Spoiled Rotten in Denmark
New York Times
February 27, 2000
Richard Eder

John Updike's newest novel is an imagined prequel to Shakespeare's
"Hamlet" in which the prince is a brat.

"She in an unbelted gown not so long it hid the bareness of her feet, a pink bareness implying an entire body flushed still with the languid heat of sleep just shaken off, pink on the sides and white in the toes and at her bare heels thickened to a tallowy tint.'' John Updike with his familiar foot erotics -- not those of the adulterous housewives in ''Couples,'' though, but of the soon-to-be adulterous Gertrude, Queen of Denmark and Hamlet's mother. A bedroom not in suburbia but in Elsinore Castle; and one of those shape-shifting marital quarrels that start off on a son's schooling and end in fermented sexual grievance, with wife reproaching husband for inattentiveness and a chill start to their honeymoon, long ago.

He: ''I was not cool. I am not cool toward you now, 18 years after our wedding night.''

She: ''You fell asleep.''

He: ''To spare you a drunken lout I did -- to bring you my better, morning self.''

Moving his household furniture -- how unmistakably his -- into the carapace of ''Hamlet,'' Updike makes a magical minor art of hermit-crabbery. Not always minor, either. With Updike you have to be on guard against letting dazzle fool you into taking him for less than he is. Of course, in turning out 18 novels, a dozen assemblages of short stories and a rough half-dozen each of light verse and nonfiction collections, sometimes he is less than he is. But this is not true of ''Gertrude and Claudius.'' Its skitter of fireworks, as ingenious (and protracted) as any Updike has arranged, lights up the darkness over territory won in a lifelong literary engagement. The book illuminates questions about Shakespeare, about what a classic means and also the unexplored hills and forests that lie on either side of the path art pushes through them.

Updike has invented lifetimes for Gertrude, for old King Hamlet, her first husband, and for Claudius, the king's brother, who murders him, usurps his throne and marries his widow. The novel ends just after Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'' begins, with Gertrude and Claudius enthroned and ceremonially welcoming home her sullenly jittery son from Wittenberg.

Before this, Updike has made a few tiny pre-emptive raids on the play -- three or four for sheer foolery, and another for a touch of postmodern foolery. Among the former are ''reechy'' kisses in the heavy-petting stages of Gertrude's and Claudius's adultery, and a maidservant advising the young Gertrude that ''there's a shape in things, fiddle and fuss however we will around the edges.''

Despite such touches, Updike has not written a pastiche. He comes closest in the last section, where novel and play intersect in Claudius's nervous welcoming speech and young Hamlet's sardonic asides, here reversed and told from the mother's and stepfather's point of view. By pastiche standards, this should be the high point; in fact, though cleverly done, it is the least remarkable part of the book. Just as Shakespeare used older chronicles to construct his anguished balance between imagination and action, Updike has used Shakespeare to write a free-standing, pleasurable and wonderfully dexterous novel about three figures in complex interplay with their public state, their private longings and one another.

Each of the three -- Gertrude and her two husbands, that is -- is drawn with an intriguing doubleness and with unexpected ruptures. It is as if the stage characters had drifted from their roles to reflect other possibilities, becoming figures of appealingly layered intention. No doubt Updike reveres Shakespeare, but ''Gertrude and Claudius'' is a proffered challenge. It is novel against drama: see what broader, deeper, richer texture can be achieved through fiction's indeterminacy than through the dramatic determinacy of a figure on the stage. It is a courtly challenge: art against art. Less courtly, more to the bone, is the depiction of young Hamlet. He remains up on the stage, undoubled, unchanging. Whatever eloquent hesitancies and existential plights may follow, this Hamlet is an arrogant, self-centered, destructive brat. An afterword quotes the key to Updike's unsweet prince, from William Kerrigan's ''Hamlet's Perfection,'' summing up the unfashionable judgment of a previous scholar: ''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 counselor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death.''

