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It Happened at Elsinore

As any good edition of Shakespeare will tell you, the old tales that lead up to Shakespeare’s Hamlet are well documented. It looks as if Updike was browsing in such an annotated Shakespeare when the notion occurred to him of fitting together the older versions, and then joining them up with the text of Hamlet as we know it in order to make a continuous whole. The result is an elegant little potpourri, giving a vivid glimpse into several different Hamlet worlds.

What would be the point of it? What would be new about such a “game,” as the old Formalists would call such things? The answer might be to make us see Hamlet in three dimensions, in a novel and contrasting historical light. We have become so accustomed to Shakespeare’s version and to the immortal characters he presents that we don’t really see how odd they are, and what a perspective of time, custom, culture, and morals has been telescoped, as it were, into a single dimension: the familiar drama which since the seventeenth century has opened on every stage in every country with a scene on the battlements of Elsinore castle. A play must mirror the unity of a single evening and event; but a novel might be able to join up such an event with the other tales and possibilities that the story material once possessed. Such a novel could wriggle itself clear of Shakespearean inevitability, suggesting other narratives and alternative endings.

Playing around with Hamlet is an old game and a fascinating one, as Tom Stoppard demonstrated in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; but Updike’s treatment has the advantage of historical weight and sobriety. His beginning, not in the Elizabethan court or theater but in the Dark Age of Denmark, in an old pre-Christian heroic society, leads logically to a historically comparative ending. Or to no ending at all? If we travel back through time we see that, as Henry James remarked of relationships in a novel, the outcomes of history end nowhere.

James thought the novelist’s task was to draw “the circle” in which his relationships shall happily appear to end. Updike, by contrast, has opted to keep all options open. This weakens in one crucial way the advantage of historical perspective. In presenting his three stories, three historical and cultural settings of Shakespeare’s play, Updike loses, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet himself put it, “the name of action.” For all Updike’s versions have to end before the play proper begins, and hence we are given the slow motion of pause and prologue rather than the excitement of the plot. It has often been said that one of the pleasures of watching Shakespearean tragedy—Othello is a particularly graphic example—lies in our feeling that each might end quite differently each time. So they might; but that nonetheless depends on the excitement of a conclusion and a climax. Updike can show us no climax. His three stories, their characters vividly attired in their different habits as they historically lived, remain poised on the brink of eventuality. Claudius may win through? In each of Updike’s stories he is in a good position to do so. Perhaps things might have been better all around if he had?

That Claudius did not win could in a sense be a more telling tragic stroke than that Hamlet himself accidentally lost, dragging all the others into an act of revenge which happens more by accident than by immediate intent. It was Shakespeare’s crowning stroke of genius to deprive his Hamlet of the inflexible will which a revenger should properly have, and which all the earlier Hamlet figures possess. But to want one thing only is to be dull, fictionally speaking; and Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the only one to fascinate us with the scope and variety of his conflicting impulses. Updike in his “novel” foregoes all that; yet he makes up for it by the manner in which his sensitive and delicious prose lingers on the other personalities in the tale, more especially on Gerutha, who will become Gertrude, princess and queen.

In the Historica Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, whose twelfth-century text was printed in Paris in 1514, Gerutha is the daughter of Rorik, king of Denmark. He wishes to betroth her to a hefty Jutish warrior called Horwendil. Updike’s fondness for describing unusual sexual charm makes a bravura foil to his inventive account of her provenance:

She was an ample, serene, dewy, and sensible girl. Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open. Her hair, unbound as became a virgin, was the red of copper diluted by the tin of sunlight. A warmth surrounded her, an aura noticeable since infancy; her nurses in the icy straw-floored chambers of Elsinore had loved to clasp the resilient little body to their breasts. Bracelets of twisted bronze, brooches worked into a maze of interlaced ribbons, and a heavy necklace of thin-beaten silver scales bespoke a father’s lavishing love. Her mother, Ona, had died on the farthest verge of memory, when the child was three and feverish with the same ague that carried off the fragile mother while sparing the sturdy child. Ona had been dark, a Wendish captive. An unsmiling face with lowered lids and thick brows, a melody sung with an accent even a toddler could recognize as strange, and a touch of tender but chilly fingers formed the bulk of maternal treasure Gerutha held in her memory.

This is and is not Gertrude, as Shakespeare will one day portray her; the piquancy here is produced by Updike’s adroit handling of the story. Gerutha herself, that sensible girl, is equally adroit. The tale-novel opens with her father urging her to accept marriage with Horwendil. She is reluctant to do so; she doesn’t fancy him much; and yet she knows quite placidly that she will accede in the end to her father’s wishes. As Shakespeare was to put it, she may not, as unvalued persons do, choose for herself. If the royal health of Denmark requires it of her, she is perfectly happy to go through with the marriage, to make a success of it, even to love her warrior husband.

