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Gertrude and Claudius
Updike, John.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : A.A. Knopf, 2000.
Physical Description:
212 pages ; 21 cm
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John Updikes's nineteenth novel 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. A dark-eyed dreamer with a taste for foreign adventure, he for decades has sought to quell his love for Gertrude, and at last returns to an Elsinore whose prince is generally elsewhere. Gaps and inconsistencies within the immortal play are to an extent filled and explained in this prequel; the figure of Polonius, especially, takes on a larger significance. Beginning in the aura of pagan barbarism, and anticipating Renaissance humanism and empiricism, this modern retelling of a medieval tale presents the case for its royal couple that Shakespeare only hinted at. Gertrude and Claudius are seen afresh against a background of fond intentions and familial dysfunction, on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, disaffected prince.

Author Notes

American novelist, poet, and critic John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 18, 1932. He received an A.B. degree from Harvard University, which he attended on a scholarship, in 1954. After graduation, he accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. After returning from England in 1955, he worked for two years on the staff of The New Yorker. This marked the beginning of a long relationship with the magazine, during which he has contributed numerous short stories, poems, and book reviews.

Although Updike's first published book was a collection of verse, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures (1958), his renown as a writer is based on his fiction, beginning with The Poorhouse Fair (1959). During his lifetime, he wrote more than 50 books and primarily focused on middle-class America and their major concerns---marriage, divorce, religion, materialism, and sex. Among his best-known works are the Rabbit tetrology---Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1988). Rabbit, Run introduces Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom as a 26-year-old salesman of dime-store gadgets trapped in an unhappy marriage in a dismal Pennsylvania town, looking back wistfully on his days as a high school basketball star. Rabbit Redux takes up the story 10 years later, and Rabbit's relationship with representative figures of the 1960s enables Updike to provide social commentary in a story marked by mellow wisdom and compassion in spite of some shocking jolts. In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry is comfortably middle-aged and complacent, and much of the book seems to satirize the country-club set and the swinging sexual/social life of Rabbit and his friends. Finally, in Rabbit at Rest, Harry arrives at the age where he must confront his mortality. Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for both Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.

Updike's other novels range widely in subject and locale, from The Poorhouse Fair, about a home for the aged that seems to be a microcosm for society as a whole, through The Court (1978), about a revolution in Africa, to The Witches of Eastwick (1984), in which Updike tries to write from inside the sensibilities of three witches in contemporary New England. The Centaur (1963) is a subtle, complicated allegorical novel that won Updike the National Book Award in 1964. In addition to his novels, Updike also has written short stories, poems, critical essays, and reviews. Self-Consciousness (1989) is a memoir of his early life, his thoughts on issues such as the Vietnam War, and his attitude toward religion. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. He died of lung cancer on January 27, 2009 at the age of 76.

(Bowker Author Biography) John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. Since 1957 he has lived in Massachusetts. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, & the Howells Medal.

(Publisher Provided) John Updike was born in 1932 and attended Harvard College and the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. Form 1955 to 1957 he was a staff member of The New Yorker, which he contributed numerous writings. Updike's art criticism has appeared in publications including Arts and Antiques, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Realites, among many others. He is the author of such best-selling novels as Rabbit Run and Rabbit is Rich. His many works of fiction, poetry and criticism have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. For the past 40 years he has lived in Massachusetts.

(Publisher Provided) John Updike is the author of some 50 books, including collections of short stories, poems, & criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, & the Howells Medal. Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932, he has lived in Massachusetts since 1957.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Oh, dear, here is another one of Updike's lapses, which are occurring with increased frequency; in fact, it seems that lately he would be better off permanently consigning every other novel to his desk drawer. This latest effort has an interesting premise, but what might have been a rich historical novel is nothing more than a stuffy, stagy costume drama. Updike tells the story of the lives of Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, taking the tale up to the point where Shakespeare's Hamlet begins. We witness Gertrude as a young princess being married off by her father, the king of Denmark, to a mighty warrior whom she doesn't love. Upon the old king's death, the warrior becomes king and the princess his queen; their son grows into the young man we know as Prince Hamlet. Never having accepted the roles of wife and mother, the middle-aged Gertrude enters a liaison with the king's brother, Claudius. What follows, of course, is the stuff of Shakespeare's tragedy: Claudius murders his brother, marries Gertrude, and recalls Prince Hamlet home from his schooling in Germany. Giving Gertrude and Claudius pre-Shakespearean lives is a genuinely intriguing idea, but Updike fails to pump real life into these characters and wraps the story in a lacquered style too grand even for evoking the regal past. This one is only for the most devoted Updike followers. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

