Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

Gertrude and Claudius (2000)

by John Updike

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
8251510,980 (3.56)34



Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 34 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
"The New York Times" voted Gertrude and Claudius one of the ten best novels of the year 2000. It is certainly an interesting exercise in literary imagination and a little gem of a book. The eponymous characters are the parents of Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, and the book is a prequel to the play.

Updike tells us what was rotten in Denmark: old King Hamlet (the Prince’s father) is first cuckolded and then murdered by his younger brother, who takes the kingly name Claudius and marries Prince Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. The three main protagonists in the book [King Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude] are complex characters richly developed in Updike’s matchless prose. Prince Hamlet is off studying in Wittenberg, and plays only a minor role.

Apparently, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a retelling of an older Norse tale in which the main characters had more Nordic names than those in the famous play. Updike calls them by their ancient names in the early part of the book, but changes the names to the more modern form as the book proceeds. Thus, the young queen is Gerutha; later she becomes Geruthe and finally Gertrude. Her first husband is Horwendil, who evolves into the elder Hamlet; his brother is Feng and then Fengon before becoming Claudius. The baby born to Gerutha and Horwendil is Amleth, who becomes Hamlet in the last chapter.

In Updike’s retelling, Gerutha’s father requires her to marry a rather gruff, somewhat unfeeling but very competent warrior named Horwendil, who becomes king of Denmark. Horwendil’s younger, more romantic brother Feng returns from wandering around Europe and Byzantium. Later, Fengon seduces Geruthe. [That’s right, their names have changed.] Horwendil confronts Fengon in a dramatic scene that demonstrates how wise, strong, and canny the old king is. Nevertheless, with the help of the doddering old Polonius, Fengon is able to poison his elder brother before he wreaks his revenge.

The book ends with Fengon, now Claudius, assuming the kingship and some of the behavioral characteristics of his elder brother. Claudius hopes to win over the affections of his stepson-nephew, Hamlet, and marry him off to Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius. And now we can proceed to Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play.

Updike’s description of the long process of seduction is sympathetic and sensitive. As usual, his prose is scintillating. This is a clever exercise, well worth reading.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Mar 5, 2015 |
Very enjoyable prequel to Hamlet. Casts the "incestuous" couple in a very sexy light. It also rang true for the characters as they emerged in Hamlet. I could see the motivations and reactions as making sense in both works so he must have done something right. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 19, 2014 |
Wonderful. ( )
  Athenable | Jan 10, 2014 |
I wish I was more familiar with Shakespeare beyond what was required reading in high school (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar). I also wish Hamlet was one of the plays I had read, because I know I would have appreciated Updike's "Gertrude and Claudius" much more if I was familiar with the Hamlet story line. I liked how Updike attempted to adjust his language to that of the Shakespearean era. But, I couldn't get into this volume as much as I have of his other books I've read -- and I really did want to get into it because I really admire Updike. Props to him for trying something different, though. And maybe, just maybe, someday I'll take a class in Shakespeare (I'm currently a college student, second time around, so it could happen) and then re-read this novel. ( )
  ValerieAndBooks | Sep 18, 2013 |
John Updike is a well-respected author, and some of his works I hold in high regard. Gertrude and Claudius is not one of them, unfortunately.

Where to begin? The sentences were confusingly long - so much so that I lost my place within sentences and had to start over, find the subject, and re-read the sentence a few times to get the whole thing. That was really annoying as a reader. I'm sure it was an authorial choice, but there comes a point in my reading when I don't care that the author has a purpose for such ridiculously long sentences. Perhaps as someone with an MA in English, I should've languished in the thrill of those sentences and allowed myself to be drawn into the style... or something. It just didn't work out for me with this book.

I liked the premise of the story, that there was a relationship between Gertrude and Claudius before the opening of Hamlet that helps make sense of Gertrude's seeming heartlessness or husband-jumping. I liked getting to know Geruthe (Gertrude) from the time she was young. But her story bored me after a while. I was getting too much detail without any forward progression, which just didn't suit me right now.

