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Gertrude and Claudius (2000)

by John Updike

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9761615,174 (3.54)35
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.… (more)

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A prequel to Shakespeare's play, "Hamlet".
  waltser1 | Mar 12, 2020 |
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 |
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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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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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