Regarding Hamlet’s Gertrude
Angela Pitt in “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies” comments that Shakespeare’s Gertrude in Hamlet is, first and foremost, a mother:
Gertrude evinces no such need to justify her actions and thereby does not betray any sense of guilt. She is concerned with her present good fortune, and neither lingers over the death of her first husband nor analyses her motives in taking another. . . .She seems a kindly, slow-witted, rather self-indulgent woman, in no way the emotional or intellectual equal of her son. . . . Certainly she is fond of Hamlet. Not only is she prepared to listen to him when he storms at her, proof that he is sufficiently close to her to have a right to make comments on her personal life, but she is unfailingly concerned about him. . . .When she has drunk from the poisoned cup, almost her last words are: ‘O my dear Hamlet!’ The simple endearment is very poignant, reminding us that the bond between mother and son, and Hamlet’s desperate jealousy of Claudius, account for as much of the tragic progress of the play as the need to avenge old Hamlet’s death (46-47).
Is Gertrude a mother first, and queen second? This essay hopes to resolve seeming contradictions in the character of Queen Gertrude, as well as dealing with other aspects of her multi-faceted character.
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.
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 of the 31 lines express his anger and disgust at what he perceives to be Gertrude’s weakness,...