Updike, John Gertrude and Claudius

ISBN 13: 9780375409080

Gertrude and Claudius

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9780375409080: Gertrude and Claudius
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John Updikes's nineteenth novel tells the story of Claudius and Gertrude, King and Queen of Denmark, before the action of Shakespeare's Hamlet begins. Employing the nomenclature and certain details of the ancient Scandinavian legends that first describe the prince who feigns madness to achieve revenge upon his father's slayer, Updike brings to life Gertrude's girlhood as the daughter of King Rorik, her arranged marriage to the man who becomes King Hamlet, and her middle-aged affair with her husband's younger brother. A dark-eyed dreamer with a taste for foreign adventure, he for decades has sought to quell his love for Gertrude, and at last returns to an Elsinore whose prince is generally elsewhere. Gaps and inconsistencies within the immortal play are to an extent filled and explained in this prequel; the figure of Polonius, especially, takes on a larger significance. Beginning in the aura of pagan barbarism, and anticipating Renaissance humanism and empiricism, this modern retelling of a medieval tale presents the case for its royal couple that Shakespeare only hinted at. Gertrude and Claudius are seen afresh against a background of fond intentions and familial dysfunction, on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, disaffected prince.

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Review:

Borrowing a phrase from Hamlet for the title of his 1999 nonfiction collection, John Updike may perhaps have been dropping hints about his fictional work in progress. He has, in any case, now delivered Gertrude and Claudius--and his variation on what is arguably the Bard's greatest hit sits very handsomely in the Shakespearean shadows. As its title suggests, this is a prelude to the actual play, focusing not on the sulky star but on his mother and fratricidal stepfather (think of it as a Danish, death-struck version of The Parent Trap). Updike's great achievement here is to turn our customary sympathies on their heads. This time around, Gertrude is a decent, long-suffering wife, whose consciousness happens to be raised to the boiling point by her sexy brother-in-law. And Claudius, too, seems half a victim of this fatal attraction, with a strong neo-Platonic accent to his lust:

The amused play of her mouth and eyes, the casual music of her considerate voice, a glimpse of her bare feet and rosy morning languor were to him amorous nutrition enough: at this delicate stage the image of more would have revolted him.... What we love, he understood from the poetry of Provence, where his restless freelancing had more than once taken him, is less the gift bestowed, the moon-mottled nakedness and wet-socketed submission, than the Heavenly graciousness of bestowal.
Subtract the poetry (and leave in the wet-socket business) and we're not too far from Rabbit Angstrom. As in the bulk of his fiction--and most conspicuously in the underrated In the Beauty of the Lilies--Updike sacrifices artistic firepower when he goes archaic on us. That explains why Gertrude and Claudius gets off to a wobbly start, with the author's medieval diction careening all over the page. But once his narrative gets up to speed, Updike dispenses one brilliant bit of perception after another. Note, for example, Ophelia's teeth, "given an almost infantile roundness by her low, palely pink gums, and tilted very slightly inward, so her smile imparted a glimmering impression of coyness, with even something light-heartedly wanton about it." Who else could make mere dentition such a window into the soul?

Gertrude and Claudius also amounts to a running theological argument, in which men constantly impale themselves on metaphysical principle while the adulterous queen is willing "to accept the world at face value, as a miracle daily renewed." (That would explain Gertrude's snap diagnosis of her neurotic son: "Too much German philosophy.") A superlative satellite to Shakespeare's creation, Updike's novel is likely to retain a kind of subordinate rank, even within his own capacious body of work. Still, it's packed with enough post-Elizabethan insight about men and women, parents and children, to suggest that the play's not the thing--not always, anyway. --James Marcus

From the Publisher:

"Precisely honed, buoyant with sly wit, masterful character analysis and astutely observed historical details, this tour de force by the protean Updike reimagines the circumstances leading to Shakepeare's Hamlet.... Updike details the irresistible sweep of their mutual passion and the mortal danger it entails with delicacy.... The resolution is breathtaking."
-- Publishers Weekly (starred)

"Its skitter of fireworks, as ingenious (and protracted) as any Updike has arranged, lights up the darkness over territory won in a lifelong literary engagement. The book illuminates questions about Shakespeare, about what a classic means and also the unexplored hills and forests that lie on either side of the path art pushes through them."
-- Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

"Witty...fresh and moving...engrossing enough on its own terms to stand independently of Shakespeare's play"
-- Paul Gray, Time

"A living, powerfully physical work"
-- Brooke Allen, Wall Street Journal

"Updike and Shakespeare: 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished."
-- Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

"Updike has managed to create in Gertrude a genuinely compelling character, a woman who is, by turns, vulnerable and outspoken, daring and naive...One of his most sympathetic and persuasive female characters yet"
-- Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"Witty, elegantly wrought...absorbing in its own right as the story of an adulterous affair in a world where illicit love is far more perilous than it is in ours."
-- Howard Kissel, Daily News

"You can feel Updike's pleasure and intellectual curiosity throughout this novel...There is something delightful about following Updike down this path, seeing his sentiments and sympathies unfold, watching him deftly handle the text of Hamlet and the spiritual ambiguities that surround it."
-- Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe

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