How'd Hamlet get messed up? Gee, I wish you'd never asked!

On Books

February 06, 2000|By Michael Pakenham

Most adults who have gone to school in an English-speaking country have read Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Many remember entire speeches -- "to be or not to be" -- and the play's capacity to raise profound but almost everyday questions of judgment, courage, integrity and ethics.

It's a nasty tale: Prince Hamlet is visited by his father's ghost -- which embodies history as fact and morality as a nag. The ghost relates that he was murdered by his brother, Claudius, now his successor both as king of Denmark and as husband to Gertrude, young Hamlet's mother. The ghost urges his son to wreak vengeance. Hamlet -- literature's champion personification of indecisiveness -- agonizes, temporizes. He confronts his mother. Polonius, consummate bureaucrat and perpetual court schemer, eavesdrops on them and is caught and killed by Hamlet. This distresses Polonius' son Laertes and daughter Ophelia. Claudius' attempt to have Hamlet murdered backfires. Hamlet returns to find Ophelia a suicide and Laertes vengeful. A duel between themturns into mass slaughter. Virtually everybody dies. Finis.

For all that gore, Hamlet is one of the immortal works of literature in the English -- or any other -- language. No amount of radical politicians' whining about oldness and whiteness and guyness can retire it from the very front, front rank of greatness.

So how did it all begin?

Shakespeare, of course, began it -- after three scenes that establish the characters and plot -- on the parapet at Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, as the dead King Hamlet appears to his son. But as he did with almost everything he wrote, Shakespeare drew on historical fact and speculations for the main threads. A body of Scandinavian legend and lore remains, more or less authenticating the major facts of the tale.

Now comes John Updike, one of America's finest contemporary writers, author of four Rabbit books plus 13 other novels, lots of poetry, fine short stories, essays, drama and other good stuff, justly laureled with virtually every American lit award.

Updike ain't Shakespeare. Nobody is. But he's one of the stellar American writers in the 20th century. He Deserves Respect.

His newest work is a novel undertaken to fill in a generation of action preceding Shakespeare's play: "Gertrude and Claudius" (Knopf, 212 pages, $23).

I deeply regret to inform you that Updike has done far crueler abuse to Shakespeare than Shakespeare did to the entire tribe of twitching bodies that clutter stage front at his final curtain.

This is a bad book. A very bad book.


Damned if I know. Updike's smarter than this. But for symptomatic starters, he plays a silly name game, apparently to show he's read all that legend and lore.

At the book's beginning, young Hamlet is Amleth. In the second of three parts of the book, he has become Hamblet. In Part III, he gets his familiar name. Gertrude starts out as Gerutha, evolves into Geruthe and finally the lady we knew all along. Claudius starts as Feng (Feng!), moves on as Fengon until he becomes himself. King Hamlet begins as Horwendil, becomes Horvendile. Then he dies, as Hamlet, leaving this reader to wonder whether the cause was poison or exhaustion from tracking monikers.

It's fine with me that Updike's names are faithful to legend and lore. But this conceit merely hints at the core symptom of the book's failure. That is the narrative voice Updike chooses. It's that of truly bad faux-historical bodice-rippers.

Witness, early on, Gerutha, only child of King Rorik, 16 and resisting her father's choice of a husband -- a beefy Jute whom she finds "unsubtle" (and who, of course, ultimately transmogrifies into Papa Hamlet).

" 'You did not live long enough to know your mother,' Rorik went on without a pause, as if all this were a single story in aid of his pleading, 'but you in your glowing ripeness bear testimony to our love. You fought your way into being through your mother's reluctant, narrow channels. In truth, she and I were content enough with each other, we did not beg Heaven for a child. She was a Wendish person, as you have more than once been told.' "

Updike wends right along. Nine pages later, Rorik has won: "She rested her pounding head and flushed face on the cool iron mesh of Horwendil's chest, and a linnet loosed a long riband of melody cinched by a blissful tightening within Gerutha's ribs. There was no escape. This man, this fate, was hers. Like a tightly swaddled baby, she was secure."

But not forever. Time passes and Updike has her rolling around on animal skins (none of them rabbits) with her brother-in-law, plotting all the while. Betrayed by his Sicilian servant, Fengon (Claudius) is confronted by his brother with his betrayal. Fengon fetches some poison left from a Mediterranean adventure. He poisons his king-sibling as he sleeps. Long live the king!

By this point, the end of Part II of III, there has been no complexity of motivation, no intricacy of plot, nothing but raw lust, stupidly indulged, and greed. It's all in the language of the passages I have quoted. All in all, a boring story -- complicated by Updiike's ludicrously contrived voice.

In the third part, the names become those in Shakespeare's play: Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet. Updike puts in Gertrude's mind grave unease about her new husband: "Claudius just wants things all to go smoothly, now that he is king, the past sealed off, history. But history isn't dead like that; it lives in us, it got us here."

That's as deep as the book gets.

It ends at the moment Shakespeare's play begins, more or less. The question that can't be suppressed is this: How could Updike have written such a bad novel?

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