All this she does; but Horwendil has a younger brother, Feng, a slender, dark, sophisticated man of charm and good nature, who has spent much time among the courts of Southern Europe and made a name for himself as both diplomat and soldier. When he comes home he and Gerutha fall silently in love, an invisible passion which Feng pledges with the gift of a falcon, retaining a single feather in his breast as he returns to southern lands, a loyal brother concerned not to disturb the peace of Horwendil and of Denmark. But he will be back, will he not? And what will happen then?

Updike’s Part I, the era of Saxo Grammaticus, ends at this point, giving way to the more sophisticated account of the next myth-teller. François de Belleforest was a sixteenth-century scholar and courtier who translated Saxo, and bestowed on him a number of contemporary embellishments. In his version Horwendille and his brother Fengon are governors of Jutland under the Danish king Rorique. And here what will be the Shakespearean pattern begins to fall miraculously into place. Fengon treacherously slays Horwendille at a banquet, seduces Geruthe, and marries her by force. Her son Amleth pretends madness in order to disarm Fengon’s suspicions. He determines to revenge his father by killing Fengon when he reaches manhood, and then seize the throne for himself. This he does, with help from his repentant mother, and sets out for England to marry both the English and the Scottish princesses; but returning in triumph with his two wives he is himself attacked and slain through the treachery of one of them. A new usurper then reigns in Denmark.

A rambling chronicle of ups and downs, with nobody winning, thoroughly suited to the endless bloodymindedness of a heroic society? Updike mostly ignores it in the second narrative of his novel, substituting a charming sketch of the Fengon-Geruthe love story, and breaking it off at the moment when Fengon has successfully poisoned his brother by pouring Shakespeare’s deadly infusion into his ears. In Updike’s prose the poison itself becomes a thing of rare beauty.

Sealed by crimson wax, one of the cross’s two equal arms had been laboriously hollowed to conceal a stoppered slender vial of Venetian glass. Fengon dug away the wax with the point of his bodkin and the vial slipped out. The lethal liquid had precipitated a fine brown sediment in its years of concealment; lightly shaken, it cleared to a pale yellow, which even here in the dark low hall caught a glow….

Holding dire enmity with the blood of man, the poison does the work later to be so spectacularly described by the victim himself, as ghost in Shakespeare’s drama. But Updike’s novel is more concerned with the overall suitability of his own comely couple. Fengon after all only did what a man has to do; while Geruthe, like Shakespeare’s Gertrude, is innocent of the plot. The King’s body lies in the orchard, but it is not found until “the unknowing Queen sent a man down to wake her husband.”

Significantly, Updike is unambiguous where Shakespeare is not. It is very much a part of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and its cunning as a drama, that Gertrude may have known all about Claudius’s plot or she may not, in the same way that Ophelia may have had sexual relations with Hamlet or may be innocent. Shakespeare’s Hamlet depends, as its many predecessors do not, on his own incomparable rule that “the rest is silence.” Henry James, with the same rule, was in his own way always rewriting Hamlet.

Gertrude has come a long way from the Geruthe who was daughter of a captive Wendish princess (a nice touch of Updike’s own). But that is the strength of his small but immaculate novel: to illumine a historical development in narration—in characterization also—by revealing the dramatis personae of Hamlet as a film might do—one image in time and place superimposed upon another. It is a method with its own dangers and weaknesses, but Updike has never been afraid of risking a too evident artifice, as he did in that flamboyant little curiosity of cosmopolitan geography, his novel Brazil. Here he is taking the same sort of liberties in the already well trodden paths of Shakespeareana. In both cases the results, aesthetically speaking, are highly agreeable. Partisan of Geruthe and Fengon, who will become Gertrude and Claudius, Updike expends all the resources of a naturally bejeweled prose upon Fengon’s gifts to the Queen, and on their earlier lovemaking.

His first gift, brought the week following, when the buds of the maples and alders had gone from a button-like solidity to the particulate leafiness of tiny cabbages, was a cloisonné pendant in the form of a peacock, the spread tail a fan in whose center the neck and body of shimmering blue stood out against the proud spread of green feathers eyed in yellow and black. Each segment of enamel was outlined in gold finer than thread, even to the tiny chips of white and red, green and gray that gave anatomy to the profiled head with its downcurved beak….

It is very beautiful, and heavy.” She lifted it, the pendant and its gold chain, which was so fine it slithered like a trickle of liquid into her pink palm.

See if it feels so around your neck. May I put it on you?”

Geruthe hesitated, then bowed her head and let him take this liberty. His fingers as he did so stroked her hair, finest-spun and palest at the nape of her neck, where his fingers toyed with the chain’s catch. His lips, ruddy and shapely, were inches from her eyes as he felt for the fit. Finding it, his hands lifted, but his mouth did not move back. Each black hair of his mustache had an enamelled lustre. A feather of his breath, smelling of cloves brought from afar, brushed her nostrils. She lifted a finger to touch his fringed lips, to create there a tingle to mirror that which she had felt at the back of her neck. The weight of the pendant tugged there with a little cool strip of pressure. Their two bodies, proximate, felt huge to her, as if made up of tiny whirling microcosms, each part and filament of them as precious as the enamel fragments of the immortal peacock. The chill at the back of her neck pushed her to seek the warmth of his lips, where her fingertips had briefly explored.

