Avid readers of John Updike’s fiction will not be surprised to find that Gertrude and Claudius is the story of a love triangle. A young woman of significant social stature marries somewhat reluctantly an older man of distinction, with whom she has a child and for whom she develops genuine affection. Unfortunately, the husband seldom shows toward her any real signs of love. As their child grows and becomes closely attached to his father, the woman, approaching middle age, begins to find comfort in the company of her husband’s younger brother. They fall in love, a sad kind of affair since both realize that the wife can never divorce her powerful spouse. Then, unbeknownst to the woman, her lover carries out a plot to murder his brother. His efforts are doubly successful: With the brother gone, he is able to marry the woman he loves and to succeed his brother as king of Denmark.
The last twist suggests that this is not a typical Updike novel at all. First, it is set not in the contemporary United States, but at the end of the Dark Ages in a region of the world famous for its barbarism and the personal prowess of its warrior-heroes. The major characters are not middle-class citizens in a democracy, but royalty in a land where the law is most often whatever the king decrees. Most significant, however, is Updike’s choice of characters. Rather than being made wholly from the imagination of the author, they are borrowed from that most famous of all English writers, William Shakespeare. Gertrude is the queen who marries her late husband’s younger brother much too soon to satisfy the questioning spirit of her only child, the well-educated, skeptical, cynical, world-weary prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Updike’s clever prequel to one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies gives these key figures from the drama plausible motives for the behavior they exhibit toward each other and toward the prince who, in Hamlet, has returned from his life as a scholar in Wittenberg to find that something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark.
Updike is not the first to borrow figures from Shakespeare for his own purposes. He is aided in his exploration of characterization and motive by a number of the same medieval and early Renaissance chronicles that Shakespeare himself used to draft the plot of his drama. More important, Updike is following in fiction a tradition of literary criticism that predates his novel by nearly two centuries. Since the nineteenth century, it has been common practice among Shakespearean critics to treat characters from the plays as disembodied figures with lives outside the confines of the drama. The method of criticism, spurred on by the new science of psychology, reached its apex in the early years of the twentieth century; by that time academic critics were using the texts as jumping-off points for detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines as if they were patients on a psychologist’s couch rather than fictional creations.
Although the movement known as New Criticism brought some much-needed balance to this method of critical inquiry, a certain segment of the academic world, and many viewers of Shakespearean drama, continue to speculate about characters such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet as if they were historical figures. Even when the focus of critical inquiry remains on the text of the play, important questions remain to haunt readers and playgoers: Did Claudius kill his brother so he could marry Gertrude and ascend the throne? If Hamlet is convinced by the ghost of his father who describes the murder to him early in the play, why does he delay in exacting revenge for his father’s assassination? In short, what is happening inside these characters’ minds to cause them to behave as they do?
The principal focus in Updike’s novel is not on the brothers or the prince, but rather on the woman to whom all three have some attachment. Gertrude, only child of the Danish king Rorik, is an independent activist stifled within the confines of society to which women are relegated. Modern readers will certainly find her treated sympathetically. She wants to please her first husband, some twelve years her senior, but on her own terms. She is a free thinker, able to criticize both the pagan rites with which she is familiar and the Christian beliefs that have become accepted doctrine in Denmark. Through her, Updike is able to offer a muted critique of the religious principle in humankind, a theme familiar to anyone who has read widely among his fifty published books. Introduced at age seventeen, she grows gracefully into late middle age as the novel progresses. Her decision to have an affair with her...
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