Gertrude and Claudius

John Updike, Author Alfred A. Knopf $23 (224p) ISBN 978-0-375-40908-0
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. To emphasize the ancient provenance of the Scandinavian legend, he identifies the main characters by the names they held in various versions of the story. Thus in Part I, the future king is a hero from Jutland called Horwendil; Feng is his brother; Amleth his son; and Corambis the old courtier who will die behind the arras. The one name that remains nearly constant is Geruthe/Gertrude, the queen, portrayed by Shakespeare as a cold conniver in her husband's murder. Sometimes accused of misogyny, Updike acquits himself of the charge here in his sympathetic depiction of her character from age 16, when she is reluctantly betrothed to the stolid, self-important warrior Horwendil; to age 47, when she is newly married to Feng/Fengon/Claudius. In Updike's revisionist imagination, Gertrude is intelligent and sensible, with a sweet-natured, radiant personality. She is an obedient daughter and a faithful, if unsatisfied, wife to her complacent husband until, feeling cheated of true happiness in the doldrums of middle age, she succumbs to the ardent pleas of his brother, who has been in love with her for many years. Updike details the irresistible sweep of their mutual passion and the mortal danger it entails with delicacy. Gertrude's loyalty to her husband and her royal duties, her initial resistance to adultery and her concern about her distant, sour, self-centered son contributes to a fully dimensional portrait. A constant theme is Gertrude's rueful acknowledgment of women's roles as pawns and chattels of their fathers and spouses. Updike also credits her with the metaphor for Shakespeare's seven stages of man: ""We begin small, wax great, and shrivel, she thought."" Claudius here is not an evil plotter, but a man driven to desperation when the king discovers the illicit liaison. Though he wears his knowledge lightly, Updike establishes the context of the time through details of social, cultural, intellectual and theological ideas. If the narrative seems a bit labored in Part Three, which immediately precedes the action of the play, the resolution is breathtaking: before the assembled court, Claudius is relieved and finally confident: ""He had gotten away with it. All would be well."" Enter Shakespeare. 75,000 first printing; BOMC main selection. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 02/07/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
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