A risky and ultimately unsatisfying departure from what we’ve come to think of as Updike’s distinctive territory: suburbia and its discontents.
Here, he retells the story of Hamlet’s mother, the adulterous queen, and her brother-in-law and lover, in the years leading to Prince “Amleth’s” return from college in Wittenberg, to bury his father and attend the marriage of his mother and uncle. Updike’s sources include Shakespeare’s primary one, Saxo Grammaticus’ 12th-century Historia Danica, as well as Hamlet itself, from which he quotes sporadically (noting, for instance, that the lovers exchange “reechy kisses”). The novel is best in its first half: a clever re-creation of late medieval Scandinavia’s tangled power struggles and of the austere court of famed warrior Horwendil the Jute, who wed reluctant young “Gerutha” and became king of Denmark (then Zealand) upon her father’s death. The sly figure of Horwendil’s “dark” brother Feng(on), a “freelance” adventurer whose tales of foreign lands seduce Gerutha (exactly as Othello’s enchanted Desdemona) into intimacy, is quite convincingly evoked. Alas, once Gerutha and “Feng” (later Gertrude and Claudius, for reasons only partially spelt out) hit the sheets (this is Updike, after all), the hitherto lean and credibly stately prose often becomes, if not quite royal, certifiably purple (“Surges of sensation in her lower parts lifted her so high her voice was flung from her like a bird’s lost call”). It isn’t all risible, though. Long restrained tensions between “King Hamlet” (his name likewise having changed) and the wily Feng explode in a taut confrontation scene. Gertrude’s transformation from unwilling bride to weary, guilt-ridden matron is deftly traced. And the offstage presence, as it were, of her brooding, “theatrical” son – an aggrieved time bomb ticking steadily away – is expertly sketched in. Yet the abrupt inconclusive ending (even though we know precisely what’s to come) is almost certainly a mistake.
One of Updike’s more intriguing experiments – but not one of his successes. (Book-of-the-Month main selection)