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.”.
Even as Iâ€™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. Updikeâ€™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 Bardâ€™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. Iâ€™ve often wondered about the marriage between Hamletâ€™s parents. Was it happy? Was Gertrude aware of her brother-in-lawâ€™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 itâ€™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. Theyâ€™re not even archetypes, theyâ€™re plain air.There is nothing they offer to the reader. Even Polonius- whoâ€™s named Corambis here after the version of the Bad Folio- becomes more boring than our familiar Shakespearean councillor. Well, at least thatâ€™s an achievement there for youâ€¦
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 isnâ€™t positively portrayed. Yes, Updike creates the Queen as an unloving, cold mother whose only thoughts are how to fall in bed with her husbandâ€™s brother. Forgive me, but I have lost count on how many times I have read ''Hamlet'' and Iâ€™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 wonâ€™t bore you further. Updike attempted to create a kind of pseudo-medieval language. In my opinion,it didnâ€™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 â€˜â€™connoisseurâ€™â€™ 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 wasnâ€™t familiar with before I read â€˜â€™Gertrude and Claudiusâ€™â€™ and I donâ€™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 wasnâ€™t even respectful. Perhaps, Hamlet and his troubled family should be left alone by now...No need to torture them more...
This book should be read for the sheer beauty of language.
Updike tells us what was rotten in Denmark: old King Hamlet (the Princeâ€™s father) is first cuckolded and then murdered by his younger brother, who takes the kingly name Claudius and marries Prince Hamletâ€™s mother, Gertrude. The three main protagonists in the book [King Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude] are complex characters richly developed in Updikeâ€™s matchless prose. Prince Hamlet is off studying in Wittenberg, and plays only a minor role.
Apparently, Shakespeareâ€™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 Updikeâ€™s retelling, Geruthaâ€™s father requires her to marry a rather gruff, somewhat unfeeling but very competent warrior named Horwendil, who becomes king of Denmark. Horwendilâ€™s younger, more romantic brother Feng returns from wandering around Europe and Byzantium. Later, Fengon seduces Geruthe. [Thatâ€™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 Shakespeareâ€™s play.
Updikeâ€™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.
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.