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Gertrude and Claudius: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

John Updike
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Gertrude and Claudius are the “villains” of Hamlet: he the killer of Hamlet’s father and usurper of the Danish throne, she his lusty consort, who marries Claudius before her late husband’s body is cold. But in this imaginative “prequel” to the play, John Updike makes a case for the royal couple that Shakespeare only hinted at. Gertrude and Claudius are seen afresh against a background of fond intentions and family dysfunction, on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, erratic, disaffected prince. “I hoped to keep the texture light,” Updike said of this novel, “to move from the mists of Scandinavian legend into the daylight atmosphere of the Globe. I sought to narrate the romance that preceded the tragedy.”

Editorial Reviews Review

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

From Publishers Weekly

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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1289 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0375409084
  • Publisher: Random House (June 15, 2001)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000FC1I86
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #314,311 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
68 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Couples" Meets "Hamlet" February 18, 2000
By A Customer
Each of the three parts that make up "Gertrude and Claudius" begins: "The King was irate." In the first part, the statement refers to Gertrude's father Rorik; in the second, to Gertrude's husband Horvendile; in the last, to Gertrude's second husband Claudius. Gertrude is surrounded by kings.
In this manner Updike structures his story of Hamlet's mother's marriage, affair, and second marriage. It's a parents' view of the Hamlet problem. Comparisons will be made to "Brazil" and "The Coup," his other flights of imagination. "Gertrude and Claudius" reads better and faster, perhaps because it's a concise prequel to the Shakespeare play; from the first to the last page, we know what's coming.
I read it as a prose poem in which Updike's luminous sentences serve a legend instead of the familiar contemporary situations of his best novels. "Gertrude and Claudius" allows author and reader to enter a distant enticing word-world. I had to look up garderobe, houppelande, hesychast, cloisonne, and bliaut, just to name a few. We are treated to a ten-page treatise on falconry, the objective correlative to Gertrude's plight as a woman caged in cold dark paternal Denmark.
The plot is secondary to precision of language and depth of insight regarding romance, marriage, and children. Updike disdains all the cheap tricks and twists of novel writing, happy instead to apply his verbal wizardry to a ready-made narrative.
The language veers from verbatim and paraphrased Shakespeare to familiar Updikean metaphors, to colloquialisms like, "He had gotten away with it.
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clever but Light March 12, 2000
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The idea of a prequel to Hamlet, rooted in the same source material that Shakespeare used when writing his play, is a clever one. But this book is no Hamlet. This is a light and quick read, a stray speculation revolving around Gertrude and her affair with her husband's brother that precedes the action in Hamlet and culminates with Claudius's telling of the play's early scenes. It is fun because it illustrates just how fully do Shakespeare's moral perspectives on Claudius's treachery, Gertrude's perfidy, and Hamlet's callow innocence color our interpretation of the events in Elsinore. Updike shows us that there is another way to accept the characters. "Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems a capable king, Gertrude a noble queen, Ophelia a treasure of sweetness, Polonius a tedious but not evil counsellor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death".
Of course, the murder and its cover-up are precisely what Shakespeare refuses to "put aside", and resorts to the stratagem of the talking ghost to reveal the otherwise perfect crime. Shakespeare's story of unnatural deceit and its cleansing through the shedding of the blood of both guilty and innocent is thrilling and profound precisely because of the weight of its moral judgements and the depth of its characters. Updike gives us the latter without the former. He deftly and patiently draws the characters of Hamlet senior, Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude so we can plainly see their motivations and, by default, we may accept their choices as natural, if not honorable, ones. It's a not terribly seductive game, to excuse fratricide because the victim is a bore whose wife deserves better. In the end, Shakespeare got the moral compass about right.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another turn at Hamlet December 27, 2000
Skillful writing will out. Updike's premise of merging the ancient legends of the Danish court into an intimate insight of Gerutha/Geruthe/Gertrude and the men in her royal existence is fascinating. His storyteller's finesse respects the historical reality of necessary royal matchmaking with Gerutha as the center of the story.
Taking the point of view of the mother of Hamlet, that mad Danish prince, Updike reveals Gertrude as a woman with the same passions of women of today. Updike's characterization of her as fearing her only child and sensing his ability to bring about doom makes her a uniquely sympathetic woman. Gertrude's world is at the mercy of her men: first her father and his Lord Chamberlain, then her husbands, and then her son. However, her attempt at experiencing life within those confines makes for a timeless story.
Getting to know Gerutha more intimately means getting to know all of her men more intimately. Rorik, Horwendil, Coriambus, Amleth and Feng become very real people as they develop in their relation to the queen and emerge in the familiar names of Hamlet, Polonius, and Claudius.
This little tome is an easy read, one that begs the reader to keep going. The use of three parts to show the progress of the tale from the Latin record into the German and finally the English adds to the story's richness as it continues over the centuries into the time when it becomes the Shakespearian tragedy known as Hamlet. Updike obviously loves the English language and his love affair as a mighty wordsmith stands him in high regard. I highly recommend any Shakespearian fan to try this prequel on for size. For anyone who has studied the play, read the Stoppard version, seen the Olivier, Gibson, and Branagh film versions, this book just adds more gravy to the tradition. Bravo!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
A rather disappointing read. I expected more from an author of Updike's reputation. The plot was thin and the dialogue unimaginative. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Tmore
5.0 out of 5 stars Pre-Shakespeare family history and a fine story.
Very fine imagining of Hamlet's story before the tragedy. Updike's writing up to his excellent standards.
Published 3 months ago by Baxter
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Best book ever. A must read if you are reading or seeing Hamlet.
Published 5 months ago by Elizabeth Frist
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Loved it. This prequel gave me a much better insight to the characters.
Published 6 months ago by Don Arkangel
5.0 out of 5 stars Hamlet prequel
I am a big fan of Updike. My husband is a professor of Literature who has imparted to me a love of Shakespeare. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Mildred E. Kaye
4.0 out of 5 stars Claudius and Gertrude
If you are a fan of Shakespeare's plays you will enjoy reading this book. It is interesting as a possible history of what happened before the Hamlet play. Read more
Published on January 4, 2013 by rose weaver
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting speculation
I'm coming back to Shakespeare years after I received a degree in English, plagued anew by the mysteries of Hamlet -- one of the most notorious of them being Gertrude's decision to... Read more
Published on January 8, 2012 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Gertrude And Claudius
The book is an interesting attempt to supply the background material, or the prologue to Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Read more
Published on August 13, 2009 by D. E. W. Turner
4.0 out of 5 stars Do we need a prequel to Hamlet?
My answer to the question "do we need a prequel to Hamlet?" would have been absolutely not, before reading Updike's novel. I have changed my mind. Read more
Published on March 21, 2009 by Massimo Pigliucci
5.0 out of 5 stars Hamlet before Hamlet
Hamlet is not the central character in this novel by the prolific Updike. In most of the book, he is off at Wittenberg. We learn that Amleth was not a happy child. Read more
Published on January 28, 2009 by CRT
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More About the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 lived in Massachusetts. He was the father of four children and the author of more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. His novels won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal. A previous collection of essays, Hugging the Shore, received the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. John Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.

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