Precisely honed, buoyant with sly wit, masterful character analysis and astutely observed historical details, this tour de force by the protean Updike reimagines the circumstances leading to Shakepeare's Hamlet. To emphasize the ancient provenance of the Scandinavian legend, he identifies the main characters by the names they held in various versions of the story. Thus in Part I, the future king is a hero from Jutland called Horwendil; Feng is his brother; Amleth his son; and Corambis the old courtier who will die behind the arras. The one name that remains nearly constant is Geruthe/Gertrude, the queen, portrayed by Shakespeare as a cold conniver in her husband's murder. Sometimes accused of misogyny, Updike acquits himself of the charge here in his sympathetic depiction of her character from age 16, when she is reluctantly betrothed to the stolid, self-important warrior Horwendil; to age 47, when she is newly married to Feng/Fengon/Claudius. In Updike's revisionist imagination, Gertrude is intelligent and sensible, with a sweet-natured, radiant personality. She is an obedient daughter and a faithful, if unsatisfied, wife to her complacent husband until, feeling cheated of true happiness in the doldrums of middle age, she succumbs to the ardent pleas of his brother, who has been in love with her for many years. Updike details the irresistible sweep of their mutual passion and the mortal danger it entails with delicacy. Gertrude's loyalty to her husband and her royal duties, her initial resistance to adultery and her concern about her distant, sour, self-centered son contributes to a fully dimensional portrait. A constant theme is Gertrude's rueful acknowledgment of women's roles as pawns and chattels of their fathers and spouses. Updike also credits her with the metaphor for Shakespeare's seven stages of man: "We begin small, wax great, and shrivel, she thought." Claudius here is not an evil plotter, but a man driven to desperation when the king discovers the illicit liaison. Though he wears his knowledge lightly, Updike establishes the context of the time through details of social, cultural, intellectual and theological ideas. If the narrative seems a bit labored in Part Three, which immediately precedes the action of the play, the resolution is breathtaking: before the assembled court, Claudius is relieved and finally confident: "He had gotten away with it. All would be well." Enter Shakespeare. 75,000 first printing; BOMC main selection. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Updike's latest is an odd but intriguing little novel that one suspects he had fun writing. It is a speculative piece exploring the relationship among Hamlet's mother, father, and uncle prior to the action of Shakespeare's play. Using details taken from early accounts of Hamlet, or Amleth, as he is called in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, Updike constructs a tale that is part "romance"--"She lifted a finger to touch his fringed lips, to create there a tingle to mirror that which she had felt at the back of her neck"--and part psychological study--an examination of the motives that led to the betrayal and murder of King Hamlet. It offers not a justification of Gertrude's and Claudius's action but a possible explanation, and in the end Gertrude seems as much victim as perpetrator. Throughout it all, Prince Hamlet remains a minor if forebodingly sullen figure. This is by no means Updike's best work, but it is a fun read that will especially appeal to Shakespeare buffs and more serious-minded romance enthusiasts. For all public libraries and academic libraries seeking completeness in their Updike holdings. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/99.]--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