Art has many consorts; among them -- why not? -- a fed-up irritability. In Updike's disdain for Hamlet, it is not hard to see the contrarian of the 60's who had good things to say about Lyndon Johnson versus the counterculture generation. The point is that the disdain provides the grain of sand for this pearl -- all right, cultivated pearl -- of a book.

The cultivating is remarkable. Establishing a distance from the specifics of Shakespeare's play, Updike uses names for his characters drawn from older accounts: names that shift through the book's three parts. The young queen is Gerutha; later she becomes Geruthe and finally Gertrude. The warrior husband imposed by her father 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; only near the end is he Hamlet.

Updike summons up a late medieval Denmark, just beginning to sense northward currents from the Renaissance. They infiltrate and alter the three main figures (I will use Shakespeare's names for convenience) in shifting and wonderfully differentiated ways. Gertrude, King Hamlet and Claudius have the rounded attributes of character-in-time: identity undermined by possibility. There is pure pleasure -- but not a whit of color extraneous to the emotional hue of the characters -- in the ceremonies, the corridors, the food, the hierarchies, the imprisoning effect of kingly and queenly power, the excursions out of a Book of Hours, the evocation of the winter moon on snow: ''The higher it rose, the smaller and harder and more brilliant it became. It looked less like a lantern than like a stone.'' Updike lingers over Gertrude's dress on her first wedding night: ''her heavy hooded cloak lined with miniver, her sleeveless surcoat of gold cloth diapered in a pattern of crosses and florets, her blue tunic with wide flowing sleeves and a band of jeweled embroidery at the throat, under that a white cotte with longer, tighter sleeves, and, lastly, the thin camise worn next to the skin, sweated with much dancing.'' And when she lifts off these burdens of her sex and state, ''her nakedness felt like a film of thin metal, an ultimate angelic costume.'' She turns it toward her co-angel, but Hamlet is sodden and asleep.

Sentient as the writing is, and with the power all by itself to explore and discover, the novel's most marked achievement is its creation of the queen and her two kings. Gertrude, with her pink feet, generous build, instinct to please and brainy need to please herself, is continually of two minds, both excellent. She objects to her father's choice of Hamlet, his favorite warrior, as her husband, citing his lack of ''subtlety.'' Once married, though, she loves his stolid exercise of authority even while choked and starved by it.

Her affair with the subtle, inflaming yet part-scrupulous seducer, Claudius, described in some of the most sensual passages Updike has written, is less a way out than a way around and around and around. King Hamlet, piggy and complacent though kind, turns out subtle after all; and, when he discovers the betrayal, takes on a blazing brilliance. His confrontation with Claudius is a scene of steely power. Claudius's murder scheme, though we know what will happen, generates a breathless suspense.

It seems sometimes that Updike can do anything he wants. Wanting has flagged from time to time, notably, to my view, in his much praised but overfed ''In the Beauty of the Lilies.'' Old age, on the other hand, provided the ferocity of his revivified last novel, ''Toward the End of Time.'' Now, in a transmutation of literary wealth into literary battling, his gorgeous conveyance has received a charge of vital energy. What promised to be a game is a game for real stakes.

Kenneth Branagh's Prince Hamlet
flanked by Claudius and Gertrude


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"Gertrude and Claudius": Gertrude Finds True Love in Updike's Version of "Hamlet"

New York Times
February 8, 2000
Michiko Kakutani

John Updike's last two efforts to work variations on classic stories were low points in a dazzling career: "Brazil" (1994) turned the legend of Tristan and Isolde into a cartoonish soap opera, full of sexual and racial stereotypes; and "S" (1988) turned Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" into a sour, cliche-ridden sendup of the women's movement. Updike's latest literary renovation project is considerably more successful. In writing a kind of prequel to "Hamlet" that tells the story of the melancholy prince's mother, he has succeeded in creating one of his most sympathetic and persuasive female characters yet.

In doing so, however, Updike gives the reader a decidedly warped reading of the characters in Shakespeare's play. "Gertrude and Claudius" often reads like one of Updike's slighter tales of suburban jealousy and adultery done in costume dress. It is less a playful improvisation upon Shakespeare's play like Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" than a simple filching of characters and plot for Updike's own ends.