Additionally, I found some of the language jarring. Some of the phrasing about the affair between Fengon (Claudius) and Geruthe was very subtle and inoffensive. However, at times, the author just said things in too plain a fashion right after using an overly flowery metaphor to get at something carnal. The two didn't fit together. You don't describe "fire in her loins" and "throbbing manhood" and then say "balls" in the next sentence. Nope. Just doesn't work.

I'm sure there was a purpose for the bird motif or thread that was pulling throughout the books - something to do with Geruthe's caged nature or something - but I wasn't taken in by it enough to want to find out why the birds were consistently repeated.

Overall, I just didn't like it. I wanted it to be a lot better than it was, and I felt disappointed. I'm glad to be finished with it. ( )
  Esquiress | Mar 25, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
no reviews | add a review

Is a (non-series) prequel to

You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
To Martha / De dezir mos cors no fina / vas selha ren qu'ieu pus am
First words
The king was irate.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0449006972, Paperback)

Borrowing a phrase from Hamlet for the title of his 1999 nonfiction collection, John Updike may perhaps have been dropping hints about his fictional work in progress. He has, in any case, now delivered Gertrude and Claudius--and his variation on what is arguably the Bard's greatest hit sits very handsomely in the Shakespearean shadows. As its title suggests, this is a prelude to the actual play, focusing not on the sulky star but on his mother and fratricidal stepfather (think of it as a Danish, death-struck version of The Parent Trap). Updike's great achievement here is to turn our customary sympathies on their heads. This time around, Gertrude is a decent, long-suffering wife, whose consciousness happens to be raised to the boiling point by her sexy brother-in-law. And Claudius, too, seems half a victim of this fatal attraction, with a strong neo-Platonic accent to his lust:
The amused play of her mouth and eyes, the casual music of her considerate voice, a glimpse of her bare feet and rosy morning languor were to him amorous nutrition enough: at this delicate stage the image of more would have revolted him.... What we love, he understood from the poetry of Provence, where his restless freelancing had more than once taken him, is less the gift bestowed, the moon-mottled nakedness and wet-socketed submission, than the Heavenly graciousness of bestowal.
Subtract the poetry (and leave in the wet-socket business) and we're not too far from Rabbit Angstrom. As in the bulk of his fiction--and most conspicuously in the underrated In the Beauty of the Lilies--Updike sacrifices artistic firepower when he goes archaic on us. That explains why Gertrude and Claudius gets off to a wobbly start, with the author's medieval diction careening all over the page. But once his narrative gets up to speed, Updike dispenses one brilliant bit of perception after another. Note, for example, Ophelia's teeth, "given an almost infantile roundness by her low, palely pink gums, and tilted very slightly inward, so her smile imparted a glimmering impression of coyness, with even something light-heartedly wanton about it." Who else could make mere dentition such a window into the soul?

Gertrude and Claudius also amounts to a running theological argument, in which men constantly impale themselves on metaphysical principle while the adulterous queen is willing "to accept the world at face value, as a miracle daily renewed." (That would explain Gertrude's snap diagnosis of her neurotic son: "Too much German philosophy.") A superlative satellite to Shakespeare's creation, Updike's novel is likely to retain a kind of subordinate rank, even within his own capacious body of work. Still, it's packed with enough post-Elizabethan insight about men and women, parents and children, to suggest that the play's not the thing--not always, anyway. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:02 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Tells the story of Claudius and Gertrude, King and Queen of Denmark before the action of Shakespeare's Hamlet begins"--Jacket.

Quick Links

Swap Ebooks Audio
19 avail.
5 wanted
2 pay

Popular covers


Average: (3.56)
1 2
1.5 2
2 13
2.5 2
3 37
3.5 14
4 42
4.5 2
5 23

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


Help/FAQs | About | Privacy/Terms | Blog | Store | Contact | LibraryThing.com | APIs | WikiThing | Common Knowledge | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | 105,891,074 books! | Top bar: Always visible