John Updike Gertrude and Claudius  
John Updike:
Gertrude and Claudius
Gertrude and Claudius (John Updike)

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  Gertrude did not like to think that Claudius had, like his brother, sought the throne. She preferred to think it had fallen to him by unhappy accident. True, he had shown initiative and singleness of purpose in seeking endorsement from the råd and election from the four provincial things, and had by swift letter elicited allegiance from the bishops of Roskilde, Lund, and Ribe; but she ascribed all this to the good cause of stifling chaos in the wake of calamity. In those stunned days after Hamlet was found dead, and not only dead but hideously transfigured, like a long-buried statue disintegrating in shining flakes, Gertrude had been directing her attention elsewhere, inward, to her ancient task of mourning, of shouldering bereavement. For almost the first time in her life since the onset of menses she had felt transformed by illness, unable to leave the bed, as if her proper place were beside Hamlet in his clay grave, in the loathsome burial ground outside the walls of Elsinore, where mist clung to the tufted soil and the shovels of chattering gravediggers were always pecking away at the underworld of bone. Thus isolated, visited only by Herda, who had her own reasons for grief, for Sandro was gone and her belly was swollen, and by her whispering ladies-in-waiting, whose faces were rapt with the thrill of the recent horrific event, and the castle physician, with his dropsical bagcap and bucket of writhing leeches, Gertrude played doctor to her own spiritual symptoms, wondering why her grief felt shallow and tainted by relief. The King's weight had been rolled off her. He had never seen her as she was, fitting her instead into a hasty preconception, his queen. It did occur to her, later, that in this interval some other queen might have been forwarding her son's claim to the throne. But Hamlet had attended his father's burial and disappeared again. Her maternal instinct told her that the throne of Denmark with all its petty, bloody taxes on the soul was an acquisition he would snub. Nor had Polonius in his renewed dignities advanced the Prince's cause: there smoldered an animosity between them, a dislike passed from father to son. It was all, while she sickly dozed, and listened to her female visitors' own complaints, too entangled for her, like a basket of embroidery thread a kitten has slept in. When she stirred again, a presentable widow, all had been settled elsewhere in Elsinore and King Claudius approached her begging for her hand. She could hardly deny him; he had adored her from afar and, come closer to flesh out his fantastic image of her, had proven entertaining and responsive to the realities of her person. She would train him out of his overestimation gently, day by day, keeping alive the cherished little princess he had revived. It was too soon to marry him, perhaps, yet what else was she to do; Bereaved queens sometimes entered nunneries, but nuns seemed unhappy women to her--married to a preoccupied God and as sallow and shrewish as mundane neglected wives. She liked the luxuriant, silky-stiff texture of Claudius's beard, the nutty scent of his bare chest. She liked his vagrant, insolent energy, now harnessed to the performances of kingship.

This wedding night was very different from her first. Then the groom could not stay awake, now he could not rest, though the celebration, relatively muted, had subsided in a flurry of polite departures, and the midnight bells had, like a crowd dispersed but returning to search for a lost glove or purse, reappeared as a lonely single clang, and then two. He had made love to her triumphantly, his nutty smell becoming mixed with something like the brackish scent close to the shore of the gray-green Sund. Surges of sensation in her lower parts lifted her so high her voice was flung from her like a bird's lost call; yet still, their wedded desires so gratified, he could not sleep. In the heated space of their curtained bed she could not drop off, feeling his male sinews still taut in him. Each time her thoughts had begun to dissolve into rumpled nonsense--reality's patterns folded chimerically--an abrupt motion of his beside her tugged her back into the clear night.

"Sleep, husband," she said softly.

"The day will not let go. Old Rosencrantz was telling me that young Fortinbras must be crushed and the Norwegian threat put to rest for good. These venerable nobles still live in a dream of heroic violence, of crushing and burning and final solutions. At the same time they grow fat on their share of the commerce that international peace brings."

"Hamlet used to say just that." She had spoken too quickly in her drowsiness, uttering a poisoned name. Her betrayed husband, his envied brother. She hurried on: "Polonius thinks you're a wonderful king already."

