People often say that a classic never goes out of style. This idiom holds particularly true when one considers William Shakespeare’s incredible body of work. Not only are his plays still widely read, but countless modern-day authors, from Alexander McCall Smith to Jane Smiley, have tried their hands at reimagining the bard’s beloved works. Now, Ian McEwan has added his name to the list of writers who have found inspiration in Shakespeare’s classics.
McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, is a modern retelling of Hamlet, one of the bard’s most well-known plays. When it comes to retellings there is always the challenge of reinventing the story in an original way, but McEwan deftly takes Nutshell in a whole new direction. Rather than the angst-ridden young man we’ve all come to know, our protagonist is just an unborn child inutero, observing the intrigues around him but unable to influence their outcome.
While having read the original play is not a prerequisite to enjoying McEwan’s unique take on it, a passing familiarity with the tale will serve its readers well. So for those of us who last read Hamlet in the seventh grade, here’s a quick guide to the story and its characters to refresh your memory.
Hamlet: Our protagonist, the young Prince of Denmark who is mourning his recently deceased father. Hamlet suspects foul play.
Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother who married her late husband’s brother just a month after he passed.
Claudius: Hamlet’s uncle and Gertrude’s new husband, also the man Hamlet suspects of poisoning his father.
The Ghost: Hamlet’s father’s spirit, who appears to his son seeking justice.
Polonius: A councilor to King Claudius.
Ophelia: Polonius’ daughter, and Hamlet’s rejected lover.
Horatio: Hamlet’s closest friend.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern: Former friends of Hamlet’s who are hired by Claudius and Gertrude to spy on the prince.
The play opens with Hamlet mourning his father’s death and questioning his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle. The ghost of the late king appears to him and divulges that it was Claudius, his own brother, who conspired to murder the king and take his throne. Commanded by his father’s ghost to avenge his death, Hamlet sets out to find evidence of his uncle’s betrayal.
Hamlet feigns madness to deceive the members of his court and arranges the performance of a play that mimics the circumstances surrounding him. His uncle’s guilty conscience eventually shines through, and Hamlet confronts his mother. We don’t want to give away the ending just in case you and your reading group wish to revisit the play, but what follows is a series of tragic, seemingly avoidable deaths, in true Shakespearean fashion.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.” (Act II, Scene II)
“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Act I, Scene III)
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act II, Scene II)
“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” (Act III, Scene I)