YA-This engrossing prequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet is rife with relationship drama. Confidences between father and daughter, mother and son, husband and wife, and siblings and servants provide an archival view that stops at Hamlet's 30th birthday, where the Bard takes up his tale. Updike relates the action at a cinematic clip reminiscent of many of the recent Shakespeare-influenced movies. Characters speak with assured and eloquent tongues. Enjoyment of the titillating castle chatter is not hampered by the fancy Old English associated with inspirational texts. Updike's dialogue is piercing, witty, and provocative. Characters' motivations are revealed through discourse and actions that the author describes in a singsong and playful way. Scenes include adulterous exchanges and a murderous undertaking, and the language is sometimes explicit, mostly sublime, and consistently clever. Close attention must be paid, however, because the characters' names change with each major lifestyle progression, symbolizing renewal or evolution. As the king's brother, the title character is known as Feng, but called Fengon during his affair with his sister-in-law, the queen, and finally, after assuming the throne he emerges at his own behest as Claudius. Updike is as crafty with intrigue as this Denmark cast is with living in riotous times. Young adults who have read Hamlet will find Gertrude and Claudius insightful, and those who are first experiencing the kingdom of Elsinore may be prompted to read the play.-Karen Sokol, Fairfax County Public Schools, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The King was irate. His daughter, Gerutha, though but a plump sixteen, had voiced reluctance to marry the nobleman of his choice, Horwen-dil the Jute, a beefy warrior in every way suitable, if Jutes could ever suit in marriage a Zealand maiden born and reared in the royal castle of Elsinore. "To disobey the King is treason," Rorik admonished his child, the roses in whose thin-skinned cheeks flared with defiance and distress. "When the culprit is the realm's only princess," he went on, "the crime becomes incestuous and self-injuring." "In every way suitable to you," Gerutha said, pursuing her own instincts, shadows chased into the far corners of her mind by the regal glare her father cast. "But I found him unsubtle." "Unsubtle! He has all the warrior wit a loyal Dane needs! Horwendil slew the tormentor of our coasts, King Koll of Norway, by taking his long sword in two hands, thus baring his own chest; but, before he could be stabbed there, he shattered Koll's shield and cut off the Norseman's foot so the blood poured clean out of him! As he lay turning the sands beneath him into mud, Koll bargained the terms of his funeral, which his young slayer granted graciously." "I suppose that could pass for nicety," said Gerutha, "in the dark old days, when the deeds of the sagas were being wrought, and men and gods and natural forces were all as one." Rorik protested, "Horwendil is a thoroughly modern man -- my battle-mate Gerwindil's worthy son. He has proven a most apt co-governor of Jutland, with his rather less prepossessing brother, Feng. An apt governor solus, I might say, since Feng is forever off in the south, fighting on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor or whoever else trusts his arm and his agile tongue. Fighting and whoring, it is said. The people love him. Horwendil. They do not love Feng." "The very qualities that make for public love," Gerutha responded, her rosy blush slowly subsiding as the moment of most heated opposition between father and daughter passed, "may impede love in private. In our fleeting contacts, Horwendil has treated me with an unfeeling, standard courtesy -- as a court ornament whose real worth derives from my kinship with you. Or else he has looked through me entirely, with eyes that see only the rivalrous doings of other men. This is the gallant who, having laid Koll and sufficient gold on the buried black ship to the next life, pursued and butchered the slain man's sister, Sela, with no merciful allowance for the frailty of her sex." "Sela was a warrior, a rover, to equal a man. She deserved a man's death." The phrase piqued Gerutha. "Is a woman's death less than a man's, I wonder? I think death for both is exactly as big as it must be, like the moon when it blackens the sun, to eclipse life completely, even to the last breath, which perhaps will be a sigh over opportunities wasted and happiness missed. Sela was a rover, but no woman wants to be a mere piece of furniture, to be bartered for and then sat upon." So defiant a formula, emerging from his fair daughter's flushed face, lifted Rorik's tangled half-gray eyebrows in synchrony with his upper lip, from which a long limp mustache drooped. His lip stopped lifting as his instinctive indulgent laugh was checked and hardened, by the pressure of royal policy, into a snarl. He was reminding himself to be stern. His mouth looked meaty and twisty and red between his mustache and his uncombed, grizzled beard. He would have been ugly, had he not been her father. "Since your mother's untimely death, my dear child, your happiness has been my supreme concern. But I have pledged you to Horwendil, and if a king's word is broken, the kingdom cracks. All the three years when Horwendil roved, seizing trophies from Koll's hoard and Sela's palace and a dozen or more fat ports of Sweathland and Rus, he allowed me as his liege-lord the pick of the plunder." "And I am to be the plunder in exchange," Gerutha observed. She was an ample, serene, dewy, and sensible girl. Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open. Her hair, unbound as became a virgin, was the red of copper diluted by the tin of sunlight. A warmth surrounded her, an aura noticeable since infancy; her nurses in the icy straw-floored chambers of Elsinore had loved to clasp the resilient little body to their breasts. Bracelets of twisted bronze, brooches worked into a maze of interlaced ribbons, and a heavy necklace of thin-beaten silver scales bespoke a father's lavishing love. Her mother, Ona, had died on the farthest verge of memory, when the child was three and feverish with the same ague that carried off the frail mother while sparing the sturdy child. Ona had been dark, a Wendish captive. An unsmiling face with lowered lids and thick brows, a melody sung with an accent even a toddler could recognize as strange, and a touch of tender but chilly fingers formed the bulk of maternal treasure Gerutha held in her memory. She was pleased now to hear, in her father's mention of Sela, that women can be warriors. She felt warrior blood within her -- warrior pride, warrior daring. There was a time, three or four years after her mother's death, when she thought that she and the children whom, in the absence of brothers and sisters, she played with -- the children of courtiers and retainers, of ladies-in-waiting, even of the kitchen thralls, in the informal rustic arrangements of Elsinore -- were of the same status. Then she became aware, long before puberty had awoken any urge to mate, of her father's blood regal within her. In the absence of a brother, she stood nearest the throne, this nearness to be assumed by the man whom she would marry. So some of the power of state was hers, in this mismatched struggle of wills. Her father asked her, "What distinct fault have you found in Horwendil?" "None -- which is perhaps a fault in itself. I am told that a wife completes a man. Horwendil feels himself complete already." "No unwived man feels so, though he may not proclaim it," said Rorik, himself unwived, in a grave voice. Was this meant to soften her, so she could be bent more easily to his command? That she would eventually yield, both knew. He was a king, all substance, in essence immortal, and she of an evanescent loveliness, negligible amid the historical imperatives of dynasty and alliance. "Truly," Rorik pleaded, "is there no chance of Horwendil pleasing you? Have you already such strict notions of what a husband should be? Believe me, Gerutha, in the rough world of men, he is a more than fine specimen. He sees his duties and keeps his vows. Since your veins carry kingship in them, I have chosen for you a man fit to be king." He dropped his voice, with its cunning political range of threat and entreaty, into a register of irresistible gentleness. "My dear daughter: love is so natural a condition for men and women that, given normal health and an approximate parity of endowment, it will all but inevitably follow upon cohabitation and the many shared incidents of married life. You and Horwendil are fine specimens of our northern vigor -- blond beasts, one could say, as solid as runestones in an upland pasture. Your sons will be giants, and conquerors of giants! "You did not live long enough to know your mother," Rorik went on without a pause, as if all this were a single story in aid of his pleading, "but you in your glowing ripeness bear testimony to our love. You fought your way into being through your mother's reluctant, narrow channels. In truth, she and I were content enough with each other; we did not beg Heaven for a child. She was a Wendish princess, as you have more than once been told, brought back from the south by my father, the great Hother, in the wake of a murderous raid. What you have not been told, until this interview, is that she hated me, the son of her father's slayer, right up to the sacred ceremony and beyond. She was dark-haired and white-skinned and for six months with fingernails and teeth and all the strength of her slender limbs defeated my efforts to possess her. When I did at last possess her, taking advantage of her weakness after one of her illnesses, she attempted to end her life with a dagger, she so loathed herself for submitting to this pollution -- the pollution at the root of life. Yet, within another six months, my persistent gentleness, and countless of the small courtesies and favors whereby a husband pays homage to a cherished wife, did work love within her. Her old enmity lived on as a special blaze in her passion, a rage that again and again fell short of being satisfied. Again and again we were driven together as if to find in our coupling -- dark and fair, Wend and Dane -- the resolution of the world's mystery. "Now, if from a beginning so unpromising such an attachment could grow, how can your relation with the honorable, the admirable, the heroic Horwendil fail? He is virtually your cousin, by the bonds of alliance between his father and your own." Rorik's hand, an old man's hand, knobby and mottled and as light as if hollow, was lifted on the wave of his insistent murmurous eloquence and rested, like driftwood nudged forward by the froth, on his daughter's. "Repose in my decision, little Gerutha," urged the King. "Lend yourself without stint to this match. Some lives bear an enchantment, I do believe. Since your bloody birth, which weakened your poor mother ever after, you have displayed an extra quantity of that which gives others happiness. Call it sunlight, or sense, or a sweet simplicity. You cannot help but enamor your husband, as you since your infancy have enamored me." It is hard, Gerutha thought, to consider one man when another is present. Horwendil -- who was deemed quite handsome, with his candle-pale skin, his curly flaxen hair, his short straight nose, his icy blue eyes long as minnows in his wide face, his thin-lipped mouth with its strict look -- stood in her mind rendered small by even the near future's distance from her. Whereas Rorik was here, his hand touching hers, his profoundly known visage a foot from her own, a translucent wart in the crease above one nostril of his large, porous hooked nose. A regal weariness emanated from all his creases, along with a leathery smell, his thick skin browned in the salt and sun of his youth's sea-raids across the rimy Baltic and up the great unpeopled rivers of Rus. His robes, not the velvet ermine-trimmed robes of a state occasion but the undyed wadmal he wore within the family apartments, had the secret little