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A Lulling Into
False Safety
John Updike's
Gertrude and Claudius

by Daphne Frostchild

With Gertrude and Claudius, John Updike undertook something that could have been either a refreshingly revelatory experiment or a creatively challenged disaster: he wrote a prequel to Shakespeare's Hamlet, with the focus shifted from Hamlet to Gertrude (and, to a much lesser extent, Claudius as well). Happily, the book, which runs the course of some thirty years (from Gertrude's adolescence to Hamlet's return to Elsinore, after his father's murder), turns out to be an intelligent, engaging story that gives added depth to many of Shakespeare's rather flat secondary characters. And the key to Updike's success lies, I think, in his winning portrait of Gertrude herself.

In Updike's hands, Gertrude becomes a proto-feminist of sorts, brazenly rejecting her father's choice of suitor and saying such radical things as


"Is a woman's death less than a man's, I wonder? I think death for both is exactly as big as it must be, like the moon when it blackens the sun, to eclipse life completely, even to the last breath, which perhaps will be a sigh over opportunities wasted and happiness missed...[N]o woman wants to be a mere piece of furniture, to be bartered for and then sat upon."

Gertrude and Claudius
John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf
214 pp.
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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 woman.

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 Hamlet:


"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.
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