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Gertrude and Claudius

3.53  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,663 Ratings  ·  159 Reviews
Borrowing a phrase from Hamlet for the title of his 1999 nonfiction collection, John Updike may perhaps have been dropping hints about his fictional work in progress. He has, in any case, now delivered Gertrude and Claudius--and his variation on what is arguably the Bard's greatest hit sits very handsomely in the Shakespearean shadows. As its title suggests, this is a prel ...more
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published February 8th 2000 by Knopf Publishing Group (first published January 1st 2000)
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Entering Kornborg Castle in Denmark requires the visitor to not only approach the castle on foot, but to also cross two moats. It is after the first moat, the one with the swans, that Kornborg's purpose becomes manifest. It is quite clear that the purpose of the structure is not to be a castle but to be a fortress and to enforce the collection of sound duties for which it was built. The harsh fact of warfare greets the visitor with an absence. There was a beautiful fountain until the Swedes inva ...more
Aug 28, 2011 Rebecca rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
Gerutha marries Horwendil and has son Hamleth but falls in love with her husband's brother Feng. I mean, Geruthe/Horvendile/Hamblet/Fengon. I mean, Gertrude/Hamlet/Hamlet/Claudius. Why do their names keep switching, again?

I hadn't meant to go on a Hamlet fanfic kick, I swear. I'd only wanted to try reading Updike for the sake of being well-read. But the library only had the most recent Rabbit book. So I grabbed this one instead. Oy. I can't decide if this lets me off the hook from ever reading U
Jan 05, 2014 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
It makes me smile when I read through some of the reviews for this book. People take a personal affront from Updike for even using beloved Hamlet as a backdrop. The ludicrously pretentious comments on the language, and motivations of characters.
Like all Updike novels, it is written beautifully. Never at any moment did Updike even attempt to sound like Shakespeare. How could he?
Really, I would recommend this book for people who haven't read Hamlet, or at least people not in love with it.
I have
Feb 25, 2014 Jen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I feel like by not loving a John Updike book I will need to turn in my "literary snob" card.'s true.

I found this book rather boring and inane. I found the main character, Gertrude (called by her more original name Gerutha, to be annoying, simpering, and just dumb. I didn't like any of the characters, at all. Doesn't help that from the get go you know she sleeps with her husband's brother--generally not a likable thing to do.

This is what I hate about reading books that I know the plot o
Aug 23, 2011 Erin rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I was surprisingly not impressed with this book. John Updike is generally creative and descriptive, but this book seemed to me a collection of cliches about medieval Denmark: the woman who feels trapped by her role, the younger brother jealous of the successful older one (they're even dark and blond, respectively), the novelty of objects from far-away countries, the isolation of royalty who are closest to their personal servants, tiresome elderly advisers - the list goes on. I had expected him t ...more
"J.M." "J.M."
Jan 01, 2014 "J.M." "J.M." rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who hasn't been forced to read Hamlet before they were "ready" for it? Even in college I wasn't ready, so I got back to Shakespeare years later and I still felt bedeviled by its mysteries -- one of the most notorious being Gertrude's decision to marry Claudius. I was pleased, a bit tickled, to find out that none other than John Updike had written a fanfic prequel on that very topic. Of course being Updike it was entertaining, intelligent, and beautifully written. Heck, I also found it persuasive ...more
Faith Bradham
3 1/2 stars

