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Gertrude and Claudius: A Novel Paperback – July 3, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; 1st, 1st Printing Thus edition (July 3, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0449006972
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449006979
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.6 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #558,558 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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.

Customer Reviews

If you are a fan of Shakespeare's plays you will enjoy reading this book.
rose weaver
This reader even felt, for a time, an Arthurian tragedy unfolding, rather than the familiar Shakespearean one.
J. Stone
This little tome is an easy read, one that begs the reader to keep going.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

68 of 73 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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 By Richard R on 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 By dikybabe on December 27, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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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