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Gertrude and Claudius
John Updike
Adult Fiction UPDIKE

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From Publishers' Weekly:

Precisely honed, buoyant with sly wit, masterful character analysis and astutely observed historical details, this tour de force by the protean Updike reimagines the circumstances leading to Shakepeare's Hamlet. To emphasize the ancient provenance of the Scandinavian legend, he identifies the main characters by the names they held in various versions of the story. Thus in Part I, the future king is a hero from Jutland called Horwendil; Feng is his brother; Amleth his son; and Corambis the old courtier who will die behind the arras. The one name that remains nearly constant is Geruthe/Gertrude, the queen, portrayed by Shakespeare as a cold conniver in her husband's murder. Sometimes accused of misogyny, Updike acquits himself of the charge here in his sympathetic depiction of her character from age 16, when she is reluctantly betrothed to the stolid, self-important warrior Horwendil; to age 47, when she is newly married to Feng/Fengon/Claudius. In Updike's revisionist imagination, Gertrude is intelligent and sensible, with a sweet-natured, radiant personality. She is an obedient daughter and a faithful, if unsatisfied, wife to her complacent husband until, feeling cheated of true happiness in the doldrums of middle age, she succumbs to the ardent pleas of his brother, who has been in love with her for many years. Updike details the irresistible sweep of their mutual passion and the mortal danger it entails with delicacy. Gertrude's loyalty to her husband and her royal duties, her initial resistance to adultery and her concern about her distant, sour, self-centered son contributes to a fully dimensional portrait. A constant theme is Gertrude's rueful acknowledgment of women's roles as pawns and chattels of their fathers and spouses. Updike also credits her with the metaphor for Shakespeare's seven stages of man: "We begin small, wax great, and shrivel, she thought." Claudius here is not an evil plotter, but a man driven to desperation when the king discovers the illicit liaison. Though he wears his knowledge lightly, Updike establishes the context of the time through details of social, cultural, intellectual and theological ideas. If the narrative seems a bit labored in Part Three, which immediately precedes the action of the play, the resolution is breathtaking: before the assembled court, Claudius is relieved and finally confident: "He had gotten away with it. All would be well." Enter Shakespeare. 75,000 first printing; BOMC main selection. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

From Library Journal:

Updike's latest is an odd but intriguing little novel that one suspects he had fun writing. It is a speculative piece exploring the relationship among Hamlet's mother, father, and uncle prior to the action of Shakespeare's play. Using details taken from early accounts of Hamlet, or Amleth, as he is called in the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, Updike constructs a tale that is part "romance"--"She lifted a finger to touch his fringed lips, to create there a tingle to mirror that which she had felt at the back of her neck"--and part psychological study--an examination of the motives that led to the betrayal and murder of King Hamlet. It offers not a justification of Gertrude's and Claudius's action but a possible explanation, and in the end Gertrude seems as much victim as perpetrator. Throughout it all, Prince Hamlet remains a minor if forebodingly sullen figure. This is by no means Updike's best work, but it is a fun read that will especially appeal to Shakespeare buffs and more serious-minded romance enthusiasts. For all public libraries and academic libraries seeking completeness in their Updike holdings. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/99.]--David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

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main characters Gertrude/Geruthe
Intelligent; sensible.

Has been in love with Gertrude for many years; Horwendil's brother.

Future king of Denmark; Claudius' brother; future husband to Gertrude.

Son of Gertrude and Horwendil; self-centered.

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