greasy stink of sheep in the rain. Her bones vibrated to the familiar rumble of his voice's rote endearments, and her skull felt the paternal pressure of his other hand cupped on her head in blessing. Gerutha found herself, as if cuffed from behind, kneeling before him in a spasm of filial feeling. On his side, Rorik, leaning over to kiss the neat gash of the bone-white scalp where her hair was centrally parted, was conscious of a tingle on his face as of tiny snowflakes; stray individual hairs, too fine to be seen, had rebelled against the brushed order of his daughter's coiffure, held by a jewelled chaplet like a dainty version of his own cumbersome, eight-sided crown, which he donned on those same state occasions as warranted the confining, all but immobilizing robes of velvet and ermine. He pulled his face back from the sensation of her excessively vigorous hair and experienced a start of guilt, her pose before him was so demurely slavish -- that of a captured slave, drugged with hellebore, about to be sacrificed. But marriage to Horwendil, with a queendom all but certain with it, was no such slavery, surely. What did women want? There had been that in Ona which he had never reached, save in the instant when their bodies clasped and found release in a brainless rhythm of thrust and counterthrust, her pelvis as active in the business as his -- a passion as if to be sacrificed, to be consumed in this act of, after all, capture. Then, in the next instant, their sweats still wet on the bedclothes and their breathing fluttering back into their chests like two homing doves, she would begin to recede. Or was it he receding, the capture achieved and he the lighter for it? They had been like a pair of conspiring cutthroats met in the dark and, their furtive transaction accomplished, swiftly and unceremoniously parted by a mutual hatred. No, not hatred, for a kindly afterwash would hold them side by side a while, beneath the embroidered canopy, behind the linen bed curtains doubled in thickness so their struggling shadows would not show through, within the tall stone room patrolled by cold drafts and churlish servants, as their sweated bodies dried, and he and she would engage in drowsy fumbling conversation, his eyelids still retaining visions of her naked beauty above him, below him, upside down beside him, her abundance of untamed raven hair between parted white thighs having tickled his lips. They would talk, many a time, of their growing daughter, the radiant fruit of one such clipping -- the child's piecemeal assumption of mobility and speech, the dropping away of treasured mispronunciations and lisped coinages as she gathered to herself more correct language and adult manners. Gerutha had remained the chief, tyrannically single topic of their delight because no brother or sister followed, as if a door had slammed shut in Ona's womb. Within three years Rorik's queen was dead, taking with her into silence her midnight cries of release from that captivity of concupiscence which Eve's curious sin has laid upon mankind, and into silence also the soft Wendish syllables whose unemphatic mispronunciation of guttural Danish delighted him as much as any missaying of their daughter's. Ona's fingertips had been chilly, he remembered, and yet even Gerutha's scalp, chalk-white in its parting, tasted of warmth. Whatever harsh or happy fate in this life befell her, she had been born of love. Rorik was entertaining his daughter within a small timber-floored and wainscoted oriel room recently built to adjoin the King's bedroom, in this perpetually revised old castle of Elsinore. Lozenges of red afternoon sun lay on the broad planks of oiled fir, making good the designation of "solar" for these upper chambers devoted to private residence within a castle. The room's shallow fireplace sported a plastered hood, in the most modern and efficient fashion. The luxury of a brocaded arras softened the stone wall facing the three-arched, two-pillared window and its view of the gray-green Sund that separated Zealand from Skåne. Sk&3229ne, which the Sweathlanders coveted, was a Danish domain, with Halland and Blekinge to the east, and to the west Jutland and Fyn, and to the south the islands of Lolland, Falster, and Møn. To keep intact such a realm, scattered and jagged like the broken earthenware of a dish just fallen to the floor, took all a king's strength and cunning; accordingly, each new monarch ascended the throne through election by the provincial lords and, since the advent of Christianity, the great prelates. The inheritance rights of royal blood were diluted in Denmark by the ancient democracy of the (singular and plural) thing , the assemblies of freedmen that judged and governed the affairs of each locality and, above that, of the province. A king needed election by the four provincial thing , assembled at Viborg. These traditions enclosed the castle inhabitants as adamantly as the multiple walls themselves, the accreted keep, barbican, gatehouses, battlements, towers, barracks, kitchens, stairways, garderobes, and chapel. The chapel had seemed to the child Gerutha a doomed lost place, reached only after traversing in her freezing slippered feet the length of the great hall and a gallery and several small sets of stairs at an angle -- an unheated high-roofed room smelling of a spicy incense that scratched her nose, and of the clamminess of disuse, and of the unwashed bodies of the holy men who in their robes shuffled through the service, lifting the circular pale wafer toward the circular white-glazed window high above the altar (so that she thought of the Eucharist as eating sky) while Latin was being chanted unintelligibly. Being in the chapel frightened her, as if her young body were a sin, to be avenged some day, pierced from underneath even as she sipped the rasping wine, the caustic blood of Christ, from the jewel-beknobbed chalice. The chill, the Latin, the fusty smells made her feel accused ; her natural warmth felt chastened. Excerpted from Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.