Gertrude and Claudius
By John Updike
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375409080, 224pp.)
Publication Date: February 8, 2000
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John Updikes's nineteenth novel tells the story of Claudius and Gertrude, King and Queen of Denmark, before the action of Shakespeare's Hamlet begins. Employing the nomenclature and certain details of the ancient Scandinavian legends that first describe the prince who feigns madness to achieve revenge upon his father's slayer, 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. A dark-eyed dreamer with a taste for foreign adventure, he for decades has sought to quell his love for Gertrude, and at last returns to an Elsinore whose prince is generally elsewhere. Gaps and inconsistencies within the immortal play are to an extent filled and explained in this prequel; the figure of Polonius, especially, takes on a larger significance. Beginning in the aura of pagan barbarism, and anticipating Renaissance humanism and empiricism, this modern retelling of a medieval tale presents the case for its royal couple that Shakespeare only hinted at. Gertrude and Claudius 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.
John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. He is the author of more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal.