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Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

Gertrude and Claudius (2000)

by John Updike

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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
John Updike chose to carry out a difficult task. He imagined and created the complex (?) relationship between Gertrude and Claudius before the climax of the events that consist Shakespeare’s masterpiece. One could say that this is an attempt of a prequel to ''Hamlet'' and as such it has the quality of the majority of prequels and sequels in Literature and in Cinema. It falls frightfully short.

Even as I’m writing this review, I am unable to understand how I feel about this book. It left me completely indifferent, it didn't create any feelings in me, any images in my mind. I cannot say I hated it because hate needs a whole array of feelings to be invoked and those were simply absent here. Updike’s writing was completely empty, devoid of any warmth and soul, any real sentiment that would be required when an author is dealing -or messing with- the task to breathe new life to the Bard’s larger than life characters.

If I want to be honest, I need to say that I never considered Gertrude a villain. However, neither she nor Claudius are particularly interesting characters. Naturally, Hamlet erases all, but Laertes, Ophelia, Horatio are people I would like to read more about. So are Gertrude and Claudius. I’ve often wondered about the marriage between Hamlet’s parents. Was it happy? Was Gertrude aware of her brother-in-law’s intentions? These are questions that have been plaguing scholars for centuries. Updike presents his own vision, which I won't spoil here, and it is quite plausible. The problem is that it’s inconsistent with the characters he reconstructed. He managed to turn the infamous couple into a snooze-fest, people who speak like automatons, without any substance. They’re not even archetypes, they’re plain air.There is nothing they offer to the reader. Even Polonius- who’s named Corambis here after the version of the Bad Folio- becomes more boring than our familiar Shakespearean councillor. Well, at least that’s an achievement there for you…

Where is Hamlet, you may ask? Hamlet is completely absent for the majority of the narration and thank Jesus and Mr. Wednesday and all the Old Gods and the New for that, because who knows what treatment would be in store for our beloved, melancholic, black clad Prince of Denmark?In the few lines that are uttered by Gertrude, Hamlet isn’t positively portrayed. Yes, Updike creates the Queen as an unloving, cold mother whose only thoughts are how to fall in bed with her husband’s brother. Forgive me, but I have lost count on how many times I have read ''Hamlet'' and I’ve never thought that she was distant, devoid of maternal feelings.

Many of the excellent reviewers here have already mentioned the writing issues so I won’t bore you further. Updike attempted to create a kind of pseudo-medieval language. In my opinion,it didn’t work to the advantage of the story. It was exactly this issue that made every interaction so dry it was almost unbearable. The fact that Claudius uses the word ‘’connoisseur’’ or speaks Italian and Spanish interrupting his speech was something I couldn't take seriously. Not to mention, that the writer had the audacity to insert quotes from Shakespeare's play in the dialogues.

Updike is an author I wasn’t familiar with before I read ‘’Gertrude and Claudius’’ and I don’t intend to try my luck with any other book of his. In our times,we have experienced examples of re-imagining Shakespeare with beautiful results. Unfortunately, this novel wasn't true to the Bard and to the nature of his characters. It wasn’t even respectful. Perhaps, Hamlet and his troubled family should be left alone by now...No need to torture them more... ( )
  AmaliaGavea | Jul 15, 2018 |
"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 |
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To Martha / De dezir mos cors no fina / vas selha ren qu'ieu pus am
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The king was irate.
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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)

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Tells the story of Claudius and Gertrude, King and Queen of Denmark, before the action of Shakespeare's Hamlet begins. Employing the nomenclature and certain details of the ancient Scandinavian legends that first describe the prince who feigns madness to achieve revenge upon his father's slayer, Updike brings to life Gertrude's girlhood as the daughter of King Rorik, her arranged marriage to the man who becomes King Hamlet, and her middle-aged affair with her husband's younger brother.

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