In Updike's telling, Gertrude (or Gerutha or Geruthe, as she is called here) is a gentle if somewhat gullible woman who falls madly in love with her husband's sexy younger brother. The King Hamlet character is a stolid, self-absorbed man, more concerned with his work than his wife. Claudius is a dashing adventurer, jealous of his older brother's power. Hamlet is a sullen, spoiled brat who mocks and undermines his mother long before discovering her adulterous affair. They are, to say the least, one very dysfunctional family.

Based in part upon source material that Shakespeare probably used himself, Updike's novel is set in a fictionalized Middle Ages, at a time when "Christ was on all lips but in their hearts the Danes still adored Tyr, god of sport and war and fertility." In Updike's telling, Gertrude's father, Rorik, is an avatar of the old order, a king who pays lip service to the Christian faith but who remembers the days when heathen altars dotted the land. Her husband reveres "Harald Bluetooth, the father of modern Denmark, whose conversion deprived the German emperor of his favorite excuse for invasion, the conquest of pagans." As for her wayward son, Hamlet, he is a harbinger of the coming Renaissance with its humanistic faith in the individual.

In "Gertrude and Claudius," Updike uses all his considerable powers of persuasion to turn the woman Shakespeare's Hamlet accuses of foul lust (living "in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,/ Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty") into a modern romantic who finds true love with her husband's brother.

In the past, Updike's efforts to write from a woman's point of view tended to result in heroines who were little more than caricatures: All three "Witches of Eastwick" were laughable parodies of feminism, while the heroine of "S" was a bitter man-hater who put her own selfish whims before her family. His portrait of Gertrude, in contrast, is informed by the same dialectic between freedom and duty, passion and domesticity that animated such sympathetically portrayed heroes as Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom and Henry Bech. Though Updike occasionally burdens Gertrude with clumsy generalizations about women ("the flow of a woman's love, once started, can be stanched but with great pain"), he has managed to create in her a genuinely compelling character, a woman who is, by turns, vulnerable and outspoken, daring and naive.

When Gertrude was 3, Updike tells us, her mother died. When she was 17, her father married her off to an older man. Though her new husband is gentle and kind, Gertrude finds him oddly impersonal: There is something "pat and coldly expedient" about his decision to marry her, and after he succeeds her father on the throne, he grows even more remote.

Gertrude's relationship with her son is equally fraught. This Hamlet is not Shakespeare's model prince -- "the expectancy and rose of the fair state," whose "noble mind" is overthrown by grief over his father's death and his mother's hasty remarriage. Instead, he's a "high-strung, quick-tongued child" who is "disrespectful to his elders and callous to his inferiors."

Her own love, Gertrude thinks, spills down on Hamlet but remains "on his surface, gleaming like beads of mercury, unabsorbed": "he was of his father's blood -- temperate, abstracted, a Jutish gloom coated over with the affected manners and luxurious skills of a nobleman." He makes her feel like "an utter failure as a mother."

Gertrude slowly comes to understand that she has "never lived" for herself, and in her quest for self-fulfillment, she realizes that Claudius, her husband's charming younger brother, is the mate she has always dreamed of. She thinks of him as "her redeemer from lawful life's deadening emptiness, her own self turned inside out and given a man's bearish, boyish form."

When the King discovers their affair, Claudius -- unbeknownst to Gertrude -- plots his brother's murder. He coldbloodedly poisons him, assumes the throne and marries his brother's widow. Thus is the stage readied for the opening of Shakespeare's play.

In keeping with his distinctly odd take on the playwright's characters, Updike does not blame Claudius for setting in motion these events that will lead to the bloody conclusion of "Hamlet." Instead, he blames Hamlet for deciding to avenge his father. In an afterword he writes: "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 counselor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death."

"Putting aside the murder being covered up" is a rather large caveat, the reader might protest, but then Updike seems intent, in this volume, not on re-inventing Shakespeare's play -- or even providing a commentary upon it -- but on telling a tale of sexual jealousy and marital discord not unlike the ones he has told many times before.

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