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Gertrude Loves Claudius
A Novel By John Updike

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Copyright 2000

Reviewed by Candice J. Wanner

John Updike, best known for his portrayals of the tawdry infidelities of modern middle America, has made a u-turn of monumental proportions with his nineteenth novel, Gertrude and Claudius. Set in ancient Denmark, this new novel is a prequel to the events portrayed in Shakespeare’s immortal Hamlet. Like Shakespeare, Updike also draws upon the ancient Scandinavian myths and legends of the mad, brooding Prince of Denmark who plots revenge upon his father’s murderers. Unlike Hamlet, however, Updike’s novel has as its main character Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Updike’s novel follows the young woman from her girlhood as the daughter of the king with all the rights and responsibilities pertaining to that position. Gertrude, whom Updike describes as "an ample, serene, dewy, and sensible girl" with "hair, unbound … the red of copper diluted by the tin of sunlight" had a "warmth" that "surrounded her, an aura noticeable since infancy; her nurses in the icy straw-floored chambers of Elsinore had loved to clasp the resilient little body to their breasts." This practical, loving woman who feels herself "of an evanescent loveliness, negligible amid the historical imperatives of dynasty and alliance," opposes the match her father has made for her. The reasons she gives are not of personal dislike, but because her affianced, though destined to be a great leader, treats her not as a woman but as a necessary if sometimes inconvenient accouterment to his ambition. Gertrude wants something more from her marriage than a distant courtliness shown by an uncaring husband.

The novel continues to follow Gertrude through her eventual acquiescence to her father’s will and her loveless marriage to Hamlet’s father. We suffer with her through her inability to warm to her quixotic, melancholy and much too clever son and her attempts to suppress longings for something more in her life than being relegated to bed warmer, Queen though she may be. Later, we follow her into a tempestuous love affair with her distant husband’s jealous younger brother, a man who embodies to Gertrude all the passion and secret lust she has never known with her rightful husband and lord.

Hamlet, when we see him in this novel, is a cold and distant figure given much to sulks and theatrical gestures. He genuinely dislikes his mother and she cannot muster up any familial warmth for him, try though she might. Hamlet’s devotion to his father, who disregards Gertrude at every opportunity, is put forth as simply another barrier erected between Gertrude’s ineffectual gropings towards her son’s affection.

In writing this novel, Updike has attempted to humanize and break down the epic issues of betrayal, revenge and the temptations of the flesh that run so deeply through Shakespeare’s work. Updike tries to give us the other side of the story not told in Hamlet. Here we see the tale of the royal lovers who in Gertrude and Claudius are not seen as the base, grasping monstrous figures that loom so large in Hamlet’s disturbed mind, but rather they are portrayed as real people who have very understandable reasons for their actions. We see two people who in surrendering to the love they feel for each other, surrender themselves to fate and their own natures that force them into taking the drastic steps for which they will finally be punished.

At its best, Gertrude and Claudius is a living tapestry of a by-gone era skillfully woven of the many threads that make up even everyday people’s lives. The imagery can be beautiful and moving, reminiscent of the languid pleasure derived from sitting still and observing a perfect summer’s day. At its worst, the prose is dogmatic and overdone. It is sometimes difficult to follow and only shallowly skims the deeper issues for which Hamlet is so understandably renowned. Some of the recent reviews of this work have claimed it debases the tragedy it is meant to honor by trivializing and demeaning the underlying tensions and pathos so integral to its origins. While it is true that you could look at this work as nothing more than another Updike tale of middle-aged lust set in medieval times and view Gertrude as the sheltered, unloved fading beauty who falls for a vagabond’s charms, there is more to this novel than that. We see a love between two people that transcends and overcomes all the secular and religious constraints imposed upon them by outer and inner forces of morality and propriety of their time and ours. Gertrude and Claudius see their love as being blessed by Nature, hearkening back to a time when the passions of the body were not chained by constructs of the mind or specious rules of primogeniture. They freely acknowledge the earthly desires that drive them and in so doing find not only physical but spiritual release in their illicit joining. That is not to say that the two involved do not suffer guilt, but it is almost a perfunctory thing felt as an obligation and not a heartfelt sentiment.

While Updike’s novel is certainly worthwhile reading, its lavish language, languid pace and sometimes overblown prose may turn some readers off. For those, however, who enjoy the pageantry more than the actual event, this is the novel for you. Its imagery should be savored slowly, its underlying conflicts of paganism versus the bonds of christianity should be recognized and pondered and its shortcomings and obscuring convolutions ignored. If you’ve never read Hamlet, you can still find enjoyment in this novel. If you have read Shakespeare’s work, then Gertrude and Claudius will give you a different view of the notoriously guilt-ridden Prince of Denmark and the origins of the skeletons in his closet.