"Gertrude and Claudius" by John Updike

In his 19th novel, Updike spins a tale of feverish and furtive sex and death in a masterly prequel to "Hamlet."

Published February 9, 2000 4:00PM (EST)

Every so often, John
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
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.

By John Freeman

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.

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