A new take on Hamlet: John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius

For years I was engaged in a hopeless contest with John Updike as to whether he could churn out new books faster than I could read them. The author was ahead by a dozen lengths when his death in January 2009 gave me a sporting chance at catching up.  Gertrude and Claudius had been sitting patiently on my shelves for nearly ten years, and it was one of the first unread Updike titles that I tackled.

I remember hesitating over whether even to buy it in the first place.  The novel’s premise seemed like a pretentious gimmick that I wouldn’t like: Updike had borrowed both the plot and the characters from Shakespeare’s best-known play.

How wrong I was! I enjoyed Gertrude and Claudius tremendously, and all the more so because I had spent so much time in the preceding year boning up on Hamlet, which we saw on a Stratford Festival stage (Stratford, Ontario) in the summer of 2008 (see Emsworth’s report on that fine production).

Gertrude and Claudius is the back-story of Hamlet, as imagined by Mr. Updike.  If you know Hamlet, you know that a lot has already gone down before the play begins. Prince Hamlet has been at Wittenberg long enough to become a perpetual student, he and Ophelia are already an item, his father had died suddenly for no apparent reason, and his mother and his uncle Claudius are newly married.  The novel starts thirty years before the action of the play when Gertrude was a teenager; it takes us through the wedding of Gertrude and Claudius in Hamlet, Act I.

Thanks to Updike, we now know that Elsinore was Gertrude’s father’s castle, and that she was a mere 17 years old and motherless when her first marriage was arranged.  We know the real reason Claudius didn’t come to his brother’s wedding.  We know that King Hamlet was too drunk to consummate his marriage to Gertrude on their wedding night, and we know just how well their marriage turned out. 

And Gertrude and Claudius answers most the questions you might ever have had about Hamlet. Exactly how innocent was the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius before the murder of King Hamlet, and how long had that been going on?  Where did Claudius learn about exotic poisons?  And what might Polonius have had in common with a certain character in Troilus and Cressida?

Hamlet and his mother Gertrude as conceived by Delacroix. Polonius is behind the curtain.

Modern playwrights specify what their characters should look like, but Shakespeare didn’t, and Updike helps us out here as well. He gives us Gertrude as a copper-haired beauty who’d become plump by the time she married Claudius in her late forties, Hamlet as a curly-haired, bearded redhead. 

In writing Gertrude and Claudius John Updike was showing off.  He must have thought it good sport to set about writing a novel based on the characters of Hamlet that would not only meet his usual high standards of storytelling and character development, but would also amount to a scholarly “interpretation” of the play.

Of course, for someone who could write three brilliant sequels to a masterpiece of his own (Rabbit, Run), a “prequel” to someone else’s masterpiece probably wasn’t that much of a stretch.  I enjoyed Gertrude and Claudius not only because I was already intensely interested in its characters (I fell for Updike’s gimmick, after all), and not only because of its many happy allusions to the language of the Bard, but also because this novel was a riveting tale on its own merits.

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