Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Symbolism has always been a strength in Updike's writing. His capacity to invest literal images with contextual signification may be unrivaled among the writers of his generation. Many objects and scenes are invested with symbolic association in Gertrude and Claudius, but this discussion will limit itself to a brief commentary on the cluster of symbols associated with birds as signifiers for freedom and entrapment. One of the novel's most charming sections concerns a visit Gertrude makes to Claudius's rookery, in which his retainers train falcons. Gertrude is fascinated and a little troubled by the systematic breaking of these fierce predators' spirits and by the cruelty she witnesses when one is loosed to hunt and kill a crane. Her mixed feelings are well placed; what she is witnessing is a symbolic extension of the process she herself underwent when she was "tamed" by Horwendil to become an obedient wife. She feels this intuitively, thinking even as she watches fascinated as the bird kills and returns to its captor: "What a cruel and boylike business." Petruchio in Shakespeare's early comedy The Taming of the Shrew explicitly if crudely invokes falconry as the model for his plan to starve, sleep-deprive, bully, and confuse his new bride into total submission. Whether Fengon/Claudius knows he is exhibiting the process of wife-breaking to Gertrude is not completely clear. If he is aware, he may be modeling the mind-control of Horwendil as part of a strategy to disillusion Gertrude with her marriage, thus to set the stage for adultery. If he is not aware, the implication is even more disturbing: as worldly-wise as he may be, he never doubts the notion of bullying and "taming" a natural creature.

This seems the more probable reading. Updike clusters this association with two gifts Gertrude receives from her two suitors. Before they marry, Horwendil gives her two caged linnets, obviously creatures confined to serve human desires for music. Updike reinforces this association of the caged linnets with male power by noting that when the linnets fell silent, Horwendil gave "the cage a shake and in alarm, the poor things would run through their song again"—in short, singing not out of joy or natural causes, but out of fear to entertain a man who in this scene is represented as a bully. Similarly, before he leaves for an extended trip to southern Europe, Claudius gives the falcon Bathsheeba (the name itself recalling a Biblical adulteress whom a lusty king coveted enough to have her husband killed) to Gertrude. Unlike most of his gifts, this one brings Gertrude distress. She is annoyed by Bathsheeba's sudden, often destructive, "baiting" or attacking objects in the castle. More importantly, she empathizes with the falcon's cries "lamenting her loss of freedom, as I imagined it." Updike suggests by this comparison of the tamed falcon and the "broken" woman the no-exit situation traditional patriarchy created. Bathsheeba cannot be placed in the royal mews, because as a half-wild creature the royal falconer fears that she would be "slaughtered" there. She cannot stay in Gertrude's apartments because she is too wild to be among the precious objects, and her incomplete adaptation to domestic situations unconsciously reminds Gertrude of her "broken" role as mother, wife, and queen. Finally, with help from Claudius's servants, she returns Bathsheeba to the wild, seemingly her natural condition. But Updike reminds us, through Claudius's judgment, that Bathsheeba cannot survive there either because she is incompletely wild. In this cluster of symbols Updike adroitly suggests the predicament of a wife in a patriarchal culture.

A final technical device that charms fans of the bard is Updike's inclusion of soundbytes from the play, often in different contexts or even voices from those in Shakespeare. A full list would deprive readers of the fun of discovering unexpected bardphrases in the novel, but one illustration will suggest the cleverness of...

(The entire section is 4,273 words.)