Non-Accredited Book Reviews: John Updike.

Updike, John.  Gertrude and Claudius. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.

Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems like 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  (John Updike, “Afterward,” 212).

I almost gave up on Updike a month ago (attempting to read The Witches of Eastwick); I’m glad I convinced myself to ignore my misgivings in the bookstore last Friday, when I debated buying Gertrude and Claudius.  The reimagining of Hamlet‘s morally ambiguous king and queen is Updike’s attempt to, as the passage from the afterword suggests, make sense of Hamlet’s “mad” revenge.

Updike’s answer to the problem is that Hamlet, being estranged from his mother since his boyhood (his father is responsible for his martial education), spends an increasing amount of time in Wittenberg, where his natural melancholy leads him to become more and more alienated from his parents.  Absent throughout most of Updike’s novel, Hamlet, upon his return to Denmark possesses neither the interest, nor the capacity to understand the nuanced history behind the relationships at court.

Putting aside the murder, as Updike does, the novel presents a sympathetic, though not entirely uncondemning portrayal of Claudius (“Feng” or “Fengon,” as he is known in the 1514 translation of the Historica Danica), as well as of his brother, Hamlet (“Horwendil”), and of course, “Gerutha.”  Much of this sympathy stems from Updike’s decision to abstract the narrative out of the early modern English context in which we normally read it, returning it to 7th century Denmark.

This earlier context alters readings of Claudius’s murder.  Lines like Claudius’s soliloquy in 3.3 (“O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven, / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t”), Ghost Hamlet’s descriptions of hell in 1.5, the grave-diggers’ condemnations of Ophelia in 5.1 (“Is she to be buried in Christian burial that / Wilfully seeks her own salvation?”), and even Laertes’s “To cut his throat i’ the church,” are difficult not to read ironically in Updike’s early Danish context where Christian and pagan beliefs work uneasily together, with the Danish kings frequently trading one for the other (as political expedience necessitates):

Horwendil was a Christian.  He reverenced Harald Bluetooth, the father of modern Denmark, whose conversion deprived the GermanEmperor of his favorite excuse for invasion, the conquest of pagans […] Christ was all on their lips but in their hearts the Danes still adored Tyr, god of sport and war and fertility.  A noble wife could expect to be honored, but not in realms beyond the small circle that domestic peace draws around women and children — unforgiving realms where men dealt with the necessities of blood and competition. (27-28)

In the context of 7th century Danish politics, warfare and ethics, Claudius’s murder of Hamlet/Horwendil is slightly more difficult to condemn.  In many ways, the novel shifts the story’s main theme away from the ethics of the murder entirely (and whether it is an act meriting revenge), and towards the relationships between kings and queens, men and women, and parents and their children (the problem of incest remains, however, with Claudius himself outlining for Gertrude the usual Oedipal reading of young Hamlet).

Indeed, given the way Updike’s novel suggests the way kings acquire, use and abuse power, Claudius’s greatest flaw may be that he doesn’t kill Hamlet ten years sooner.

23 March 2009 ~ St. Catharines

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