She and Fengon kissed, but not as avidly, as moistly, as they had in Elsinore. Here, in their own, more modest castle, they advanced with more caution, without the King’s paternal protection, attempting to domesticate the outrage their bodies were plotting. Geruthe felt guilt more keenly, since she was the married one, and yet an old sense of outrage rose up to meet and overpower her qualms for the length of the kiss and its several less heated, more practiced successors, until, weary of the revolution within, she pulled back, and begged Fengon for conversation.

A love pledge and potion indeed, with Tristan and Isolde hovering in the background. In their final metamorphosis as Gertrude and Claudius, Updike will remain their staunch supporter. To the previous lovers his prose has given a shimmering decadence more suited to a Pelléas and Mélisande from the 1890s than to our robust Shakespearean couple. But when he comes to the third and last part of his transformation of medieval myth and legend into Elizabethan theater Updike has no choice but to move into Shakespearean pastiche, with an undercurrent of buried quotation. Updike’s imaginative argument holds up most effectively nonetheless: the present situation can only be understood through the past, which Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet has to ignore.

The supple elegance of Updike-Claudius is equal to a full understanding of the matter, which must perforce be lacking in the timebound and spellbound atmosphere of Shakespeare’s Elsinore. Understanding history as he does, Updike-Claudius has no trouble in behaving in the most civilized manner, as did Bernard Shaw’s Caesar in his Caesar and Cleopatra play. “I tell you I feel for him,” Claudius tells the Queen. Hamlet, like himself, is a victim of “Danish small-mindedness—Viking blood-hunger crammed into the outward forms of Christianity, which no one up here has ever understood, from Harald Bluetooth on…. Christianity turns grim in lands of frost; it is a Mediterranean cult, a religion of the grape.”

Truly,” he goes on, “I am certain I can make the Prince love me. I appointed him my successor on my own impulse.”

This Claudius is more intelligent than crafty, and less scheming than intelligently humane. He really does have a great regard for Hamlet, and a fellow-feeling too, even when he is scheming to marry the Queen and bring her son home. In two weeks it will be an entire month since Hamlet’s father’s unfortunate death, and Claudius touchingly urges the Queen not to “deny me the natural outcome of my long and perilous devotion.” It would give Elsinore a master and mistress too, and cement their hold on the throne.

A happy prospect, and as Updike himself craftily indicates, a perfectly sound and rational one in Dano-Viking terms, where sudden deaths, no matter how caused, were taken for granted. Shakespeare’s mistake, he goes on to imply, is to make such a fuss, along with his young Hamlet, about the old king’s murder. By the standards of Dark Age history nothing could be more respectable. Updike, like the critic Wilson Knight before him in The Wheel of Fire, is suggesting that life, sanity, and common sense required Claudius and Gertrude to rule over Denmark, no matter how dubiously they achieved the throne. And Updike’s method as a novelist adds one point lacking in Wilson Knight’s analysis. To understand Danish history is to understand why Gertrude and Claudius should rightly have been king and queen. Had Shakespeare presented Scottish history in the same terms he would also have understood how proper it was that the good soldier Macbeth should have had the throne in the same way.

And so, if we leave out Shakespeare, all ends happily, or at least as promisingly as history can ever manage:

The era of Claudius had dawned; it would shine in Denmark’s annals. He might, with moderation of his carousals, last another decade on the throne. Hamlet would be the perfect age of forty when the crown descended. He and Ophelia would have the royal heirs lined up like ducklings. Gertrude would gently fade, his saintly gray widow, into the people’s remembrance. In his jubilation at these presages the King, standing to make his exit, announced boomingly that this gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet sat so smiling to his heart that, at every health he would drink today, the great cannons would tell the clouds. And his queen stood up beside him, all beaming in her rosy goodness, her face alight with pride at his performance. He took her yielding hand in his, his hard sceptre in the other. He had gotten away with it. All would be well.

The action of Shakespeare’s play is, of course, to follow,” as Updike remarks in his Afterword, and he goes on to find in the play not only evidence for his general argument, but a “message” for the novel which the play has inspired. As well as Wilson Knight he quotes the English scholar William Kerrigan’s recent study Hamlet’s Perfection* : both witnesses for the case that young Hamlet is the true villain of his own play, who betrays the good characters and “pulls them all into death.”

Well. But young Hamlet, and Shakespeare, and Hamlet’s father’s ghost (whom Shakespeare is said to have acted) might have seen matters rather in a different light. “May I be pardoned and retain the offence,” as Shakespeare’s Claudius himself very pertinently inquired. However that may be, Updike’s prose is, as always, beguiling and brilliant; nor in all probability would he be too dismayed to be told that the best thing about his novel is that it sends us back eagerly to the play: to its sources and to the history that lies behind it.

  1. *

    Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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