Bounded in a nutshell

Of all the things that have been taken away by Covid, the ability to travel overseas seems to rank highest in many people’s cahiers de doléances. At least for those who haven’t been burdened by bereavement, joblessness and the decline of mental health, the lockdown is not so much an injunction to stay inside than an interdict on taking the next flight out.

As we approach the edges of this anxiety, Shakespeare sounds hollow:

O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space.” (Hamlet, II.ii)

The idea that the limitations of the here-and-now may have any value over the immensity of the there-and-anywhere is as inconceivable now as it has ever been since the onset of the pandemic. We are trained to pass borders, to get our passports stamped, to board the next flight out and never think too much about the ride back home. In ancient Greek mythological terms, we are forever outside Troy. The homebound ship to Ithaca hasn’t been booked yet.

In a nutshell, we loathe the Hamletian nut shell. We count ourselves kings of infinite space, only as long as we throw ourselves into the space which has been prepared and made available for us. Refusing the nut shell, we seek larger, unbound fields, where we can run across the map without falling off its edge.

But what if Shakespeare was on to something? Far from offering any kind of wisdom for the lockdown age (you may disagree, of course), what if the poet reveals to us the boundlessness of our own spirit, which doesn’t need physical space to create space, to do precisely what’s expected of a nutshell, to outgrow itself, break the husk and become a tree.

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