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Updike's "Hamlet" prequel

By Adam Kirsch

FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike (Alfred Knopf), 212 pages, $23.

The most important character in Gertrude and Claudius is, of course, the one not named in the title. John Updike's 19th novel attempts to fill in the prehistory to Hamlet, and the prince himself barely appears in its pages; but he's like a black hole, invisibly furious, waiting to suck Gertrude and Claudius, like Gertrude and Claudius, down to destruction. Updike knows that his novel will necessarily be orders of magnitude smaller than the play off which it battens. And at first it seems that he is happy to live within those limitations: the book often comes across as a game, as we hunt the Shakespearean echoes in Updike's prose and calculate how he will get his characters into position for the opening scene of the play (which is the last scene of the novel). But Updike has a more serious purpose as well: page by page, he is sapping the very foundations of the play, redrawing our perspective on the characters and their world, so that by the end he has constructed not just a pre-Hamlet but a counter-Hamlet.

Updike leapfrogs over Shakespeare to the playwright's sources in the tales of medieval chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, and he uses the unfamiliar original names for the characters throughout most of the novel: Old Hamlet becomes Horwendil, Claudius is Feng, Gertrude is Gerutha, Polonius is Corambus. And he invents pasts for these characters that force our sympathies into unaccustomed channels. We meet Gertrude as a teenage bride agreeing without passion to marry Old Hamlet for reasons of state. The wedding night becomes the emblem of the marriage: a drunken, exhausted Hamlet falls asleep just when Gertrude becomes aroused. He believes that he is sparing her an unwanted advance; she sees him as passionless and neglectful. Meanwhile, Claudius is off in the Mediterranean, escaping his older brother's shadow, and when he returns, he has worldly experience that no one at Elsinore can match. Old Hamlet is more king than man; Claudius provides the personal attention Gertrude has never before enjoyed. Their adultery is a consolation, a conspiracy by two victims of "The Hammer" -- their nickname for Old Hamlet -- to escape his suffocating pre-eminence.

As even this brief sketch makes clear, the usual polarities of Hamlet have been reversed, and in a way that's characteristic of Updike. Instead of virtue (Hamlet, Old and Young) versus vice (Gertrude and Claudius), we have self-righteousness against human impulse; instead of duty versus lust, we have public hypocrisy against private candor. Most of all, we have Christianity versus paganism. Updike emphasizes that Denmark is only recently Christianized, that the pagan instincts are only barely concealed by a dusting of doctrine. Gertrude is a sort of earth-goddess, appetitive and natural, transformed into a sinful Eve by her son's and husband's religion. Updike's sympathies, of course, lie with this paganism of surfaces, this sexual pantheism, and his lush prose -- as always, wavering between beauty and prettiness -- bows down before Gertrude: "By the snapping firelight her nakedness felt like a film of thin metal, an ultimate angelic costume. . . . Gerutha was white as an onion, as smooth as a root fresh-pulled from the earth."

All this adds up to a challenge to the central good in Hamlet, and perhaps in all the Shakespearean tragedies and histories: nobility. What for Shakespeare is both a blessing and a curse -- Hamlet's sense of being wrong for the world, of living in a time out of joint, of wishing that this too too solid flesh would melt -- is, for Updike, merely a curse, the product of a diseased mind. Because Claudius is no satyr, Old Hamlet is no Hyperion, and Hamlet's filial devotion can only be a mask for Oedipal guilt. Updike's feeling is captured in his afterword, in a quote from a Shakespeare critic to the effect that Gertrude, Claudius, and company are all pretty nice people; only "Hamlet pulls them all into death."

To make matters even more interesting, Updike's challenge to Shakespeare is also a historical challenge (modern values against medieval) and a literary challenge (the novel against the drama). The novel is the modern genre above all because it extends sympathy to every character, in keeping with modern ideas of equality and psychology; it sees things from every side, and indeed it thrives on flawed protagonists. (Madame Bovary could not be the heroine of a drama.) Updike remakes Gertrude and Claudius as the adulterers of a hundred 19th-century novels while stranding Old and Young Hamlet in the archaic world of the play. And Hamlet is an especially intriguing battleground for Updike to choose for this contest, because it is itself a key text in the transition from medieval to modern, and from drama to novel: the form of Hamlet's soliloquies gives birth to stream-of-consciousness, and their content to Romanticism.

The book that raises all these interesting questions may be only a fair novel, but it is an excellent essay in Shakespearean criticism. If Updike leaves us thinking more about Hamlet than about Gertrude and Claudius, at least he gives us much to think about.


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