Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As has been argued throughout the sections on social concerns and themes, Updike, by shifting the narrative perspective, encourages us to take a new look at the supporting characters in Shakespeare's grand drama of revenge.

We are seldom aware how many of our impressions of Hamlet derive from the point of view, a phenomenon in itself somewhat unusual for a play. But upon reading Updike's "prequel," we become conscious that, more than any Shakespearean play with the possible exception of Richard III, Hamlet privileges the protagonist's subjective view of other characters and events. Almost like a Henry James novel, the play revolves around the revelation of one man's consciousness. An obvious example is Hamlet's misogynistic condemnation in his first soliloquy, "Frailty, thy name is woman." He has generalized from his disillusionment with his mother, who in his judgment compounded her failure to honor his dead father by marrying his brother without sufficient mourning. Thus Hamlet's generalization pervades the play, and his cruel mistreatments of Ophelia in acts 2 and 3 reflect this transfer of his resentment from his mother, whom he loves and may be unable to confront directly, to his lady friend who is not protected by the cloak of maternal invulnerability. The critical point is that, because this play reflects Hamlet's privileged point of view and no other, we have no data to determine the truth or extent of Hamlet's hasty generalization from his mother's marriage to his blanket condemnation of women. Similarly, other characters are exactly what Hamlet makes of them: Claudius is a bad king, a brutish lover, a drunk, therefore an embarrassment to Denmark, and a wretched criminal, "vice of kings" because that is how Hamlet sees him; we seldom see Claudius as a more complex character, except for his prayer after the play within the play exposes his guilt. The list could be extrapolated further: Horatio is the trustworthy friend, whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exploit the claims of friendship for their own benefit; Ophelia as a woman is Eve's daughter, and therefore, by Gertrude's example, bound to be unfaithful; Polonius is a foolish, garrulous, bureaucrat; Laertes is a shallow, boastful seeker of respect and reputation; Osric is a courtier and sycophant; and so forth.

The genius of Shakespeare's play depends on Hamlet's coming to terms with his own subjectivity and learning to cope with his destiny. Updike, by contrast, takes a more "volitional" view of the characters. As a novelist, he distributes the point of view between his principal characters, and, as the last two sections of this analysis argue, suggests that Gertrude's and Claudius's lusts were not acts of depraved wills, but rather expressions of a vital and in some ways ennobling passion that grows from the clash between provincial Danish culture and the emerging, cosmopolitan, southern Europe. Claudius is developed by Updike as a very complex character, a man driven by his obsessive passion, near veneration, for Gertrude. He even tells her at one point that his extended exile from Denmark, when he acquired his cosmopolitan polish, was undertaken out of his love for her and his duty to his brother. Speaking like a true courtly lover, Claudius explains that his exile was his way of preventing his envy for his brother's wife and crown to lead him to forbidden acts like those in his dreams, in which "you [Gertrude] were wanton, and I wore a crown." Although ambition, largely unacknowledged as in his dream, and love lead Claudius to the same evil acts that drive the Shakespearean character, the motivation takes up a complex and a lengthy section, narrated from Claudius's first person point of view, that brings sympathy and understanding for a man consumed by a love that is, initially at least, an ennobling passion. Unlike the circumstances in Shakespeare's play, moreover, Claudius did not murder his brother because of envy or even self-preservation, but for a reason...

(The entire section is 1,663 words.)