By Troy Patterson
Updated March 08, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Court intrigue follows from animal instinct in Gertrude and Claudius, John Updike’s 19th novel — a prologue to ”Hamlet” that reimagines how things went rotten in Denmark. We meet Gertrude, the prince’s rosy mum, as a submissive teen virgin, a ruler bound by bloodlines to marry King Hamlet. Years pass, and fixated on the ”thrilling freedom” of his brother, Claudius, she plunges into infidelity, thus treason, inspiring murder most foul.

Updike is powerfully alert to the rhetorical schemes of persuasion and self-deception, but there’s something deadeningly rhetorical about his whole project. It’s as if this master stylist has, for exercise, simply pumped his old themes through a Bardolatrous time machine. The result is a highly intelligent romance novel.