only a witty and highly imaginative homage to the Bard but a gripping work in its own right, combining some of the trademark nastiness of this author’s early writings with the thoughtful worldview of more recent offerings.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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