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.
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.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Random House Trade Paperbacks
December 31, 1999
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Excerpt from Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike
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.