In her youthful innocence, Gertrude feels "warrior blood
within her," Updike writes, though she does, in time, yield
to her father's demands of marriage. Inevitably, it soon grows
old and predictable, and she finds herself in the unenviable
position of feigning obeisance while longing for greater freedom
and--almost as important--reciprocated love. Updike offers a
beautiful, extended metaphor by which to understand Gertrude's
plight. Claudius, before their affair begins, shows her a newly
caught falcon called Bathsheba whose eyes have been "sewn
shut, with stout, even stitches." "It is for her own
protection," Claudius tells her.
[O]therwise she will be frantic with the possibilities of
freedom that she sees about her. Her talons have been trimmed,
and her feet hobbled with bells, so the falconer can hear her
slightest move. She is intricate and sensitive and excitable.
For her to become a partner to men, she must be constrained,
as a baby is swaddled, or as a king is held to his throne throughout
a day's sacred ceremony. She has all outdoors in her heart, and
we seek to pour her, as through a funnel, into a convenient container....Blindness
is to her a mercy, a lulling into safety.
(For the record, Gertrude doesn't buy Claudius's justifications,
saying, "Poor Bathsheba, I wish she could understand all
your beguiling explanations of her misery.") That the mature
Gertrude accepts at least the semblance of being fitted into
the throne's 'convenient container' while remaining fully cognizant
of 'the outdoors in her heart' is a wonderful detail of nuance
in Updike's account. Whatever might be said about his other women
(and feminist critics haven't been kind), Gertrude is certainly
proof that Updike can create a genuinely interesting, fully-imagined
Hamlet, on the other hand, suffers a less ennobling portrayal.
Away at Wittenberg for most of the book, he is a physically distant
figure seen primarily through unpleasant memories and less than
enchanting descriptions. Here, for example, is his own mother
discussing him with Claudius:
To my son, everything is mockery, a show. He is the only man
in his universe. If there are other people with feelings, then
that just makes the show more lively, he might concede. Even
I, who love him as a mother cannot help doing, from that moment
when they place the cause of your pain in your arms, this newborn
wailing and whimpering in memory of your joint ordeal--even me
he views disdainfully, as evidence of his natural origins, and
proof that his father succumbed to concupiscence.
Of course, Gertrude's a harsh judge of men ("Men are
our beautiful enemies," she tells Ophelia), primarily because
their will to power in some sense cripples their ability to be
fully mature, rounded characters. Gertrude finds Claudius much
less appealing, for example, once he assumes the throne, and
each of the three parts of the novel begins with the sentence,
"The king was irate," though they each refer to different
kings. The moment they achieve authority, Updike suggests, their
individual goodness and interesting qualities become dampened,
it would seem, and are replaced by a willful temper provoked
by even the smallest threat (bad news for everyone, of course,
once Hamlet starts asking questions and acting insolent). One
can only imagine what power would do to such an embittered figure
as Hamlet; surely, it wouldn't balance out his remote, introverted
side, but only--if Gertrude is right--form some new sort of willful,
unpredictable dictatorship. (Gertrude may not be entirely blameless
when it comes to Hamlet's problems. As Claudius tells her, "Without
love, we die, or at best live stunted.")
Only Claudius--of all people--has anything good to say about
"I'm fond of him, actually," Claudius said. "Young
Hamlet. I think I can give him something he never had from his
own father--he and I are fellow victims of that obtuse bruiser--that
Koll-killer. We're alike, your son and I. His subtlety, which
you mentioned, is much like my own. We both have a shadow-side,
and a yen to travel, to get away from this foggy hinterland,
where the sheep look like rocks and the rocks look like sheep.
He wants more, to learn more."
He even thinks, absurdly, that "I can make the Prince
love me. I appointed him my successor on my own impulse."
Of course, we read Claudius's words from a privileged place,
knowing what will happen, immediately after Updike's book ends,
and this raises the only substantive issue that might be fairly
brought against Updike's effort, I think. One can't help thinking
that the book might feel a bit slow, if it were read out of the
context of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Much of the narrative
momentum is provided by the reader herself, anticipating the
roles the various characters will play in the final outcome and
therefore paying greater attention to their actions on a given
page. Without such privileged foreknowledge, one wonders how
the book would be received. Would it be considered lethargic?
Slow to develop? Long in character study and short in plot?
It's a fair question to raise, though it's ultimately an academic
issue, I suspect. Who, after all, is likely to approach Updike's
novel without some knowledge of the original play? Updike didn't
set out to write a freestanding work, but merely cast newly angled
light on an old, established one. And this he has certainly achieved:
the desire to pick up Shakespeare's play, after finishing Gertrude
and Claudius, is almost unstoppable.