This Hamlet prequel is carefully and delicately crafted, and I loved Updike's portrayal of the characters. Since I'm in a Hamlet seminar, we've been playing around with the circumstances surrounding King Hamlet's death, and I'm fond of this version - that Claudius and Gertrude loved each other well before the murder. Updike made Claudius exactly as he should be - sexy and only as villainous as he needs to be. Gertrude was a bit too passive and lovable for my taste, as I've always thou
Sue Whelan
Apr 18, 2011 Sue Whelan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
i was looking for something different than the modern novels i usually read and found it. i dont really know the story of Hamlet so was not preoccupied with the trajectory of the characters but was intrigued that this was a prequel to the famous Shakespeare story. the characters in this northern european kingdom, transitioning from paganism to christianity, are not fully developed and are more like actors on a stage (fittingly). Updike's beautiful prose evokes a tragic castle in a far away time ...more
Terri Chapman
It was great to truly understand the story of Hamlet finally. This book is great for those of us who cannot get a good grasp of the big picture when reading Shakespeare. I can appreciate the beautiful sounds of an opera without ever acquiring or processing any details of the story. This was like havng that opera sung in plain English. I didn't really get Updike's names-changing thing. Altough there is an explanation in the editor's notes of the edition that I read, it was a thin one that I didn' ...more
Tamara Agvanian
Mar 10, 2016 Tamara Agvanian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Dazzling backstory to the Hamlet play
King Phoebe
Good things about this book:
- Very, VERY nicely written
- Names are interesting and accurate to ancient Scandinavian culture, I believe: Gerutha, Horwendil, Amleth, Feng, etc.
- Characters all have extremely distinct voices and personalities
- Lots of research clearly went into this book -- direct names are brought up, ages and timelines are distinctly considered, etc.
- This book provides a very interesting perspective that I had never considered when first reading Shakespeare's Hamlet. Now, I will
Christian Schwoerke
This short novel serves as a prolegomenon to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an interpretation and distillation of three distinct historical documents covering the lives and events that lead up to the play’s first scene. Updike does not deal with the matter in his usual lapidary fashion, giving vital shape to the minutiae surrounding the characters. Instead there is a sparer prose that calls on archaic language and vocabulary to name the accountrements of the period. For instance, to speak of the bandolin ...more
Dec 17, 2015 Africableu rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This book was awful, which was disappointing because I love Shakespeare's Hamlet and I was really interested to see how Updike would handle the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius. Not very well, is the answer. Gertrude is insipid and unlikable, resentful of her son (how dare he not love her and her every action!) and is really pretty boring, as far as protagonists go. Beyond the tedious characters, though, is Updike's confusing mix of overblown dialogue and descriptions. ("Concupiscence" ...more
Julie Bettina
Nov 03, 2015 Julie Bettina rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: school-related
(some minor spoilers)

Shakespeare's Hamlet clearly presents Old Hamlet as a godlike creature, Claudius as the devil, Gertrude as a fool and Hamlet as the tragic hero. Updike's backdrop story Gertrude and Claudius begs to differ.

We meet Gertrude prior to her marriage with Hamlet's father. Young and headstrong, but obliging to her father, she accepts her fate and marries a man who will be good for Denmark. She thinks herself happy, until she meets her husband's brother. The book is divided in three
Joakim Ruud
My first book by John Updike, and I gather not the most conventional starting point to his bibliography! This is a prequel to Hamlet, and as such it focuses on the love triangle between Gertrude, the king, and his brother; and ends with the king dead and the brother taking both throne and queen. That can't possibly be a spoiler, right? That's how the play Hamlet starts off!

The novel is strictly structured into three chapters. Each chapter even starts with the same sentence: "The king was irate."
Oct 28, 2007 Jet rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: randomfancies
If you have ever read Updike, his plots are seldom far from his penchant adultery/struggle between moral confines and open sexuality. Which is why you don't read Updike for his plots - you read him almost entirely for his style. He's a wordsmith, who takes time with every turn of phrasing. It makes him a tiresome read for any but those who appreciate linguistic play just for its cleverness. Presumptuous, but still, well deserving of its accolades.
Kelly Lee
Read this and other reviews here:

I picked this little book up at a local library book sale thinking it would be something different from my usual historical fiction. It was and it wasn’t. This tale of Hamlet’s mother, stepfather and father was beautifully written and elegant to read. It really takes you to the royal court of Denmark. You can see the beauty of the castle and the cold of the winters in the writing. Outside of the setting, the story could be
Alison McLennan
Apr 02, 2014 Alison McLennan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this book because I'm interested in the peripheral characters in Hamlet, in particular Ophelia. Unfortunately, there wasn't much about Ophelia in this novel except that she was a beautiful, sweet, airhead. I found the 'back-story' of Gertrude and Claudius fascinating.

