Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius: It’s His Valentine to Eve

You could think of them as the Holy Family of secular Western culture: Gertrude, Claudius, Childe Hamlet the Danish prince and Hamlet-the-Father, the Unholy Ghost. And one way to think about John Updike’s daring–and playful–new novel is to compare it to another writer’s attempt to novelize another Holy Family: Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son , his retelling of the family romance of Mary, Joseph, the Holy Ghost and the little Jewish prince. In fact one almost wonders if Mr. Updike was inspired or challenged by Mr. Mailer’s gambit: If Norman can do the Jesus family I can do the Hamlet family! Wherever it comes from I’m grateful for it; I think Mr. Updike succeeds in his dare in a way Mr. Mailer didn’t because Mr. Mailer was uncharacteristically and disappointingly pious while Mr. Updike is, here, thrillingly heretical.

Heretical because, behind the Hamlet family romance depicted in Gertrude and Claudius there is another more primal family romance, the genesis of all subsequent family romance: the family romance of Genesis. In writing about Gertude and Claudius, Mr. Updike is really rewriting Eve and the serpent, rewriting the origins of original sin in the lustful longing for originality. In other words, like the best Updike novels (my favorite: Roger’s Version ), it’s a fusion of sex and theology, it’s about the mystery of women, the mystery of Eve’s temptation, her unpredictability, her uncontrollability, her antinomian nobility , the conflict between the law of God and the law of love.

Before we get to the Genesis stuff, let’s look closer at what Mr. Updike’s doing with Hamlet –his prequel, some are calling it–which I’m sure will arouse the ire of purists. Who, I think, should lighten up and enjoy it as a speculative gesture, not an attempt to compete with or second-guess Shakespeare.

Back in 1935, J. Dover Wilson, a Shakespeare scholar in Britain, once famous, now virtually forgotten, published a book called What Happens in Hamlet . It’s a book that risked the mockery of the sophisticated by asking unfashionable basic questions about some apparent enigmas in the play.

While some scholars scoffed, actors and directors like John Gielgud incorporated some of Wilson’s conjectures into their stagings of Hamlet . While some of his obsessions might seem trivial, others are the sort of irritants that when worried over often precipitate pearls.

What Mr. Updike has done in Gertrude and Claudius might be called What Happens Before Hamlet . And the enigma, the irritant he’s worrying over as he chronicles the marriage of Hamlet’s mother and father and the adultery of his mother with Claudius, is the question that irritates Hamlet himself from the beginning to the end of the play, the question he repeatedly asks his mother: How could you?

Remember the scene in Gertrude’s private chamber when Hamlet holds up the two pictures:

Here look upon this picture and on this

The counterfeit presentment of two brothers,

See what a grace was seated on this brow,

Hyperion’s curls, the front of Jove himself,

An eye like Mars, to threaten and command.

A station like the herald Mercury,

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill.…

This was your husband, look you now what follows

Here is your husband like a mildewed ear,

Blasting his wholesome brother, have you eyes …

You cannot call it love …

It’s madness Hamlet raves on, it’s beyond madness to choose Claudius over his father, King Hamlet.

Of course, there’s some dispute among scholars as to whether Gertrude committed adultery before Claudius murdered her husband, how deeply implicated in the act she was. (It’s the Watergate question in Hamlet : What did Gertrude know and when did she know it?) Mr. Updike gives us a Gertrude who did become deeply entangled with her illicit lover, the bad brother, before he killed the king–implicating her indirectly if inadvertently in the murder. Which sharpens the question even more: How could you, how could she, when one’s so noble-looking etc. and the other’s bad in every way? That question almost answers itself when put that way. But Mr. Updike’s novel length attempt to answer it has the virtue not of rewriting King Hamlet the murdered father but demonstrating how much we see him through Hamlet’s eyes alone, through the eyes of an inexperienced hero-worshipping son, a philosophy student, an idealist who has little real contact with women, who leaps in fact from ignorance of women to misogyny without really knowing what he’s talking about. Without knowing what it was like to be married, as Gertrude was to this “front of Jove,” Hamlet’s father. Mr. Updike’s novel imagines what it might be like behind the front, behind the facade of royal marriage.

His King Hamlet is a pompous stuffed shirt whose remoteness and hollow presumption to greatness when matched with Gertrude’s more warm-blooded and mischievous temperament suggests a comparison less to the marriage of the gods of the Pantheon like Jove and Mars than to the badly matched marriage of Prince Charles and Diana.

