Updike’s Hamlet Trilogy

A scene from Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

John Updike doesn’t like to do anything once or even twice. His preferred modus operandi is to work in clusters of three, four or five. Four books about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom plus a sequel about his kids (the novella “Rabbit Remembered”). Three books about Henry Bech plus an omnibus volume. Three novels which rewrite Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version and S.). The Witches of Eastwick, with its supernatural theme, also nods toward Hawthorne. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Updike said he’s attracted to the number four, it’s comfortably square like the sides of a table or the legs of a chair. (I’m quoting from memory).

Just before the end of the last century, Updike developed a mild obsession with Hamlet which manifested itself in three very different books. The inspiration for this Hamlet-mania was Kenneth Branagh’s adaption of the play, which Updike enjoyed. The slightest connection to Shakespeare’s play was Updike 1999 essay collection More Matter. The title is from Gertrude’s curt injunction to Polonius, “less art, more matter.” A rather self-deprecating title, a typical trait in an Updike essay collection (other titles: Assorted Prose, Picked-Up Pieces, Odd Jobs) where he tends to downgrade his work as a critic in comparison to his primary achievements as a fiction writer and poet. The title seems to cast Updike the essayist as a Polonius-type figure, a garrulous old man forced to rein in his arty flights of rhetoric in the service of mundane media-induced matter.

The year after More Matter came out, Updike released one of his stranger novels, Gertrude and Claudius, a prequel to Hamlet telling the story of the Prince of Denmark’s mother and step-father in the years leading up to the play. Equally Hamlet-like was the novella that came out the same year, “Rabbit Remembered”. It tells the story of Rabbit Angstrom’s son, Nelson, caught in a mid-life turning point. He lives with his mother, who has re-married to an old rival of Nelson’s father. Nelson feels hemmed in by his step-father, an usurper who lords over the younger man. Haunted by memories of his dad, Nelson indecisively weighs his options until forced to act. No less than Gertrude and Claudius, “Rabbit Remembered” is a re-writing of Hamlet, although so far as I know only one reviewer noticed this fact.

In the case of “Rabbit Remembered” the Hamlet subtext is especially apposite because the four Rabbit novels were all deeply indebted to Joyce’s Ulysses. (Like Leopold Bloom, Rabbit Angstrom is an inarticulate everyman whose rich inner life is given over to quotidian minutiae and erotic day dreams; Rabbit’s wife tends to free-associate in run-on sentences reminiscent of Molly Bloom’s internal monologue; the Angstroms, like the Blooms, have a decade long period of sexual abeyance in their marriage which leads to wifely infidelity; both marriages are infected by memories of a dead child). Ulysses owes much not just to Homer’s epic but also Shakespeare’s play (the themes of usurpation and lost fathers runs through Joyce’s novel). So in bringing in Hamlet to the Angstrom saga, Updike created not just another layer of allusions but also at the same time deepened his alliance with Joyce, looping the loop to bring The Odyssey, Hamlet, Ulysses and the Rabbit books into alignment, a brilliant gesture which made an already rich series of books even more emotionally and literarily resonant. It’s as if Updike added another story to an already existing house, and the addition fit so perfectly you can’t separate the add-on from the original.

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