Brush Up Your Shakespeare John Updike's witty Gertrude and Claudius is a prequel to Hamlet By PAUL GRAY

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Students of shakespeare know, or are supposed to, that the characters in his plays exist only while they are on the stage or the page. The rest, as far as they and we are concerned, is silence. Thus the eminent scholars and critics who once busied themselves in disputations about the number of Lady Macbeth's children or Hamlet's course of study at Wittenberg were actually engaged in nothing more than romantic woolgathering. But the urge to think of Shakespeare's people as real dies hard, and woolgathering has its charms, as John Updike wittily demonstrates anew in Gertrude and Claudius (Hamish Hamilton; 212 pages). This novel ends where Shakespeare's Hamlet begins-after Act I, Scene 2, to be precise-and fills in the story of what the dramatis personae might have been up to before their tragic undoings at Elsinore.

Updike's enterprise is not as fanciful as it might at first seem. He has consulted the same sources Shakespeare apparently used for his play but shapes this material to different purposes. Here the moody prince makes only a walk-on appearance. Updike's spotlight falls instead on Hamlet's mother Queen Gertrude and her adulterous affair with Claudius, her husband's younger brother. The topic of illicit sex will sound familiar to Updike's readers, but the archaic Scandinavian setting and the regal gravitas of the characters involved make this old story fresh and moving.

Updike's Gertrude is a feminist well ahead of her time. "A good woman," she muses, "lay in the bed others had made for her and walked in the shoes others had cobbled." A princess, she must marry the man her father, for dynastic reasons, chooses for her, even though she feels no love for him. She does her duty, becomes a queen, bears an heir, Hamlet, and resigns herself to a life she sees as "a stone passageway with many windows but not one portal leading out."

Then, in her 40s, Gertrude awakens to the charms of her husband's younger brother, himself more than a decade her senior. Their courtship is protracted and passionate. In Shakespeare's play Hamlet upbraids Gertrude for her infidelity: "You cannot call it love, for at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame." That, Updike's novel suggests, shows how much Hamlet knew.

Eventually, of course, Gertrude's husband learns of the affair; court life affords little privacy for a queen. He confronts Claudius and outlines the punishments he will inflict on the guilty. Claudius, without Gertrude's knowledge, murders the king and becomes king himself. Once he marries Gertrude, the stage is set for Hamlet.

Gertrude and Claudius is engrossing enough on its own terms to stand independently of Shakespeare's play. But those readers who know Hamlet will find Updike's novel an echo chamber of beguiling allusions. "You protest too much," her husband-to-be tells young Gertrude, a sentiment she will repeat during her life onstage. And the doom awaiting Updike's people lends their deeds a tragic cast.

Sand Warriors
Bondi Beach, Australia's most famous stretch of sand, is basking in the Olympic spotlight. But some locals are still furious that the stadium built to host beach volleyball-the Games' flesh-baring party sport-has cut their beloved Bondi in half. After attempts to halt construction proved unsuccessful, activists came up with a plan calling for 1,000 people, armed with giant mirrors, to disrupt telecasts by flashing sunlight at television crews and into camera lenses. "We want the Olympic movement to reflect on its cultural imperialism," says local councillor Dominic Wykanak. But tight security and the stadium's 16-m-high walls seem to have foiled the would-be saboteurs.

Down to Earth
Parramatta may be the demographic hub of Sydney, but it's certainly not the center of the city's nightlife. Yet this is where the newest version of America's Dream Team have chosen to hole up, in a "4.5-star," ordinary-looking hotel that is a far cry from their customary haunts. The fanciest eating establishment in the hotel's vicinity is a Pizza Hut (which means Seattle Supersonics forward Vin Baker opts to sweat over a hot barbecue on grill nights). The team practices in a local recreation center, where they politely dodge the gray-haired ladies who come in for a spot of exercise.

There are no international icons on this, the third U.S. team to be dominated by professional players. No Jordans, no Magics. Team members like Alonzo Mourning, Steve Smith and Jason Kidd are top N.B.A. players who have come to the Olympics because they thought it might just be fun and meaningful. None of these players is going to threaten to choose a Nike swoosh over the U.S. Olympic uniform as Jordan and some of his mates did. "This team is doing what Olympic athletes do," says team spokesman and assistant coach Craig Miller. "They're going to visit the Olympic Village, attend the opening ceremonies, stand in line."

N.B.A. players standing and waiting for something besides the ball? As impressive as the squad's fearsome talents is what it lacks: the bratty attitude of previous teams. Sure, the Americans threw some elbows and talked some trash in beating the Australians in a pre-Olympic game, but the Aussies gave back as good as they got. "These are grown men," says Miller, the only leftover from the original 1992 Dream Team. "They have been playing basketball all their lives. They know how to control tempers."

