In Desire's Grip: Gender, Politics, and Intertextual Games in Updike's Gertrude and Claudius

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"For men, love is part of their ruthless quest for beauty; for us, it is more gently a matter of self-knowledge. It discovers us from within" (Updike, Gertrude and Claudius 186)

Updike's Gertrude and Claudius (2000) testifies to what has become an important feature of postmodern aesthetics: the refashioning of canonical texts, through which novelists turn their literary forbears to new uses, enhancing, extending, or critiquing the meaning of the primary text. (1) The Bard in particular has become, for readers and writers alike, a cultural icon whose works continue to provide a source of inexhaustible pleasure and discovery. "In Shakespeare," Andrej Zurowski reminds us, "everything is told but nothing is told to the end. Shakespeare is always asking us to give him birth" (171). To this, Updike would add that in Hamlet, one of the most revered plays of the Western canon, not really everything is told from the beginning either, which accounts for his repositioning of Hamlet's mother as a desiring subject in Gertrude and Claudius. His engagement with Shakespeare's play integrates implications that express feminist values within the larger framework of intertextuality--an increasingly familiar and influential mode in literature as well as in critical discourse. Updike's inventive and extremely compelling recasting of Gertrude gives readers a new way of understanding the character, her motivations, and her struggle to redefine and empower herself by acknowledging the place of desire in a relational, rather than naively "free-floating," construction of identity.

In choosing intertextuality as a framework for my feminist reading of Gertrude and Claudius, my interest is to identify a revisionist pattern that emerges here and in other retellings by Updike, particularly the trilogy rewriting Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. James A. Schiff's insightful study on Updike's revision of The Scarlet Letter has proven extremely useful to my argument for two main reasons: first, for its elaboration on the implications that the "mythical method" employed by the American novelist has for our understanding of both the canonical text and its retelling; (2) second, for its discussion of Updike's contribution to the "novel of adultery." Interestingly, Updike's creative displacement of the myth inscribed in Hamlet differs from that in The Scarlet Letter due to both the nature of the myth itself and the appropriating method. Whereas "one of the central issues in Updike's trilogy is the American self, divided and unhappy, struggling to re-form and reconceive itself" (Schiff, Updike's Version 19), the ostensible focus in Gertrude and Claudius is the female self in general, striving to define and assert itself both in relation to and in opposition to the male self. Thus, the myth displaced in Gertrude and Claudius consists of a controlling set of patriarchal assumptions behind Shakespeare's delineation of female characters in Hamlet. By the same token, the American wilderness to which the quest for a renewed identity takes Thomas Marshfield, Roger Lambert, and Sarah Worth--the central characters in Updike's trilogy--has its counterpart in the exotic world of the more refined southern Europe that so fascinates Gertrude and, ultimately, in that region of Gertrude's own mind where her deepest erotic longings originate. Updike's novel enacts the recovery of female experience from the realm of Shakespeare's play and, in a more abstract sense, from the realm of "nonbeing" to which patriarchy relegates it.

As for the intertextual method, Gertrude and Claudius does not represent a contemporary re-writing of Hamlet, for its narrative fuses remnants of paganism drawn from Norse legends with elements of Medieval Christianity and Renaissance rationalism. In addition, the first two thirds of the book retain the names of the characters as they appear in the late 12th-century Danish chronicle written in Latin by Saxo Grammaticus and the 16th-century Histoires tragiques by Francois de Belleforest. …


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