The Gertrude of Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Is Gertrude, in the Shakespearean drama Hamlet, a bore? A killer’s accomplice? The perfect queen? A dummy? This paper will answer many questions concerning Claudius’ partner on the Danish throne.
In her essay, “Acts III and IV: Problems of Text and Staging,” Ruth Nevo explains how the hero’s negative outlook toward Gertrude influences his attitude toward Ophelia:
Whereas it is precisely his total inability to know her [Ophelia], or for that matter himself, that the scene, in this theatrically simpler view, would allow us to perceive as the center of his anguish. He is tormented precisely by doubts, not by confirmations. And how indeed should he know what Ophelia is? Is she loving and faithful to him despite parental authority? Or compliant to the latter and therefore false to him? What has she been told about him? Is he not testing her with his hyperbolic declaration:
I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offenses at my back than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in?
His mother has predisposed him to believe in women’s perfidy, has produced in him a revulsion from sex and the stratagems of sex; he was unable to draw Ophelia’s face by his perusal; she has refused his letters and denied him access; now returns his gifts. What form of devious double-dealing shall he expect? (49-50)
At the outset of the tragedy Hamlet appears dressed in solemn black. His mother, Gertrude, is apparently disturbed by this and requests of him:
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity. (1.2)
The queen obviously considers her son’s dejection to result from his father’s demise. Angela Pitt considers Gertrude “a kindly, slow-witted, rather self-indulgent woman. . . .” (47). She joins in with the king in requesting Hamlet’s stay in Elsinore rather than returning to Wittenberg to study. Respectfully the son replies, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam.” So at the outset the audience notes a decidedly good relationship between Gertrude and those about her in the drama, even though Hamlet’s “suit of mourning has been a visible and public protest against the royal marriage, a protest in which he is completely alone, and in which he has hurt his mother” (Burton “Hamlet”). Hamlet’s first soliloquy expresses his anger at the quickness of his mother’s marriage to Claudius, an “o’erhasty marriage” (Gordon 128), and its incestuousness since it is between family: “Frailty, thy name is woman! . . . .” Rebecca Smith interprets his anti-motherly feelings: “Hamlet’s violent emotions toward his mother are obvious from his first soliloquy, in which 23...