Gertrude

April 20, 2006

The facts first. Gertrude has been the Queen for a long time; she was married to Old Hamlet, and is the mother of Prince Hamlet. After Old Hamlet died, she quickly married Old Hamlet's brother — it's unclear whether this marriage took place just before or immediately following his coronation. The text does not rule out the idea that she may have had some sort of mutual attraction or even affair with Claudius before Old Hamlet died — but the text doesn't directly support this idea, either (and I don't find it all that useful as of now). The text does make it fairly clear that Gertrude had no part in and did not know of Old Hamlet's murder.

It's no great leap to suppose that Gertrude had multiple reasons for marrying Claudius so soon after her husband's funeral. From the point of view of the people of Denmark, the marriage solidifies and justifies the succession, and Claudius specifically acknowledges the advice he was given to marry Gertrude. Whether or not she loved or was attracted to Claudius, she may well have seen the marriage as her duty to her country. And part of that duty would be avoiding any sign of excessive mourning for Old Hamlet.

This puts her on a collision course with Hamlet. Her first scene (and Hamlet's) sees her trying to get Hamlet to stop mourning and to "look like a friend on Denmark." Hamlet wants her to mourn, she wants him to let go. Shakespeare has set her up as the contrast to Hamlet — he refuses to accept the new order, she has embraced it. They both think they're doing the right thing, and it hurts each of them to see the other making the opposing choice.

Throughout the first half of the play, Gertrude is firmly on the side of the King; she participates in all the scheming and spying (briefing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, planning with Polonius). But she has her own reasons for this. Where the King is faking concern for Hamlet's well-being to mask his fears that Hamlet is on to him, Gertrude's concern for Hamlet is genuine. She wants to know the cause of his madness so that she can help bring him back to health. And like Polonius, she fears that she may be responsible for it:

I doubt it is no other but the main,
His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage.

She likes the idea that rejected love might be the true culprit; she later tells Ophelia she hopes this is the case so that Ophelia might

…bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honors.

…which sounds like a hint that she's rooting for Hamlet and Ophelia to get together, as she confirms at Ophelia's funeral.

At the play, she asks Hamlet to sit by her and is later carefully polite about the thinly-veiled and deeply offensive attack on her in the play's dialogue.

Gertrude's turning point comes in the famous 'closet scene.' She has agreed to confront Hamlet with Polonius listening in, and she begins by chastising him for his rudeness — I think she's trying to break through to him, to help him by getting him to see how dangerous and offensive his behavior has become. She probably hopes that if she can get Hamlet to behave rationally, Polonius will report to the King that sending him to England will be unnecessary. Hamlet ups the stakes by threatening her physically, and her cry for help flushes out Polonius; she is horrified by Hamlet's violence against who he clearly believes is the King.

When Hamlet tells her that his father was murdered, she seems genuinely surprised and hurt — at one point he even accuses her of killing Old Hamlet, though he knows it was Claudius. But what Hamlet is really angry at her about, and what eventually causes her to break down, is simply that she went from Old Hamlet to Claudius. He accuses her of betraying her marriage vows, but what gets her is the two portraits side-by-side.

This was your husband. Look you now what follows:
Here is your husband… Have you eyes?
O, shame, where is thy blush?

O Hamlet, speak no more.
These words like daggers enter in mine ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.

She has been living in the world of Claudius, the world Hamlet has refused to accept. She has accepted change, Hamlet has denied it. Just as Hamlet is rubbing her face in this, the ghost appears to get him back on track for revenge. Gertrude can't see the ghost, and Hamlet spends the rest of the scene convincing her he's not actually mad and getting her to agree not to tell Claudius. There's surprisingly little substance to what he asks her to do — stop sleeping with Claudius and not tell him Hamlet's sane are the only tangible tasks. The rest of it seems to be about remembering which side she's really on.

She agrees to all of it, and in a scene I've (unfortunately) cut she immediately backs up Hamlet by telling Claudius that Hamlet murdered Polonius in a fit of madness. She's on Hamlet's side now.

Hamlet's gone for Act Four, of course, and Gertrude is left to deal with Ophelia's madness (shortened), Laertes' rebellion (cut), and Ophelia's suicide (the big speech is cut). We see her briefly at Ophelias funeral, and then at the fencing match.

Does Gertrude figure out that the drink is poisoned before she drinks? In Peter Brook's Hamlet, she clearly suspected it. Maybe by drinking the poison she's protecting her son. And maybe she feels so horrible about marrying the man who killed her husband that she's ready to die. The more I think about this, the more it seems right — it's something tangible she can do for Hamlet as a result of the closet scene. I like the way that connects the dots through the play.

Gertrude's greatest want is to help her son. When he's sad, she wants to help him let go and be happy. When he's mad, she wants to find the cause and to cure him. And when it turns out that he's not mad after all, she wants to back him up as best she can.

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One Response to “Gertrude”

  1. Kari Ann Says:

    I just want to say, thank you. I’m playing Gertrude this summer and so am researching the character. I agree with you and the the last paragraph is exactly how I have interpreted her. The thing about knowing the cup is poisoned though… that is amazing and may use it for production. Thank you again.

    In Christ,
    Kari Ann


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