Using details of the ancient Scandinavian legends that were the inspiration for Hamlet, John Updike brings to life Gertrude's girlhood as the daughter of King Rorik, her arranged marriage to the man who becomes King Hamlet, and her middle-aged affair with her husband's younger brother. As only he could, Updike recasts a tale of medieval violence and presents the case for its central couple that Shakespeare only hinted at. Gertrude's warmth and lucidity, Claudius's soldierly yet peaceable powers of command are seen afresh against a background of fond intentions and familial dysfunction, on a stage darkened by the ominous shadow of a sullen, disaffected prince.
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John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is a prelude to Shakespeare's Hamlet, focusing not on the sulky star but on his mother and fratricidal stepfather (think of it as a Danish, death-struck version of The Parent Trap). Updike's great achievement here is to turn our customary sympathies on their heads. This time around, Gertrude is a decent, long-suffering wife, whose consciousness happens to be raised to the boiling point by her sexy brother-in-law. And Claudius, too, seems half a victim of this fatal attraction, with a strong neo-Platonic accent to his lust:
As in the bulk of his fiction--and most conspicuously in the underrated In the Beauty of the Lilies--Updike sacrifices artistic firepower when he goes archaic on us. That explains why Gertrude and Claudius gets off to a wobbly start, with the author's medieval diction careening all over the page. But once his narrative gets up to speed, the author dispenses one brilliant bit of perception after another. Gertrude and Claudius also amounts to a running theological argument, in which men constantly impale themselves on metaphysical principle while the adulterous queen is willing "to accept the world at face value, as a miracle daily renewed". (That would explain Gertrude's snap diagnosis of her neurotic son: "Too much German philosophy".)
A superlative satellite to Shakespeare's creation, Updike's novel is likely to retain a kind of subordinate rank, even within his own capacious body of work. Still, it's packed with enough post-Elizabethan insight about men and women, parents and children, to suggest that the play's not the thing--not always, anyway. --James Marcus, Amazon.comAbout the Author:
John Updike was born in 1932. He is the author of over fifty books, and his novels have won more than fifteen major prizes. He lives in Massachusetts.
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Book Description Penguin, 2001. Paperback. Book Condition: Brand New. 224 pages. In Stock. Bookseller Inventory # zk0140290907
Book Description Penguin Books, 2001. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0140290907