Rebecca's Reviews > Gertrude and Claudius

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike
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's review
Aug 28, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: literary-fiction
Read in August, 2011

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 Updike again, or whether I chose a minor work/failure and really should give him a second try for fairness' sake.

The pretentiousness of the language in this book knows no bounds. I suppose he's trying to sound Shakespearean/Danish epic-y/literary all at the same time. It ends up with just these endless rolling phrases that will not stop despite your desperation to get to the end of a freaking paragraph.

Also deeply problematic is the repeated assertions that Gerutha does some action or feels a certain way because of her womanly nature. Over and over and over again, we're reminded that because she's female, she's inherently weak. Repeatedly we're told that she has trouble keeping one man in mind while another one is before her. Now, there's a certain degree that's historically accurate. But honestly, it's said so many times, by so many people including the narration, that I can't help but begin to feel that Updike genuinely believes that all women share a certain softness, warmness, motherliness, weakness that's inherent to all, interchangeable, women.

The weirdest part is the changing names. As time passes and Gerutha grows from a teenager to the mother of a thirty-year-old man, periodically everyone's names will shift with little or no explanation. At the same time, I feel like the language becomes slightly less overwrought and slightly more modern with each shift, to end in something more like a literary modern translation of Shakespeare instead of a ridiculously ornate attempt to sound like a badly written fantasy novel with too many literary flourishes. I suppose there's supposed to be a deep meaning here, as the Danish kingdom becomes less pre-medieval and more pre-Renaissance with the increase in knowledge being passed back from the universities. Or maybe it's that the story becomes less archaic-simplistic about a girl who marries a king and more "modern" about complex family drama. Honestly, though, it's just pretentious and annoying.

Unforgivably, though, this sheds no new light on the story for me. I feel like the reason to rewrite a classic work of literature from someone else's view is to bring a new perspective. There's nothing new here. Claudius killed his brother so he could have his brother's wife and crown; Gertrude screwed him anyway; Hamlet's a self-absorbed asshole. Yay. And?
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04/02/2017 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Ben (new)

Ben Babcock Rebecca wrote: "feel like the reason to rewrite a classic work of literature from someone else's view is to bring a new perspective."

That’s a really good point. It’s unfortunate that doesn’t happen here, then. I’m reading Kill Shakespeare Vol.1 right now, and while it is more like a mashup of Shakespeare’s greatest characters rather than a retelling of his plays, it is certainly providing me new perspectives on those characters and their roles in their plays.

Joshua He explains why their names change from part to part in the foreward.

Rebecca Joshua wrote: "He explains why their names change from part to part in the foreward."

The edition I read didn't have that included, unfortunately.

Honestly, I don't think there's an answer he could have supplied that would have satisfied me, though--I thought it was an unbearably pretentious affectation that tries to make this deeper than it actually is.

Joshua Well, that's fine. I just wanted to point that out.

Rebecca Joshua wrote: "Well, that's fine. I just wanted to point that out."

Fair enough!

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