Thursday, January 04, 2007

Gertrude and Claudius

The word that springs to mind when I think of how to describe Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike is 'adult'. Maybe this is because I have been reading a lot of YA fiction lately and have become used to teenage protagonists. Whatever the reason, it was a refreshing change to read a proper grown-up book.

Gertrude and Claudius is the story of the royal court of Denmark leading up to the events of Shakespeare's Hamlet. As the title suggests, the central characters are Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and his uncle, Claudius, who of course famously becomes the king by poisoning Hamlet's father. In John Updike's Denmark, Hamlet is a sulky young man who is whiny and ungrateful, and his father, the king, is boorish and warlike. Gertrude is carefully drawn as a vivacious and well-loved noble women who is forced into a tactical marriage by the powerful men who surround her. By describing in detail Gertrude's unsatisfying marriage and the lack of control she has over her circumstances, Updike transforms her into a sympathetic character. When she embarks on a late-in-life affair with her husband's brother it gives her a glimpse of happiness and I, for one, was cheering her on.

Since the novel forms a kind of prequel to Hamlet, the reader knows what will eventually happen to the characters. Thus the emphasis moves back to the 'how' and not the 'what' of the plot. There is a feeling of suspense as plot unfurls and we wait for the murder that will spark the
events of Hamlet.

Updike writes in a muscular style. He is a writer who knows how to make the words do as he says. It's an interestingly masculine style in which to describe one of the most famous, most discussed and probably most disliked, women in literature. Updike gives Gertrude a life beyond the play and makes her believable. We escape Hamlet's view of the world to see how events might have been interpreted from a different perspective, one in which the dead King Hamlet is not perfect and his uncle not necessarily a total villain.

I loved Gertrude and Claudius. Updike creates a vivid picture of the windswept landscape and harsh life of medieval Denmark. He gives a fresh perspective on a familiar story and ultimately writes a great, tragic love story. A quirky aspect of the novel is that the names of the characters change three times- a reference to the different names given the characters in the various historical versions of the story. I found this slightly annoying, although I suppose it's an effective way to remind readers that the story of Hamlet is much older than Shakespeare.

I'll end with a quote about Shakespeare's Hamlet that Updike refers to in his afterword. It's from G. Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy:

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.

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