Gertrude and Claudius By John Updike Alfred A. Knopf 208 pp., $23
America's senior writers are ignoring the counsel of Polonius: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
William Safire recently took a steamy page from American history for his "Scandalmonger," a Clintonesque story about the sex scandals that rocked the Jefferson administration and barred Hamilton from the presidency (reviewed Jan. 20).
Joyce Carol Oates is using the life of Marilyn Monroe for an upcoming novel called "Blonde."
And now John Updike has appropriated the old Scandinavian legend about a prince who avenges his father's murder. But in this version, Updike wonders if Hamlet's mom and dad were such bad parents after all.
"Gertrude and Claudius" is sure to cast Shakespeare's most famous tragedy in a new light. Since brevity is the soul of wit, I will be brief: It's the story about everything that happened before the story of "Hamlet," in which almost nothing happens.
A certain elegant artificiality borders this novel like the proscenium of a stage. Updike has laced his own Shakespearean aphorisms through the narrative. The first section particularly is written in a thick style that emphasizes the strangeness of this ancient time.
At the start, "The king was irate." Despite the best upbringing a widowed monarch could provide, his 16-year-old daughter has somehow been contaminated with a lot of troublesome new ideas about the equality of the sexes. She has the audacity to resist the fine match he's arranged with Horwendil the Jute, a beefy warrior who recently slew King Koll of Norway by cutting off his foot.
"I am to be the plunder," Gerutha notes sarcastically. Ay, there's the rub, but she's a practical girl who understands the politics of the country and the home. After a few months, she sees her father's prediction come true and finds herself in love with Horwendil.
Only his ascension to her late father's throne sours their relationship. Horwendil is a serious statesman, much consumed with the mechanics of governing, and she finds no satisfaction in mothering little Hamlet. "Her heart felt deflected. Something held back her love for this fragile, high-strung, quick-tongued child."
Apparently, even royalty has its domestic challenges. As the years pass, Hamlet's parents fret about his choice of friends (alas, poor Yorick), decry the excessive influence of his liberal professors, and wonder why he doesn't just settle down with Ophelia.
Horwendil struggles to lead the Danes into an age lurching uneasily from the ancient pagan practices into this strange Christian religion. War is going out of fashion as trade grows more robust, and fungible wealth proves more difficult to assess and tax. But despite these challenges at home, his only son is an eternal grad student who shows no signs of assuming the family business.
Forty years of writing about domestic life comes to bear on Updike's dissection of the desires in this dysfunctional family. His portrayal of Gerutha, a woman caged by her responsibilities, affections, and lies, soars in a beautiful scene about falconry. The training these powerful birds endure makes a provocative symbol of women's position in a patriarchal society.
When Horwendil's dynamic brother comes to visit, the queen finds herself sorely tempted. Clearly, something is rotten here, but the novel suggests it's nothing peculiar to the state of Denmark.
By the third act - I mean, chapter - the names are updated to their familiar forms, the style begins to ring more contemporary, and the characters engage in a little psychoanalysis of the world's most famous patient that would make any Freudian slip into a smile.
In the novel's comically ironic conclusion, Updike's narrative begins to erupt with dialogue from Shakespeare's play. The hand-off is as smooth as two master runners in a relay race. The one falls back, and the other spurts ahead into tragedy. The rest is silence.
Updike and Shakespeare: 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society