Monday, January 14, 2013

Gertrude's Patriarchal Muzzle in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

Project 3, Theoretical Analysis

Gertrude's Patriarchal Muzzle


The patriarchal oppression of Gertrude's voice in Hamlet is remediated in John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius. Through this remediation Updike gives the previously passive character a voice and agency. This allowance of expansion on a character gives new insight into the original work. The intertexuality provides for a more multidimensional Gertrude, rather than the previously conceived notion of Gertrude as a flat character.

The remediation of literature allows for new interpretations on previously written texts. One aspect to this reworking of texts is the allowance for shifts in character agency. The power structures present in the original text can become reconfigured or erased altogether. Feminist scholars can not only interpret texts to exemplify underlying social norms and expectations regarding social acceptance in a work, now they can rewrite the text to eradicate the perceived slights. Remediation may be “more interesting to feminist thought because it embeds a more 'deviant' way of looking, endowing a multiplicity of viewpoints” (Hoofd). For example, the phallocentricism of Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be analyzed and addressed, but the story can also be rewritten to give agency to the female characters. John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius remediates Shakespeare's Hamlet giving agency to the character of Gertrude. Updike's “engagement with Shakespeare’s play integrates implications that express feminist values within the larger framework of intertextuality” (Savu 23). This prelude to Shakespeare's play gives Gertrude agency and lends explanation to her passive disposition in Hamlet.

In Hamlet Gertrude does not speak often and readers are unable to receive any personal insight on her husband's death or her remarriage. This lack of female voice in Hamlet corresponds to the play's setting. The structure of Shakespeare's text reflects Elsinore's patriarchal setting, which in turn mimics Renaissance society. Ophelia and Gertrude are the only female characters in the play, but they are only passive participants to the actions surrounding them. Shakespeare shaped his play according to Renaissance gender roles, giving the female characters very little in the way of speech. Gertrude asks Hamlet to stay, tells him to stop mourning his father's death, and welcomes his friends to Elsinore. Her actions and speech are passive. She gives the illusion of maternal doting while simultaneously causing suspicion. Her lack of speech regarding her quick marriage to her husband's brother raises questions regarding motive and knowledge of Claudius's actions.

Updike actively recovers the “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” (24). The remediation gives agency to Gertrude. Her thoughts and opinions are expressed in a manner which is believable. Her actions still follow a prescribed and expected course for women of her time but the mere window onto her thoughts, provided by Updike, adds dimension to a previously flat character. The assumption of women as unable to make their own decisions or critically analyze a situation is exemplified in Hamlet by the lack of insight into the female characters. “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” (Savu 24). The implication that the female characters were having thoughts throughout the play, but in true Renaissance form, no one noticed.

As an example of remediation, Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius exemplifies “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” (22). Gertrude's lack of voice and agency in the original Shakespeare play frustrates readers in that they question her knowledge and intentions. Updike opens the world of her thoughts, such as the fact that she thinks “no woman wants to be a mere piece of furniture, to be bartered for and then sat upon” (Updike 5). This revelation is shocking to the reader who previously thought of Gertrude as something of a piece of furniture in Hamlet. As a woman void of agency she is merely inherited by her husband's brother.

After combining the Shakespeare play Hamlet and the Updike novel Gertrude and Claudius a new amalgamation of the character of Gertrude emerges. It becomes understandable why she does no t express herself in Shakespeare's play. She can now be viewed in a form of self-isolation. Being partly responsible for her husband's death has rendered her speechless toward any suspicions and accusations. The remediation changes a reader's perception of the original. Therefore, “Updike’s novel gains importance for putting Shakespeare’s play in a fresh perspective—a perspective that forces readers to reconsider their assumptions and responses to the play,”(Savu 24-5). As any feminist scholar knows, the reconsidering of assumptions is the first step towards change. The point Updike made is that just because Gertrude's voice was not heard does not mean she did not have one.

The use of remediation may be viewed negatively as reworking another author's original text to make it one's own. It can also be viewed as a possibility to re-establish power that may have been taken or excluded. The “refashioning [of]one's predecessors is key to understanding representation in earlier media” (Bolter, Grusin 49). While Shakespeare may have been fashioning his work to the society he saw, he may also assumed that a patriarchal structure was necessary. By remediating previous works, questions can be answered and a multitude of viewpoints can be explored.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2000.

Hoofd, Ingrid. “Rewriting Feminisms.” 29 Nov 2009.

Savu, Laura Elena "In Desire's Grip: Gender, Politics, and Intertextual Games in Updike's Gertrude and Claudius." Papers on Language & Literature 39.1 (2003): 22. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2009.

Updike, John. Gertrude and Claudius. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

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