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'Gertrude and Claudius' by John Updike
(SALON) -- Every so often, John Updike abandons his snow dome of suburban realism to strike out after new territory. In the past two decades, these forays have produced the whimsical and wicked tale "The Witches of Eastwick," the bawdy but at times pointless "Memoirs of the Ford Administration" and, three years ago, the futurist "Toward the End of Time." But though they're sometimes cloaked in the garb of genre fiction, these flights of fancy aren't the departures they at first appear to be. They merely find fresh landscapes on which Updike can rehash his main theme: the symbiotic connection between sex and death, and the hapless attempts we make to transcend the latter with the former.
Updike's 19th novel, "Gertrude and Claudius," is another such not-quite-departure, and it is by far the most successful transplanting of his themes to new soil. The novel borrows its plot and characters from "Hamlet," postulating that Gertrude sealed her union with Claudius long before her first husband was underground. Using Hamlet's anger at his mother's betrayal of his father as ballast, Updike sails into the foggy circumstances of Shakespeare's play and returns with a juicy prequel. Given the novelist's exhaustive mappings of the perils of concupiscence, he is the perfect writer to riff on Shakespeare's tragedy, which he manages to do here without usurping the great play's rightful primacy.
As if to signal his respectful distance, Updike begins his tale using variations on the characters' names: Gertrude is Gerutha, Claudius is Feng and King Hamlet is Horwendil. Over the course of the novel, these unfamiliar names evolve into the names in the play as Updike begins filching lines from Shakespeare. His story, which he tells in three parts, opens as Gertrude's father is trying to persuade his daughter to marry the future King Hamlet. Like Ophelia after her, she is stubborn and independent, yet loyal to a fault. Thus Gertrude agrees to marry the brute in chain mail and leather epaulets even though he makes her feel like a comely plot of territory that had once blocked access to the sea. When they marry, "Denmark had become a province of her body."
Thereafter the king becomes aloof, and Gertrude tires of nurturing the bratty young Hamlet. Longing for some excitement, she begins spending time with her husband's brother, Feng (Claudius), a swarthy, well-traveled free lance with wolfish teeth, a rug of chest hair and a collection of falcons. As time passes, she begins to resent forfeiting her life to the king (whom she and Feng jokingly call the Hammer for his particular style of making love), a busy man who doesn't seek to know her any better. When she hits middle age, Hamlet goes away to school and, her nest empty, she finally employs Polonius' services to start an affair with Claudius.
Updike dives into their affair with alacrity, eliciting both the sadness and the elation the lovers feel at betraying their family allegiances in order to honor one of the spirit. As Hamlet will do later, Claudius succumbs to a decadent possessiveness over Gertrude, with whom he couples in barnyards and castle anterooms. After a month of such feverish if furtive exploration -- "this unfolding of herself" -- Gertrude exclaims to her lover, "My father and future husband together bargained me away, and you have given me back my essential value, the value of that little girl you so belatedly dote upon." However offensive this remark may be to modern notions of female selfhood, it's sadly in keeping with the realities of Renaissance England that found their way into Shakespeare's play.
In its closing stretches, Updike's tale leaves the swampy morasses of the barnyard sex and gathers steam. The affair goes awry, and Claudius begins plotting for more than just Gertrude's bounty. In taking the action of the play beyond its sullen hero's point of view, Updike gives us a drama that, with its machinations of power and its sexual tug of wars, resembles "Othello" more than it does "Hamlet." In the end, as in "Othello" (as well as in most Updikean dramas), those who confuse the loins with the spirit get a whopping comeuppance. Here Updike has that ending already carved out for himself in Shakespeare's tragedy -- and what gory retribution it is.
John Freeman has written about books and culture for the Village Voice, Time Out New York and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He lives in New York.
Characters allow Updike to be free
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