“Gertrude and Claudius” by John Updike

I bought Gertrude and Claudius as a birthday gift for my husband, G. Grod, many years ago. He read it, liked it, said I should read it. We know how that goes. I finally got around to reading it, and it was quite good.

I don’t mind that it took me years to get to it, because the recent slow and careful reading I did of the Arden Shakespeare’s Hamlet stood me well. I knew why Updike chose three sets of names for the characters in the three sections. I could tell when he was explaining a vagary of Shakespeare’s play, such as why Hamlet didn’t know his best friend Horatio had been in Denmark for two months. And I recognized when he glossed contended words from the text, like eyas and hebona. This is a fascinating take on the play, imagining Gertrude and Claudius (or their differently named antecedents) as complex, human characters in the years before the play takes place. Often in productions and readings, Hamlet is the hero, Claudius is the villain, and Gertrude is rarely sympathetic. These are not the case here, and Updike’s learned, clever tale provides a fresh look at the old play.

As to the world, there is the truth from without, and the truth from within. The truth within is ours. –Geruthe (Gertrude) to Fengon (Claudius)

It’s by turns sad, funny, and provocative. My only criticism is that I didn’t find his Gertrude, the main character, had a sustained, believable female voice. I found her story compelling, nonetheless. And the final two sentences of the novel, as well as the concluding quote of the afterword, were quite chilling; they linger.

2 Responses to ““Gertrude and Claudius” by John Updike”

  1. MFS Says:

    I loved reading this book and am glad to learn that someone else appreciated it, too. I think Updike does falter with Gertrude’s voice, here and there, but I think that has been a consistent issue in his writing. Still, he made us think, right? (*smile*)

    Thank you for the nods/links below.

    I was catching up with some bits and bobs I had ripped from my morning Sun-Times, one of which was about Mr. Rogers and… Holden Caulfield. I’m going to read your entries now. I wonder if you linked the same article from Good.

    Best regards.


    Postscript: I have you to thank for getting me “into” graphic novels, so I must thank you again… I read American Widow this week. The book would not have been as moving in non-graphic format.

  2. MFS Says:


    Could I use the word “think” many more times? In attempting to be glib, I ended up sounding like one of JFS’s classmates.

    Oh, K! The stories he brings home! I think I could tie some of his experiences into the articles we’ve been discussing here and M-mv: Are students “dumb” or are we simply ill prepared to decipher their (alleged) intelligence?

    More when time permits.