I also like to read anything by Updike simply for the prose. I know it is good for me to read this kind of prose and yet my mind has to adjust the same way the tongue adjusts to eating kale chips when it prefers potato.
This is the first Updike book that I have read and found it to be so disappointing. I went to the library to get Rabbit, Run, but my library didn't have it, then the cover blurb of this one caught my eye. It sounded like a great plot, the events leading up to Shakespeare's Hamlet; such a scandalous story of the grand passion and intrigue leading to murder most foul! But the book failed to catch my attention. I found myself unable to concentrate on it and was very bored often reading a page over ...more
Apr 19, 2016 Saachi rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It's difficult to decide whether this take on Hamlet provides a fresh perspective or not, in many ways because it's difficult to decide whether Updike's sexual politics can be considered feminist or as problematic as Shakespeare's. On the one hand, it works hard at absolving Gertrude of the blame that Shakespeare's Hamlet so viciously showers on her. On the other hand, Gertrude is... well... defined by her womanliness- as Updike sees it. A LOT of it reads like soft-core pornography that's someti ...more
Jul 22, 2014 Ellen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was an absolute joy! A sumptuous feast of language! I took so many notes that I had to buy the book so that I could mark my favorite passages like this one from page 13: "...lifting the circular pale wafer toward the circular white-glazed window high above the altar (so that she thought of the Eucharist as eating sky) and this one "Being in the chapel frighten her, as if her young body were a sin, to be avenged some day, pierced from underneath even as she sipped the rasping wine, the ...more
James Ritchie
Apr 24, 2014 James Ritchie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Updike fans, Shakespeareans
Recommended to James Ritchie by: I read all Updike
This is not my favorite Updike book nor is it my least favorite, but I enjoyed reading it and found it interesting. This is written as a prequel to Shakespeare's "Hamlet". The story follows the Queen, Gertrude, from her childhood through her marriage to Claudius at which time Hamlet agrees to return to the court at Castle Elsinore after spending many of his youthful years at Wittenberg. Updike draws from three historical texts for his story. As the story progresses through time and, consequently ...more
Scott Williams
Sep 03, 2014 Scott Williams rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this wonderfully entertaining! Updike gives us a "prequel" to Shakespeare's Hamlet. He draws on several ancient sources to tell the love story of Gertrude and Claudius. I hadn't ever thought of Gertrude and Claudius as anything more than villains in the story but Updike makes them truly human and relatable. The first half of the book is one of the most satisfying love stories I have read (I should note that I have read very few).

This is the first of Updike's writing that I have read. It
Dec 24, 2011 Nelson rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Why should this be regarded any differently than the many Austen fanbooks written as continuations of Pride and Prejudice? A few reasons. First, the fanbooks often make a virtue of imitating Austen's style. The embedded bits of Shakespeare here make Updike's prose seem pallid or overwrought by turns. Shakespeare's compression and vigor make prose attempts seem woefully inadequate, particularly when the prose is attempting to limn the edges of characters so fully developed in Shakespeare's longes ...more
May 23, 2010 Ruth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
214 pages. Donated 2010 May.

Borrowing a phrase from Hamlet for the title of his 1999 nonfiction collection, John Updike may perhaps have been dropping hints about his fictional work in progress. He has, in any case, now delivered Gertrude and Claudius--and his variation on what is arguably the Bard's greatest hit sits very handsomely in the Shakespearean shadows. As its title suggests, this is a prelude to the actual play, focusing not on the sulky star but on his mother and fratricidal stepfath
Ron Charles
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 p
Read this as prep for my AP English class, as the kids are required to read a modern/different take on the classic in addition to the play itself. And. . . welllllll. . . . it was interesting in concept, but my! It dragged. Part of the problem with retellings is that WE KNOW ALREADY!!!!! so the only thrill is watching an old story unfold. Updike makes this a prequel, filled with impressive details of Danish court life, etc, but he also perpetrates sentences like "Gertrude kept brushing out her h ...more
Dec 11, 2010 jenn rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2010
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Apr 01, 2011 Rita rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: historical-novel
Quite a nice book! It does make me want to go [re]read Hamlet, with this new perspective in mind.

Several of the Goodreads reviews were quite interesting.
Updike does bring the 12c [?] characters to life. Largely showing them as creatures of their time and culture, yet also showing them to be human beings with longings and aspirations like our own.

Who can say how plausible his rendering is of two royals in the 12th century?

On the one hand, one can read texts 200, 300 years old and marvel at how si
Oct 24, 2013 Jamie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mu-f2013-hamlet
John Updike brilliantly envisions a story for Hamlet's Gertrude. In Gertrude and Claudius, she is a human who has duties, desires, and flaws. I enjoyed seeing her in such a realistic light. I think Updike did great things for this character.

I am pleased that there was a lack of Hamlet in the novel. He is often the focus of the tragedy, and for good reason. However, taking him away allows for the other characters to bloom.

In regards to the name changes...well, I think they serve their purpose, e
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John Hoyer Updike was an American writer. Updike's most famous work is his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and Rabbit Remembered). Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest both won Pulitzer Prizes for Updike. Describing his subject as "the American small town, Protestant middle class," Updike is well known for his careful craftsmanship and prolific writing, havin ...more
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