It’s unfashionable, of course, to engage in what postmodern lit-crit types disparage as “character criticism”–treating Shakespeare’s dramatic characters as if they have individual existences, lives and histories outside the web of words in which they’re embedded. It’s unfashionable but turns out to be quite a bit of fun if you let yourself get into the outrageous and playful spirit of Mr. Updike’s speculative fiction.

But even more daring than engaging in unfashionable character criticisms is Mr. Updike’s willingness to risk writing about Shakespeare’s characters without (I say this as an admirer of Mr. Updike’s talent) Shakespeare’s genius. But he’s found an ingenious way to finesse the comparison problem. For the first two-thirds of the novel he writes about the adulterous relationship between the characters we know as Gertrude and Claudius through the scrim–under the names–of the adulterous royal couple in Shakespeare’s two source texts: the 12th-century Latin compilation of tales of Danish kings by Saxo Grammaticus, and the 16th-century French collection of tragic histories by François de Belleforest.

In these two sources Gertrude is “Ger-utha” and “Geruthe,” respectively, and the character who Shakespeare named Claudius is “Fengo” and “Fengon,” respectively. Yes, it’s definitely a bit odd, but I found it usefully defamiliarizing. And since no great claims have been made for either Saxo Grammaticus or Belleforest as supreme stylists, it allows Mr. Updike not to pretend to a pastiche novelization of Shakespeare but rather to adopt the orotund, florid, often stilted phrasing and intonations of the Renaissance equivalent of historical potboilers.

And so we get passages like this: “He tells me,” says Gerutha of Feng, “of lands where I shall never go, since I lack a man’s freedom. In Venice, he tells me, palaces are erected on tree trunks sunk into the sea; the streets are water, and men and women go back and forth on bridges like so many little staircases, and use boats as we use horses and carriages. In Castile, it rains only in the spring, when poppies turn the hillsides red. In France, each village has erected a church the size of a mountain …”

She’s a lonely suburban housewife looking, you might say, for a bit of strange.

But the strategy nonetheless pays some unexpected dividends. I’m thinking of his use of the name Feng for instance. Mr. Updike surely knows that he’s not being strictly faithful to Saxo Grammaticus when he calls the younger brother adventurer who seduces Gerutha “Feng.” In Saxo’s 12th-century Latin, it’s actually “Fengo.” Feng appears only in the 1608 English translation of Saxo published several years after Shakespeare’s Hamlet . So Mr. Updike’s choice of Feng must be regarded as a deliberate esthetic decision. And a terrific one: Feng is just a completely wonderful name for Claudius. It seems, from my reading of the Oxford English Dictionary, to share an etymology with the English word “fang” which comes from Old Norse: a word that is both stinging and sexual.

A word whose resonance deepens when you realize, as I did from reading the O.E.D. entry, that the primal meaning of fang–before fang became an elongated tooth, the tooth of crime–is “a capture, catch. Also a tight grasp, a grip. In the embrace, under the protection of [in Old Norse], in one’s arms ” (italics mine).

There’s almost a bodice-ripping potboiler plot embedded in the O.E.D. etymology there: from capture to tight grasp to embrace “under the protection of” to the explicit eroticism of “in one’s arms.”

So beneath Fang, beneath Feng there is both capture and entrapment, entrapment and sexuality, the entrapment of sexuality.

If such are the rewards, there are of course perils to Mr. Updike’s Hamlet-through-the-scrim-of-its-sources strategy. It works fine for the first two-thirds of the book but in the final part he gives us Gertrude and Claudius under their own names, well, under Shakespeare’s names. And, in their nakedness, risks exposing his own, by putting up his unmediated prose against Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry.

Reading some of these passages, I wish that for this section he’d chosen one further scrim, that, rather than giving us a patchwork of Updike and Shakespearean pastiche, he’d essayed something in the line of the melodramatic revenge play, the so-called Ur-Hamlet , the third and most direct source of Hamlet , a now lost play which proceeded the Hamlet we have by some 10 years, and was either written by a young Shakespeare or an older revenge dramatist such as Thomas Kyd. (Mr. Updike assigns more certainty to the Kyd authorship of the Ur-Hamlet than the evidence warrants.)

