John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is predicated on a major miscalculation: That the story of Hamlet can be told without Hamlet. Or, rather, that a prequel to Hamlet can be written in which Hamlet himself is forced to the periphery, barely mentioned (I don't believe he has any quoted dialogue in Gertrude and Claudius), perpetually away at Wittenberg. The problem with this is not merely that Hamlet is a superior work--which it is, to everything--but that Hamlet is too large to be contained this way. He is too expansive; he commands our attention even when he is not on stage. Hell, he commands our attention when we're reading things that have nothing to do with Hamlet.
Gertrude and Claudius' neatest trick is that Updike, borrowing from Shakespeare's original sources, Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest, splits his prequel into three sections in which the characters are first called by the names Grammaticus gives them, and then Belleforest's, and finally Shakespeare's. So Gerutha in Grammaticus becomes Geruthe in Belleforest and finally Gertrude in Shakespeare; Feng becomes Fengon becomes Claudius; Amleth becomes Hamblet becomes Hamlet; Hamlet's father Horwendil becomes Horvendile becomes--as Hamlet himself subsumes all others--Hamlet senior.
I was first inclined to think that this was a sort of pedantry, but I decided that it has an appealing thematic thrust: The story's progress toward Hamlet is inexorable, and by extension, our principals' progress toward death. Updike's Hamlet is an apocalypse, though a hastily sketched one; the crimes of Gertrude and Claudius are by comparison are minor stuff. Gertrude is a noble, clever woman trapped in a marriage of political convenience. Claudius is a wise, cosmopolitan adventurer unfairly overshadowed by his older brother, and is incited to murder only when his brother threatens to dispatch Gertrude as punishment for their adultery. Here are people whose yearning ought to make them more relatable than Hamlet, whose vengeance looms larger than its cause.
But Updike has too much to overcome to make Gertrude and Claudius work. First of all, he doesn't help himself with flabby discourses on Danish history and geography like this one:
Geruthe and Horvendile paid a patriotic visit to the battlefield of Fotevig, where over a century ago Erik the Memorable had decisively defeated Niels and his son Magnus, who had treacherously murdered Duke Knud the Breadgiver, conqueror of the Wends, in Haraldsted Wood. Magnus fell at Fotevig together with no fewer than five bishops. Erik's victory had been aided by three hundred German armored knights hired for the occasion, a technological innovation which at blow rendered popular levies upon the peasantry obsolete.
Or pointed references to the original, like this one from Corambis, known in Shakespeare as Polonius:
"Without forgetfulness, milady, life would be intolerable. All that we have ever felt or known would come crowding in upon us, like rags stuffed into a bag, as they say happens to unfortunates in the moment of drowning. It is averred that it is a painless death, but only the drowned could tell us with assurance, and they are silent, being so. That is, drowned."
Because his daughter Ophelia drowns in the play. Get it?
But the real issue is that Gertrude and Claudius is incapable of surprising us. We know exactly what will happen: Gertrude will fall in love with Claudius and Claudius will kill the King and usurp the throne. This is, save for a few minor details, the entire plot of Gertrude and Claudius. Gertrude's feelings about her marriage can be surmised without reading them, and there is little about their affair that might capture our interest, especially from an author who might reasonably be called our foremost literary expert on adultery. The novel's most powerful effect is to make us impatient for Hamlet and then to interrupt the narrative before he does or says anything of interest. It may drive us back to the original play--a result of no small worth--but there we find that Updike has little to illuminate.