Originally published in 2000, Gertrude and Claudius
is a novel written by American author John Updike. Set in the Dark Ages, the story serves as a prequel to William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Hamlet
. Divided into three parts, the story follows the villains of the play, Gertrude and Claudius, exploring their adulterous relationship that leads to the murder of Claudius’ older brother and Gertrude’s spouse, King Hamlet. The novel ends at the closure of Act I, scene ii of Hamlet
. The names of the characters alter throughout the story to honor the progression of medieval Danish revenge tales, including Saxo Grammaticus’ Historiae Danicae
(Gerutha), Francois de Belleforest’s Histories tragiques
(Geruthe), and finally Shakespeare’s notorious play (Gertrude). Of his intentions for the novel, Updike said he wished “to move from the mists of Scandinavian legend into the daylight atmosphere of the Globe. I sought to narrate the romance that preceded the tragedy.” Gertrude and Claudius
has been called “a living, powerfully physical work…Updike is a superbly skillful writer,” by The Wall Street Journal
, “a pearl of a book” by New York Times Book Review
, and “a superlative homage from one imaginative veteran to another” by The Sunday Times
Narrated in the third-person perspective, the story begins in Denmark during the Dark Ages. Rorik, The King of Denmark, hitches his attractive and bubbly 16-year-old daughter Gerutha (Gertrude) to the husky and sanctimonious Horwendil the Jute (Claudius), a warrior and co-governor of Jutland. Gerutha’s mother died many years prior. Rorik adores his daughter deeply and is willing do anything to please her. He believes she will be safe and happy as Horwendil’s wife, and believes Horwendil will make a great successor as king. Gerutha wants more than to be a trophy wife, but submits to her inevitable role. She knows Horwendil does not love her for what she is, but what she appears to be, and believes he could have married any woman in her place. While reluctant at first, Gerutha complies with the marriage. Upon returning to the manor for their wedding celebration, Gerutha undresses fireside in their bedroom. She becomes aroused by her nudity before him. However, Horwendil falls asleep and the couple does not copulate until the morning. This causes great consternation for Gerutha, who holds this sexual snub as a major grudge for years. Still, Gerutha manages to be a good, dutiful spouse in the years to come.
Gerutha becomes pregnant. As her belly swells, Gerutha’s father becomes more ill. When Gerutha’s father dies before her son is born, Horwendil becomes the King of Denmark. Gerutha gives birth to his son, whom she wanted to name after her father. However, Horwendil names the baby Amleth (Hamlet) after a victorious military memorial. Gerutha is a noble and graceful queen who does her best to love her distant husband and son. As time passes her by, Gerutha feels like her life is empty and purposeless. Amleth proves to be a sickly, unresponsive baby to Gerutha’s care. Her milk is rancid to his taste, and she fails to properly comfort him. Amleth becomes an ill child who argues with everyone he comes in contact with. Amleth’s only friend is Yorik, the disgraceful town jester. Gertrude wishes to bear more children but proves unable to do so. Amleth and his father spend a lot of time bonding together. Gerutha does her best to love her husband and child, but they’re too distant to do so. As time progresses, Gerutha continues to feel hollow and ineffectual.
Horwendil’s brother Feng (Claudius) has returned from his adventures for the Holy Roman Empire. Upon his return, Feng begins spending time and conversing with Geruthe. Geruthe has always found Claudius more attractive and suitable than his brother. They tell stories to one another and listen intently to each other’s desires. Over time, Feng becomes infatuated with Geruthe. However, Feng knows being with her and taking her away from his brother would harm Horwendil a great deal. Unwilling to hurt his brother, Feng departs from Denmark again. One year later, Amleth also leaves for Wittenberg to further his education.
When Geruthe is 47 years old, Feng returns to Denmark and declares his undying love for her. Geruthe is swept up in a torrid love affair with Feng, who has adored her for many years. Geruthe asks Polonius to use his lakeside cabin for a romantic rendezvous with Feng. The more time Geruthe and Feng spend together, the more they prove to be a perfect match. When the King learns of the affair, he confronts Feng. Anxious over the idea of never being with Geruthe again, Feng conspires with Polonius to murder the king. They make it look as if the King succumbed to natural causes. Afterwards, Feng is crowned King Claudius of Denmark. Claudius cajoles Gertrude into marrying him even after the recent death of her spouse. Claudius wishes Hamlet to be present in Elsinore, but Gertrude thinks he’s a threat to Claudius. When Hamlet agrees to stay in the castle, Claudius foolishly thinks he has prevailed and gotten away with murder. The story ends at the close of Act I, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
John Updike is one of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once. His most well-known works include the Rabbit
novel series, the Bech
books series, The Scarlet Letter
trilogy, The Witches of Eastwick
, The Widows of Eastwick
, The Poorhouse Fair
, The Centaur
, On the Farm
, Marry Me
, The Coup
, In the Beauty of the Lilies
, Toward the End of Time
, Seek My Face
, The Terrorist
, and many more. In addition to his novels, Updike has written many short story collections, poetry collections, nonfiction essays and criticism. Before his death in 2009, Updike was honored with the 2008 Literary Review
Bad Sex in Fiction Lifetime Achievement Award.