But instead he gives us Gertrude and Claudius, if not naked then unadorned as they prepare to make their entrance into the throne room for what will amount to their first full scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet . And he gives them to us in a manner that can seem, at times, resolutely pedestrian: Here’s Gertrude thinking to herself, before that court scene: “Perhaps [Hamlet] was right in his silent reproaches–his pointed absence from court events, his castigating costume of mourning’s black. [Her marriage to Claudius] had been too soon, though her suitor had marshaled invincible arguments …”

A deliberately pedestrian manner perhaps? I’m reminded of a wonderful phrase that emerged first, I believe, in the context of a Washington Post newsroom job action. Rather than do something as pedestrian as walk off their jobs, on strike, the journalists in the Post ‘s fabled newsroom threatened a deliberate “withdrawal of excellence” from their pieces. They’d cover the news, they just wouldn’t give it any of their customary elegance.

One gets the feeling in the third part of Gertrude and Claudius that Mr. Updike is deliberately cruising along in a just-the-news, withdrawal-of-excellence mode here, the better not to seem to be competing with Shakespeare. Because, all along, he’s had larger game in mind. Larger game than Hamlet ? Think of it as a way of seeing larger game in Hamlet: Genesis, Original Sin, the Mystery of Women.

He gives us a couple of early hints of this preoccupation. We see it first in an apparent aside, in which Feng is sarcastically disparaging the simple-mindedness of his father’s religion to impress Gertrude with his sexy irreverence:

“In theory he was a Christian, but in truth he had no idea what it was all about, or who the Jews had been, or what Eve’s sin was.”

What was Eve’s sin? Why did she take the apple from the serpent, the fruit that would give the First Family a taste of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a taste of sin and the aftertaste of exile. Well, one commentator has answered the question of what Eve’s sin (and glory) was by calling it curiosity . Toward the close of a long meditation in Salmagundi , the literary magazine, on the question of why the Jews refused Jesus as messiah, George Steiner speculated that it might have something to do with the reluctance of Jews to accept any Final Answer to ultimate mysteries, the end of questioning that the coming of the Messiah might bring. Because an end to questioning meant an end of curiosity and, Mr. Steiner said, Jews are “the children of Eve,” creatures of ineradicable curiosity.

So it’s probably no accident that less than 10 lines after raising the question of “What Eve’s sin was,” Mr. Updike invokes the seductiveness of curiosity:

“‘Are you triste ?’ Gerutha asked [Feng], less in flirtation, she told herself, than out of curiosity–itself a form perhaps of flirtation. She was curious about Feng …”

Then a bit later, when Feng is meditating on the source of his obsession with Gerutha, his brother’s wife, he speaks of the power of hunger for the forbidden to love to a fever pitch. “What we love … is less the gift bestowed, the moon-mottled nakedness and wet-socketed submission, than the Heavenly graciousness of the bestowal–the last gown lifted and the dark frank frontal stare in the bedchamber challenging you to appraise highly enough this gift torn from Eden’s shadows.”

Eden’s shadows is where Mr. Updike’s Hamlet prequel dwells. Feng is the fang of the Serpent. It’s a theme that blossoms in the end to an almost overripe explicitness when Feng, now called Claudius, rhapsodizes about the beauty and originality of original sin:

“You have acquired, my sweet Gertrude, what the rest of us are born with, or soon acquire, an unease of the soul.… This unease, this guilt for our first father and mother’s original sin, is what calls us to God, out of our unholy pride.”

The Church doctrine of “the happy fall” argues that we should be grateful in a way to the “first parents” Adam and Eve for sinning because their sin led to the redemption of man by Jesus. In Mr. Updike’s vision, if it’s not entirely a happy fall (it’s a bit triste as well) but the happiness inheres not in the sweetness of salvation, but in the sweetness of the sin. He tops it off with his final tribute to Eve, one that assumes an anti-Christian, or pre-Christian pagan tone:

“In Byzantium … in wastelands beyond the reach of iconoclastic potentates and censorious monks, ruins a thousand years old present to the sun roofless pillars and broken statues of naked women–goddesses, perhaps, from before Eve’s disobedience. You are their sister,” Mr. Updike’s Claudius tells Gertrude, “the Creation that has you in it, wife, must hold salvation for the vilest sinner. You are my virtue and my plague, of which I defy all cure.”

It’s probably no accident that the pub date of Gertrude and Claudius is Feb. 14. To this pagan sermon, Mr. Updike’s valedictory valentine to Eve, this child of Eve can only say, “Amen.”