"He has personal reasons to believe and hope so. His good opinion has been already bought."

By what? Gertrude sleepily wondered. "He told me--a group of us, actually, gathered around--that you'll take us back to the days of King Canute. Not the saint, the original one."

"The one who couldn't stop the tide from coming in."

There was a dark sardonic undertow to his tone that tugged her awry. However bright the wedding torches, you marry a man's shadow side too. She explained, "The one who conquered all England and Norway."

"And who, if I recall my history, made a pilgrimage to Rome to repent his many sins."

"Is that what you want to do?" she asked shyly. The idea of such a stark pilgrimage seemed remote, cozy as she was. In bed with Claudius she felt as she had when a girl, on a freezing winter night, laid in her cot in a tumble of furs, that tingled and tickled and were tucked tight around her, so her body revelled in a warmth stolen from these other creatures. Marlgar, huddled in a hooded cloak, would sit a while silently with her, and the stars through her paneless window would shine as bright as icicle tips glinting in the morning sun. She wondered if, the way they had begun in sin, her husband saw her as impure. The brothers shared this somber Jutland religious streak, that refused to accept the world at face value, as a miracle daily renewed.

"Not yet," Claudius said. "Not until Denmark is in perfect order. And I will take you with me, to see holy Rome and those other sun-soaked cities beyond the Alps."

He turned his back, and seemed minded at last to sleep, now that he had stirred her up. She resented it. He was making her into Marlgar, awake while he drifted off. She said, "I saw you talking to Hamlet."

"Yes. He was amiable enough. My rusty phrases of German amused him. I don't understand why you are afraid of him."

"I do not think you can charm him."

"Why not, my love? "

"He is too charmed by himself. He has no need for you or me."

"This is your own son you are speaking of."

"I am his mother, yes. I know him. He is cold. You are not, Claudius. You are warm, like me. You crave action. You want to live, to seize the day. To my son, everything is mockery, a show. He is the only man in his universe. If there are other people with feelings, then that just makes the show more lively, he might concede. Even I, who love him as a mother cannot help doing, from that moment when they place the cause of your pain in your arms, itself wailing and whimpering in memory of the joint ordeal--even me he views disdainfully, as evidence of his natural origins, and proof that his father succumbed to concupiscence."

Claudius's voice became sharp: "Yet in my dispassionate estimation he appears witty, large-minded and many-sided, remarkably alert to everything around him, engaging to those worthy of being engaged, excellently educated in all a gentleman's arts, and handsome, most women would surely agree, though the new beard makes perhaps a hostile impression, concealing more than it enhances."

Gertrude said gropingly, "Hamlet wants to feel, I believe, and to be an actor on a stage outside his teeming head, but cannot as yet. In Wittenberg, where the mass are frivolous students, jesting in the foyer of real affairs, his lack--even madness of a sort, the madness of detachment--is not revealed; he should be a student forever. Here, amid earnest interests, he is challenged, and turns all to words and scorn. My hope is that love will lend him the right gravity. The fair Ophelia could not be bettered in her sweetness, her delicacy of apprehension. Your brother thought her too frail to serve his line, but she grows womanly, and Hamlet's interest grows apace."

"Very well," Claudius said, sated with wifely wisdom, and quite ready now to let this grand day go. "But your analysis brings with it another reason why he must not escape to Wittenberg. True attachment must build on increments, as you and I well remember."

She broke the silence his own had pointedly suggested. "My lord?"

"Yes, my queen? It is late. A king needs to greet the sun as an equal."

"Do you feel guilty?"

She felt his body stiffen, his breathing skip a breath. "Guilty concerning what?"

"Why, what else?--guilty concerning our, our coming together while... Hamlet was my husband."

Claudius snorted and hugged tighter his accumulating nugget of fatigue, making their bed of goose down emphatically heave. "The old Norse rule is, what you cannot hold is not yours. I took from him a property he didn't know he owned--territory he had never plowed. You were a virgin to unbridled love."

And, though she felt this as not entirely true, it was true enough to rest on, and they fell asleep in unison.

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Excerpted from Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Copyright © 2000 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © André Villers