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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1908

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.

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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 brother-in-law is understandable in light of the treatment she receives from her husband, who seems more bent on ruling a kingdom than on maintaining a successful marriage.

Horwendil—the “old Hamlet” in the play—is almost a stereotype of the warrior-king. A strong man who convinces Gertrude’s father of his worthiness to marry his daughter by squashing a rebellion, he is unable to perform sexually on his wedding night (overcome by drink, not by modern anxieties). He leaves Gertrude for long stretches, seems to believe it is his right to take to bed young women from groups he has conquered, and has little interest in intellectual pursuits. He does exhibit a strong love for his son, preparing the young Hamlet to succeed him as a warrior-king. In his teens, Hamlet responds well to his father’s tutelage, and the bond forged by these two is cause for concern by a mother who comes to feel more and more like a useless appendage in the royal household.

Feng, who transforms himself into Claudius after assuming the Danish throne, is the dark doppelgänger of his brother. Like him in warrior temperament, he is nevertheless more intellectual than his brother and much more politically astute. An errant knight by profession, he learns much from his experiences across the European continent and the Middle East. Unlike his brother, he seems to appreciate women, especially the queen, whom he loves passionately. He certainly knows how to make Gertrude feel wanted, and he is not above deception to engage in an affair with her when the opportunity presents itself. Surprisingly, the two do not become lovers until the queen is over thirty and Feng is approaching fifty. Updike proves himself masterful in describing this middle-aged romance, displaying the complex feelings both characters have about their relationship with each other and with the king.

Prince Hamlet is a minor figure in the novel. Vain and aloof, he exhibits the qualities that make him famous in the play. His mother believes he is “too charmed by himself” and that to him “everything is mockery, a show. He is the only man in his universe.” Her son, Gertrude believes, is much too subtle to be comfortable in the unsubtle world of the Danish court. Not surprisingly, he behaves enigmatically toward Ophelia, the teenage daughter of Polonius. He seems more comfortable in the company of young men, especially those who share his penchant for learning. In the novel’s climactic final scene, he toys with his mother and stepfather, cynically rejecting their overtures for reconciliation. Updike intersperses lines from act 1, scene 2 of the play with authorial observation and commentary to emphasize the irony that will characterize Hamlet’s speech and behavior as he crafts his plan to avenge his father. To Gertrude’s plea that he “stay with us; go not to Wittenberg,” the prince replies as he does in the play: “I shall in all my best obey you.” What Updike tells readers is that Hamlet feels “trapped by their [Gertrude’s and Claudius’s] twin professions of love,” and that his terse reply is given as he studies “from beneath his clouded brow [the] two glowing middle-aged faces [hung] like lanterns before him—hateful luminaries fat with satisfaction and health and continued appetite.” There can be little doubt left about Hamlet’s cause for consternation.

As he does so often in his novels, Updike displays not only wide-ranging knowledge of his subject but also exceptional skill in handling language. The novel is filled with subtle allusions to Shakespeare and has as a constant leitmotif the concept that life is much like a play. Biblical allusions are also used expertly. For example, when Feng chooses to give Gertrude a falcon, he rejects the idea of presenting her with a strong female bird called Jochebed (named for the mother of Moses) and opts instead to give her a smaller, more seductive hunter named Bathsheba (after the woman who seduced King David). Even more subtle is Updike’s use of Norse imagery: The private manor of King Horwendil/Hamlet is Odinsheim, named for the warrior god in Norse mythology. By contrast, Feng’s castle is named Lokisheim after the trickster god. For readers whose breadth of knowledge approaches Updike’s, Gertrude and Claudius yields many small, subtle pleasures.

The novel is not without minor annoyances, however. For some strange reason—perhaps simply to show off his familiarity with the source documents from which Shakespeare and his contemporaries learned of Hamlet’s story—Updike chooses to use different versions of the names for his major characters in each of the novel’s three parts. The king’s daughter who brings the crown with her in marriage to Horwendil is Gerutha, then Geruthe, and finally Gertrude. Her ruler-husband becomes Horvendile and is referred to as Hamlet (the elder) in the final section of the novel. Her lover, the king’s brother, is Feng or Fengon until he changes his name to Claudius upon succeeding his brother as king of Denmark. Only the last change—that of the trusty councilor Corambus (or Corambis) to Polonius—is explained within the story: The new king decides to improve his court by having dignitaries assume more Latin-sounding names. Even the prince is Amleth throughout the second part but Hamlet in the third. While it is not impossible to remember who the characters are, the tactic seems more pedantic than practical.

In all fairness, though, this criticism is trivial when compared to the significant achievement of Gertrude and Claudius. Drawing on the meager evidence of the chronicle accounts, and relying heavily on his own understanding of human nature, Updike has created plausible motives for the principal characters whose tragic ending is recorded inHamlet. Perhaps the irony is too apparent in Claudius’s closing thoughts as he mulls over his success in replacing his brother as both king and lover: “The era of Claudius had dawned; it would shine in Denmark’s annals. He might . . . last another decade on the throne. . . . He had gotten away with it. All would be well.” Nevertheless, readers familiar with the tragedy of the young prince of Denmark know that Claudius is dead wrong—the pun is intentional—and knowing about the future of these characters makes the experience of reading Gertrude and Claudius doubly pleasurable.

Sources for Further Study

Artforum 7 (Spring, 2000): 17.

Booklist 96 (January 1, 2000): 835.

Boston 92 (February, 2000): 145.

The Christian Century 117 (February 23, 2000): 220.

Insight on the News 16 (March 13, 2000): 26.

Library Journal 125 (February 15, 2000): 200.

National Review 52 (March 20, 2000): 57.

The New Republic 222 (February 21, 2000): 32.

The New York Review of Books 47 (March 23, 2000): 13.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (February 27, 2000): 9.

The New Yorker 76 (March 13, 2000): 97.

Publishers Weekly 247 (January 3, 2000): 57.

Time 155 (February 21, 2000): 128.

The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2000, p. W13.

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