Ghost Ride

By Mundy, Toby | New Statesman (1996), July 10, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Ghost Ride

Mundy, Toby, New Statesman (1996)


John Updike Hamish Hamilton, 212pp [pounds]16.99

[pounds]13.59 at (+15% p&p)

The word "motive" appears more often in Hamlet than in any other Shakespeare play. Deep undecidability is one of the qualities that determine great writing, and Hamlet is about as ambivalent as literature gets. Generations of critics have wondered at how the court of Elsinore descended into such a sorry state. What is at the root of Hamlet's inability to avenge his father's murder? What is the genesis of Gertrude's marriage to her brother-in-law? Is Gertrude culpable for her first husband's unnatural death? Is Claudius driven by the power of love or the love of power?

John Updike's marvellous new novel -- amazingly, his 19th -- brings many of these questions into sharp focus. A prequel to Shakespeare's play, it tells how the indulged and vivacious daughter of a Danish king is married in her teens to a rapacious warrior who, upon the old King's death, becomes sovereign of Elsinore. They have one child, Hamlet, a sickly, solipsistic boy who abjures his mother's love and is fearful of "solemn duty and heartfelt intimacy". Hamlet's father proves to be a wise governor. He is Christian (unlike his pagan predecessor), who faithfully discharges his duties and understands instinctively the foundations upon which the court is built and what is required to maintain them. Gertrude feels affection and respect but no passion for her husband.

Elsinore is a cold place to confine a feeling woman. When the King's brother returns to court, after years as a mercenary in Byzantium, his presence makes his sister-in-law sharply aware that there are other ways to live. Feng, as Claudius is known in the early part of novel--the name comes from a 12th-century Latinversion of Hamlet -- is a linguist, traveller and storyteller, and his cosmopolitan panache throws into relief the stiffness of Gertrude's earthy Danish husband. Feng makes her pine for the sophistication of southern Europe. People there, he tells her, enjoy a more refined material existence: they do not drink themselves to stupefaction or feast crudely with knives and hands, and they pursue diplomacy instead of war.

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