In his 19th novel, Updike spins a tale of feverish and furtive sex and death in a masterly prequel to "Hamlet."
Every so often, John
Updike abandons his snow dome of suburban realism to strike
out after new territory. In the past two decades, these forays
have produced the whimsical and wicked tale “The Witches of
Eastwick,” the bawdy but at times pointless “Memoirs of the Ford
Administration” and, three years ago, the futurist “Toward the End of
Time.” But though they’re sometimes cloaked in the garb of
genre fiction, these flights of fancy aren’t the departures they
at first appear to be. They merely find fresh landscapes on which
Updike can rehash his main theme: the symbiotic connection
between sex and death, and the hapless attempts we make to
transcend the latter with the former.
Updike’s 19th novel, “Gertrude and Claudius,” is another such
not-quite-departure, and it is by far the most successful
transplanting of his themes to new soil. The novel borrows its
plot and characters from “Hamlet,” postulating that Gertrude
sealed her union with Claudius long before her first husband was
underground. Using Hamlet’s anger at his mother’s betrayal of his
father as ballast, Updike sails into the foggy circumstances of
Shakespeare’s play and returns with a juicy prequel. Given the
novelist’s exhaustive mappings of the perils of concupiscence, he
is the perfect writer to riff on Shakespeare’s tragedy, which he
manages to do here without usurping the great play’s rightful
As if to signal his respectful distance, Updike begins his tale
using variations on the characters’ names: Gertrude
is Gerutha, Claudius is Feng and King Hamlet is Horwendil. Over
the course of the novel, these unfamiliar names evolve into the
names in the play as Updike begins filching lines from
Shakespeare. His story, which he tells in three parts, opens as
Gertrude’s father is trying to persuade his daughter to marry the
future King Hamlet. Like Ophelia after her, she is stubborn and
independent, yet loyal to a fault. Thus Gertrude agrees to marry
the brute in chain mail and leather epaulets even though he makes
her feel like a comely plot of territory that had once blocked
access to the sea. When they marry, “Denmark had become a
province of her body.”
Thereafter the king becomes aloof, and Gertrude tires of
nurturing the bratty young Hamlet. Longing for some excitement,
she begins spending time with her husband’s brother, Feng
(Claudius), a swarthy, well-traveled free lance with wolfish
teeth, a rug of chest hair and a collection of falcons. As time
passes, she begins to resent forfeiting her life to the king
(whom she and Feng jokingly call the Hammer for his particular
style of making love), a busy man who doesn’t seek to know her
any better. When she hits middle age, Hamlet goes away to school
and, her nest empty, she finally employs Polonius’ services to
start an affair with Claudius.
Updike dives into their affair with alacrity, eliciting both the
sadness and the elation the lovers feel at betraying their family
allegiances in order to honor one of the spirit. As Hamlet will
do later, Claudius succumbs to a decadent possessiveness over
Gertrude, with whom he couples in barnyards and castle anterooms.
After a month of such feverish if furtive exploration — “this
unfolding of herself” — Gertrude exclaims to her lover, “My
father and future husband together bargained me away, and you
have given me back my essential value, the value of that little
girl you so belatedly dote upon.” However offensive this remark
may be to modern notions of female selfhood, it’s sadly in
keeping with the realities of Renaissance England that found
their way into Shakespeare’s play.
In its closing stretches, Updike’s tale leaves the swampy
morasses of the barnyard sex and gathers steam. The affair goes
awry, and Claudius begins plotting for more than just Gertrude’s
bounty. In taking the action of the play beyond its sullen hero’s
point of view, Updike gives us a drama that, with its
machinations of power and its sexual tug of wars, resembles
“Othello” more than it does “Hamlet.” In the end, as in “Othello”
(as well as in most Updikean dramas), those who confuse the loins
with the spirit get a whopping comeuppance. Here Updike has that
ending already carved out for himself in Shakespeare’s tragedy –
and what gory retribution it is.
John Freeman has written about books and culture for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lives in New York. More John Freeman.
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11