Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although Updike has from time to time been charged with being a misogynist blessed with a graceful style by critics of various persuasions, the first characteristic one observes about this novel is the sequence in which the characters' names appear in the title. By contrast, Shakespeare's three plays, named after joint protagonists, consistently exhibit a patriarchal priority characteristic of his age (Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra)., Updike's title, however, gives the privileged position to the woman who drives the male characters in Hamlet: the mother upon whom Hamlet obsesses; the wife Claudius genuinely adores, to the degree that he endangers his throne to keep her beloved son nearby; and the widow whom the Ghost (an ectoplasmic inconsistency that overwhelms young Hamlet) tells young Hamlet to spare while wreaking vengeance on her lover. Although she is the center of three men's universe in the play, Shakespeare's Gertrude is hard to comprehend fully. Is she complicit in her husband's murder? An adulteress who rushed to the altar with her lover after her husband's sudden death? A traditional, weak, woman incapable of living without a strong male presence? Any of these may be true of Shakespeare's character; but none is provable by data or statements within the play. In Updike's novel both the priority and the sympathy are clearly with Gertrude, a lively young woman whose body, love, and loyalty are negotiated by her dynastic father, a man who cares much more about Denmark's future than his daughter's happiness.

Gertrude's victimization, defensible only under patriarchal attitudes characteristic of late medieval and early modern Europe, begins with a father who subdues his captive Wendish princess by forcing himself on her. He actually boasts to Gertrude that Ona, her mother, attempted suicide after Rorik (Gertrude's father) in effect raped her. The captive bride/mother died when Gertrude was three years old, so the theme of maternal nurture, so absent in her own childhood surrounded by carousers and whores in the Danish court, accounts for the mature Gertrude's taking Ophelia under her wing. In Shakespeare's account, the queen's sudden lament at Ophelia's gravesite, "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife. / I thought thy bride-bed to have decked," seems abrupt. Updike fills in the motivation as well as the past in Shakespeare's story by emphasizing Gertrude's own lack of maternal nurturing, her alienation in the macho cultures of her father's court and the one her husband imposes on his son, and her sympathy with Ophelia, whose mother she sees as a sickly victim of old Polonius's patriarchal lusts. According to Gertrude, Polonius continued to impregnate his wife despite her several miscarriages, and she believes this was the cause of Ophelia's mother's unhappiness and early death.

Updike's narrative, however, is not merely a jeremiad about patriarchal authority in late medieval Europe. Gertrude is simultaneously a resenting victim and a contributor to the suppression of women in this novel. Although she sees her own arranged marriage and motherless childhood mirrored in the young woman's vulnerability, her interest in Ophelia is not solely a matter of feminine sympathy. She sees Hamlet's marriage to Ophelia as a means for her son to settle down and become more princelike. Trying for a second time to persuade Hamlet senior that diplomatic interests are less important than their son's mental health and personal happiness, she professes that marriage might cure the prince of his "sterile egotism" because "marriage ties us to the established order." Thus Gertrude (and Updike) have it both ways: marriage is a trap for women, an institution that robs them of their autonomy and ultimately their spirit, and yet it is very good for the social order—and for their sons.

Moreover, the adultery itself, certainly Updike's critical interest in the Hamlet story and a theme that is both timely and...

(The entire section is 3,091 words.)