John Updike's "Gertrude and Claudius"
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Gertrude and Claudius, John Updike’s latest novel, ends on a happy note. The new king of Denmark has ascended to his rightful position on the throne; his beautiful bride is by his side, rhomboids of sun are doing their thing on the walls, god is in his heaven, and everything is looking just dandy. ‘He had gotten away with it,’ thinks the King. ‘Everything would be fine.’ There’s only one small problem: the vast ton-weight of calamity hanging around the next bend – otherwise known as Hamlet. But hey. Apart from that, sure; things are going to turn out just great. I do love happy endings. Would anybody care to celebrate with a goblet of wine?

That scene – bright and buoyant with disaster – is to be found on the last page of this, the latest in a fruitful line of Shakespearean remixes. We’ve already had Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, which gave us Hamlet almost without Hamlet. More recently, Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love gave us Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s plays – an unbeatable box-office proposition. Now we’ve got what script wonks would call Gertrude and Claudius’s ‘backstory': a prequel starting over a decade before the action of Shakespeare’s play, and delivering us right to the doorstep of Act I, Scene 1. Imagine that long swooping zoom shot that used to begin the News at Ten – the one that began in outer space before skidding to a halt just inches from the face of Big Ben – then replace Big Ben with Hamlet, and you’ll get the general idea. Even as we speak, Hollywood is rushing to fill in the character arc of this Laertes fellow and to get the low-down on Yorick’s early years on the club circuit, as a suitable vehicle for Robin Williams. Just what is it with this play? Why does it demand to be wrested from the grasp of its hero?

A C Bradley is roundly, routinely castigated for treating Shakespeare’s characters as if they lived lives that were independent of the page – an inaccurate accusation, since that is what we do every time we read a good book. If anything, Bradley’s sin was the opposite, born of pedantry not licence – an inability to leap free of the page and imagine what that life might be like without the crutches of close textual evidence. Updike’s book makes the leap. It proves that the best imaginations are highly contagious – spilling from one author to the next, and from book to book – and it offers a salty cocktail of the familiar and the foreign. The story Updike tells is, of course, universally known. When the action opens, the blushing teenage bride, Gertrude, is being plunged into joyless matrimony with the cold and uncommunicative future King, Hamlet – from which she is rescued by the dashingly jet-set Claudius, who beguiles her with presents from the far-off bazaars of Byzantium. It all ends in adultery, death and dark mutterings of conspiracy. Literary scholars will of course instantly recognise the The Most Piteous Tragedie of Diana and Dodi, with 13th-century Byzantium standing in for the Harrods food hall.


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John Updike

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