Gertrude and Claudius

by John Updike

Paper Book, 2000




New York : A.A. Knopf, 2000.


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML: Gertrude and Claudius are the “villains” of Hamlet: he the killer of Hamlet’s father and usurper of the Danish throne, she his lusty consort, who marries Claudius before her late husband’s body is cold. But in this imaginative “prequel” to the play, John Updike makes a case for the royal couple that Shakespeare only hinted at. Gertrude and Claudius are seen afresh against a background of fond intentions and family dysfunction, on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, erratic, disaffected prince. “I hoped to keep the texture light,” Updike said of this novel, “to move from the mists of Scandinavian legend into the daylight atmosphere of the Globe. I sought to narrate the romance that preceded the tragedy.”.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Girl_Detective
This is a fascinating take on the play, imagining Gertrude and Claudius (or their differently named antecedents) as complex, human characters in the years before the play takes place. Often in productions and readings, Hamlet is the hero, Claudius is the villain, and Gertrude is rarely sympathetic.
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These are not the case here, and Updike’s learned, clever tale provides a fresh look at the old play.
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LibraryThing member AmaliaGavea
John Updike chose to carry out a difficult task. He imagined and created the complex (?) relationship between Gertrude and Claudius before the climax of the events that consist Shakespeare’s masterpiece. One could say that this is an attempt of a prequel to ''Hamlet'' and as such it has the
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quality of the majority of prequels and sequels in Literature and in Cinema. It falls frightfully short.

Even as I’m writing this review, I am unable to understand how I feel about this book. It left me completely indifferent, it didn't create any feelings in me, any images in my mind. I cannot say I hated it because hate needs a whole array of feelings to be invoked and those were simply absent here. Updike’s writing was completely empty, devoid of any warmth and soul, any real sentiment that would be required when an author is dealing -or messing with- the task to breathe new life to the Bard’s larger than life characters.

If I want to be honest, I need to say that I never considered Gertrude a villain. However, neither she nor Claudius are particularly interesting characters. Naturally, Hamlet erases all, but Laertes, Ophelia, Horatio are people I would like to read more about. So are Gertrude and Claudius. I’ve often wondered about the marriage between Hamlet’s parents. Was it happy? Was Gertrude aware of her brother-in-law’s intentions? These are questions that have been plaguing scholars for centuries. Updike presents his own vision, which I won't spoil here, and it is quite plausible. The problem is that it’s inconsistent with the characters he reconstructed. He managed to turn the infamous couple into a snooze-fest, people who speak like automatons, without any substance. They’re not even archetypes, they’re plain air.There is nothing they offer to the reader. Even Polonius- who’s named Corambis here after the version of the Bad Folio- becomes more boring than our familiar Shakespearean councillor. Well, at least that’s an achievement there for you…

Where is Hamlet, you may ask? Hamlet is completely absent for the majority of the narration and thank Jesus and Mr. Wednesday and all the Old Gods and the New for that, because who knows what treatment would be in store for our beloved, melancholic, black clad Prince of Denmark?In the few lines that are uttered by Gertrude, Hamlet isn’t positively portrayed. Yes, Updike creates the Queen as an unloving, cold mother whose only thoughts are how to fall in bed with her husband’s brother. Forgive me, but I have lost count on how many times I have read ''Hamlet'' and I’ve never thought that she was distant, devoid of maternal feelings.

Many of the excellent reviewers here have already mentioned the writing issues so I won’t bore you further. Updike attempted to create a kind of pseudo-medieval language. In my opinion,it didn’t work to the advantage of the story. It was exactly this issue that made every interaction so dry it was almost unbearable. The fact that Claudius uses the word ‘’connoisseur’’ or speaks Italian and Spanish interrupting his speech was something I couldn't take seriously. Not to mention, that the writer had the audacity to insert quotes from Shakespeare's play in the dialogues.

Updike is an author I wasn’t familiar with before I read ‘’Gertrude and Claudius’’ and I don’t intend to try my luck with any other book of his. In our times,we have experienced examples of re-imagining Shakespeare with beautiful results. Unfortunately, this novel wasn't true to the Bard and to the nature of his characters. It wasn’t even respectful. Perhaps, Hamlet and his troubled family should be left alone by now...No need to torture them more...
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LibraryThing member Oklahoma
Updike is an elegant yet frank writer, who knits his phrases together so tightly there is no possibility of losing a meaning between the lines.

This book should be read for the sheer beauty of language.
LibraryThing member jemsw
This book has a complex narration style that can be, by turns, beautiful and frustrating. I feel as though Updike spends too much time in early sections setting the scene of medieval Denmark and not enough in developing his characters apart from Gertrude. While I think this is rich subject matter,
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and certainly appreciate the critical reappropriation of material, the novel still didn't grab me or give me any insights into the play that hadn't previously occurred to me. It seemed too devoted to setting up the action of Hamlet and not sufficiently in rearranging and deepening our investment in the material.
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LibraryThing member KApplebaum
It's been a long, long while since I read a book all at one sitting, but I couldn't put this one down.
LibraryThing member StephenHughes
The novel is slow going at first, but it gets much better about halfway through the first of the book's three sections, so stick with it. The action spans three different eras, with the corresponding differences in the treatment of the language and action prior to the story of Shakespeare's Hamlet,
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with Updike showing off in a virtuosic performance. Like John Gardner's Grendel or Carlos Fuentes' The Old Gringo, it is intriguing to watch Updike play with imagined material beyond the framing of the original, familiar story.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
Updike takes the familiar Hamlet tale from the point of view of his parents, particularly his mother, weaving together legends from several regions into a fascinating story. I've never been able to view Hamlet quite the same way again; it put a whole new face on the play for me.
LibraryThing member turtlesleap
Updike has for many years been one of my favorite contemporary writers. Gertrude and Claudius is a prequel, of sorts, to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" which is a tantalizing idea in itself. Updike has, by inference rather than direct use of the character, drawn a portrait of Hamlet that may surprise
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readers. HIs treatment of the lovers, Gertrude and Claudius and those who surround them, is sympathetic and Gertrude (or Gerutha) is treated with special kindness. Updike always seems to love his women characters more than his men. The books is a treat, especially for those who are familiar with Shakespeare's play.
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LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
I wish I was more familiar with Shakespeare beyond what was required reading in high school (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar). I also wish Hamlet was one of the plays I had read, because I know I would have appreciated Updike's "Gertrude and Claudius" much more if I was familiar with the Hamlet
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story line. I liked how Updike attempted to adjust his language to that of the Shakespearean era. But, I couldn't get into this volume as much as I have of his other books I've read -- and I really did want to get into it because I really admire Updike. Props to him for trying something different, though. And maybe, just maybe, someday I'll take a class in Shakespeare (I'm currently a college student, second time around, so it could happen) and then re-read this novel.
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Very enjoyable prequel to Hamlet. Casts the "incestuous" couple in a very sexy light. It also rang true for the characters as they emerged in Hamlet. I could see the motivations and reactions as making sense in both works so he must have done something right.
LibraryThing member nbmars
"The New York Times" voted Gertrude and Claudius one of the ten best novels of the year 2000. It is certainly an interesting exercise in literary imagination and a little gem of a book. The eponymous characters are the parents of Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, and the book is a prequel to the play.
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Updike tells us what was rotten in Denmark: old King Hamlet (the Prince’s father) is first cuckolded and then murdered by his younger brother, who takes the kingly name Claudius and marries Prince Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The three main protagonists in the book [King Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude] are complex characters richly developed in Updike’s matchless prose. Prince Hamlet is off studying in Wittenberg, and plays only a minor role.

Apparently, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a retelling of an older Norse tale in which the main characters had more Nordic names than those in the famous play. Updike calls them by their ancient names in the early part of the book, but changes the names to the more modern form as the book proceeds. Thus, the young queen is Gerutha; later she becomes Geruthe and finally Gertrude. Her first husband is Horwendil, who evolves into the elder Hamlet; his brother is Feng and then Fengon before becoming Claudius. The baby born to Gerutha and Horwendil is Amleth, who becomes Hamlet in the last chapter.

In Updike’s retelling, Gerutha’s father requires her to marry a rather gruff, somewhat unfeeling but very competent warrior named Horwendil, who becomes king of Denmark. Horwendil’s younger, more romantic brother Feng returns from wandering around Europe and Byzantium. Later, Fengon seduces Geruthe. [That’s right, their names have changed.] Horwendil confronts Fengon in a dramatic scene that demonstrates how wise, strong, and canny the old king is. Nevertheless, with the help of the doddering old Polonius, Fengon is able to poison his elder brother before he wreaks his revenge.

The book ends with Fengon, now Claudius, assuming the kingship and some of the behavioral characteristics of his elder brother. Claudius hopes to win over the affections of his stepson-nephew, Hamlet, and marry him off to Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius. And now we can proceed to Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play.

Updike’s description of the long process of seduction is sympathetic and sensitive. As usual, his prose is scintillating. This is a clever exercise, well worth reading.

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LibraryThing member Athenable
LibraryThing member mstrust
This is the story of what happened before Hamlet. As a teenage princess Gerutha argues with her father against her upcoming wedding to the much older soldier Horwendil, an argument she loses. The result of this marriage is a boy whom Gerutha never feels very motherly towards, claiming the child is
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cold to her. All the while, her brother-in-law has been circling Gerutha, desperately in love.

This is the second Updike I've read, having read The Centaur many years ago and liked it. I can't say that I liked this one though. Gerutha's own life wasn't explored, she is shown only in connection to the men in her life, and because of that, her portrayal is sexualized much of the time, while her role as mother to Hamlet is thin in the story, he actually figures little.
I got the feeling pretty quickly that Updike was a guy who liked the sound of his own voice. The sentences are packed with as many descriptors as could be jammed in, making for heavy paragraphs.
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Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2002)
Bad Sex in Fiction Award (Shortlist — 2000)


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