Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

THE TIMES                                                    5 July 2000

(Hamish Hamilton £16.99)

Whether the second-best bed was a conventional bequest or a snub from beyond the grave may never be known, but the evidence of the plays suggests that Shakespeare did not set great store by marital harmony. The only truly contented couple in the canon are George and Margaret Page.

In more elevated social circles, happiness proves to be yet more elusive. No Alain de Botton-style guru would look to the Macbeths, the Othellos or Antony and Cleopatra for tips on marriage. The most devoted royal couple by far is Claudius and Gertrude, whose love is expressed by word (Claudius’s ‘She is so conjunctive to my life and soul, That as the star moves not but in his sphere I could not but by her.’) and deed (Gertrude’s rush to protect Claudius from the vengeful Laertes in spite of knowing that he is a murderer).

Most productions tend to see the couple through Hamlet’s eyes: two bloated, middle-aged lovers exchanging ‘reechy kisses’, living ‘in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love Over the nasty sty’.  Bolder directors take them at their own estimation. Now John Updike extends their fictional rehabilitation with what might be termed ‘Hamlet the Prequel’.

Updike, who has long been an expert anatomist of adultery, here explores the romantic triangle between Claudius, Gertrude and the King. He returns, if not to the roots of the Hamlet legend in the Icelandic Prose Edda, then to its first Latin variant, Saxo Grammaticus’s Historia Danica.  He divides the narrative into three and his principal literary device is to name his characters differently in each. So, in Part One, he follows Saxo with Gerutha, Horwendil, Feng, Corambus and Amleth. In Part Two, he modifies them, according to Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, to Geruthe, Horvendile, Fengon, Corambis and Hamblet. In Part Three, he adopts the Shakespearean Gertrude, Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet. The effect is to suggest a move from ancient myth to familiar story: the characters who, in Harold Bloom’s view, are crucial to the creation of the modem consciousness.

Updike vividly creates a world in transition, where the values of the old sagas (punishments in which ‘a man’s ribs were hacked from his backbone and his heart and lungs pulled out through the huge red wound’), of medieval romance (Feng woos Gerutha with an almost allegorical display of falconry) and of the Renaissance (the rediscovery of Byzantium by travellers such as Feng) all coexist.

The trouble is that he never breaks sufficiently free from his sources to create a living work of art. The novel’s chief interest will be to Shakespearean ‘anoraks’, eager to spot the references and ring the changes on the well-known story. There are myriad verbal echoes, from the hidden (Gerutha’s description of Amleth’s health as ‘out of Joint’) to the direct (Corambis’s declaring ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ to the Queen). Yorrick is given a more prominent role and Polonius a more devious one than in the original. Claudius appears genuinely fond of his nephew, although his adoption of Ernest Jones’s Oedipal theory of Hamlet’s problems (‘He blames himself, I believe, for his father’s death… He feels he willed it in desiring you’) is an anachronism too far.

As Tom Stoppard has shown, there is considerable potential in removing Hamlet to the margins of his own story. Updike, however, does not lift the reorientation on to a philosophical plane. This is a jeu d’esprit, slight and recondite, which Hamlet himself would have described as ‘caviar to the general’.