The swagger, however, may be just on hold: the Australian papers are already printing rumors about the team's planned gold-medal celebration party, which will be stocked with recruits from at least three modeling agencies. The bash is to be held at Cave, a hot nightclub near Sydney's waterfront casino, Star City-a name that sounds more appropriate.

Not all the 200 countries that have sent athletes to Sydney are fielding what most people would call a team. Brunei and British Virgin Islands have one athlete each; Mauritania, Cape Verde and Belize have two; and Somalia has three. In a country riven by civil war since 1991 and lacking a government until elections two weeks ago, the Somali Olympic Committee has struggled to get even those three athletes to the Games. "We are a poor country," says s.o.c. president Farah Addo, with great understatement. The I.O.C., which offers assistance to smaller countries, granted the team $22,000. That covered the cost of travel, insurance and equipment. "But what about the three years preparing them, buying all the equipment, feeding them, keeping them in training?" Addo says. None of the major sporting goods companies has offered any assistance. "If you write to them, they say: Who do you expect to get a medal?'" complains coach Ibrahim Omar.

Before the team left Mogadishu, the country's new President, Sadiqassim Salad Hassan, told Addo, "I'm just elected. I have nothing, I can give you nothing, but I wish you all the best." The Somalis, and all the other tiny teams, deserve at least that much.

Daddy's Boys
Father usually knows best in tradition-bound Japan, especially if he's a gold-medal Olympian. But Naoya Tsukahara and Akihiro Kasamatsu-sons of two of Japan's most decorated gymnasts-are ready to prove they know a little something, too. "We can compete on our own terms," says the younger Tsukahara, who is one of the stars of Japan's Sydney squad, with Kasamatsu junior. "This is a new era."

When the elder Tsukahara and Kasamatsu were competing, Japan was a gymnastics powerhouse that captured the team Olympic gold at each of the Games from 1960 to '76. The pair racked up more than a dozen medals between them. Naoya and Akihiro are competing with a less formidable team that lags behind the dominant Russians and Chinese. Still, Japan's fortunes may finally be changing. At the world championships in Tianjin, China, last year, 23-year-old Tsukahara nabbed the silver in the all-around event. With top Russian gymnast Nikolay Krukov recovering from a pulled achilles tendon and China's Lu Yufu out of competition with a sore neck, Tsukahara has a good shot at Sydney gold, especially in the all-around and floor events. Kasamatsu, 24, has been finessing his form since his fourth place all-around finish in Tianjin and hopes to medal in either the pommel horse or the horizontal bars.

The pressure is on. "If they don't medal this time, Japan is going to have to completely rethink its gymnastics program," says Takeo Nakajima, who covers the sport for a Japanese TV network. "We're counting on them."

So, no doubt, are their fathers, who hope these rising sons will raise Japan's gymnastics profile once more.

Side by Side
Their countries may technically still be at war, but the two Koreas seemed remarkably unified during the Opening Ceremony when team members joined hands and marched together for the first time. In the spirit of reconciliation, South Korea even trimmed its marching delegation from 400-plus to 90 to avoid overwhelming the smaller North Korean troupe. There was just one problem: Pyongyang had given an inflated estimate of its Olympic squad and had to fly in last-minute participants to bring its delegation up to 90. "The cost of getting them here was worth it," says North Korean delegation member Mun Si Song. "We had to show we were equal to South Korea."

Full House
What happens when you offer athletes and their coaches free trips to Sydney? You quickly run out of space at the Olympic Village. To compensate for the high cost of getting Down Under, the organizers of the Sydney Games offered to pay air fares for all athletes and officials who planned to attend.

A record number accepted. More than 11,100 athletes are participating in the Sydney Games, up from the 10,310 who showed up in Atlanta in 1996. But the Village was designed to house only 10,200 athletes, so officials had to scramble to add beds, doubling and tripling the number of people in rooms. But free travel is not the only reason for the bigger crowd. The i.o.c can't resist adding new events to the already packed schedule.

In Atlanta there were 273 medal events on the books; in Sydney the number has grown to 300 (including such events as trampoline and modern pentathlon). The better part of that growth, though, reflects a desire to involve more women in the Games. Twenty-one women's events-including weightlifting, water polo and taekwondo-have been added for Sydney.

-Written by Hannah Beech, Sally Donnelly, Barry Hillenbrand, Leora Moldofsky, Kate Noble and Susanna Schrobsdorff