Gertrude and Claudius
If you’ve ever lived in society, most likely you’ve heard of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s beautiful play about a troubled, disaffected prince whose mother marries his uncle within weeks of his father’s death. Odds are, if you’ve read this play, you’ve also heard the names Gertrude and Claudius, Hamlet’s mother and uncle, the adulterous rulers whose “banality of evil” lurk in the shadows of the stage.
Odds are, you’ve either hated these two, or ignored them completely.
But what happens when you dig deeper? John Updike’s novel, Gertrude and Claudius, cracks open the play and original myth, trying to sew together a story of what happens before Act I begins. Written in three parts, Updike’s novel opens with Gertrude as a young princess begging her father against his choice for her husband, the cold and uncaring King Hamlet, whose military strength makes him a valuable asset to their kingdom. Sixteen-year-old Gertrude, in a situation where a woman’s words are meaningless, finally concedes, and spends her days alone. Her little Hamlet, born soon after their wedding, follows his father everywhere, worshipping him, while his mother increasingly becomes an afterthought. Gertrude’s only happy moments come when her brother-in-law, the less-honorable Claudius, comes to visit: a man who talks with her, excites her, and makes her smile. Claudius sees Gertrude not just as a woman, but also as a dear friend. He teaches her new things, tells her stories of his travels, and gives her the attention, respect, and love that she has never received from her husband. The two fall for each other and, slowly—almost unwillingly—start a secret love affair. Their romance starts as a friendship and progresses over the years, with Gertrude all the while struggling with her own sense of right and wrong, torn between the man who makes her whole and the man who is her husband.
One of the best moments in Updike’s book is his explanation of King Hamlet’s death. Spoken of briefly in Shakespeare’s play, Updike frames the case quite differently—the king’s murder is suddenly not a cold, calculated act for power, but instead becomes the passionate last resort of a desperate Claudius. When the king suspects his wife of infidelity, he turns to Polonius, whose loyalty lies with his king. Confronted, Claudius discovers he will be imprisoned for his acts, and Gertrude will be killed. His pleas to spare his lover do not work—the king gives him a few hours to leave before Gertrude is taken away. In one final despairing act to save her, Claudius commits the murder, slipping into the garden with poison. Gertrude knows nothing of his actions, and mourns the death of her husband volleying between sorrow and relief.
With little nods to Shakespeare’s language embedded between Updike’s words (Gertrude, as a young girl, “doth protest too much”), his story is told with a kind irony—a coy laugh at the ridiculousness of the paths our own lives are forced into taking. Gertrude is miserable; she feels no warmth toward her husband or her son. Claudius has always loved her, and will always love her. And yet they are on opposite sides of the same coin, linked through something deeper than royal connections, but stuck in a world that makes it impossible for them to touch. Updike’s language is contemporary but beautiful, telling their story in such a way that even the most skeptical readers (I went in screaming, “How dare you drive poor Hamlet to such misery, you horrible people! How dare you!”) will find that more than one tragedy has brewed in Elsinore’s halls. The couple’s similarities to the young prince gives new meaning to their words, and small secrets—it is Claudius that allows Hamlet to pursue his love for Ophelia, as his father was completely against it—flesh them out, not as enemies to their troubled son, but as allies. The final irony comes with the last sentence, a tragically happy ending blind to the massacre to come.
So the next time you see Hamlet, give Gertrude and Claudius a chance. Their story is unseen by the sullen narrator, buried beneath eyes that will not see—that Shakespeare won’t allow to see. Maybe Hamlet is right, and his mother is a whore who marries her husband’s brother purely out of lust. Maybe Claudius kills solely for power. But maybe, just maybe, they were two people, forced apart by politics and circumstance, who truly cared for one another. Maybe they were just as lost as Hamlet was, stumbling through a world that is “out of sync,” groping for something—or someone—who can bring some sense to their world. Maybe their only sin was wanting a love that was like “meeting [one]self from afar.”
And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s one crime we’re all guilty of.
- Christina Squitieri
Image courtesy of amazon.com