Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, presents ten male characters for every one female character. The only prominent female characters are two: Ophelia, Laertes’ sister and Polonius’ daughter; and Gertrude, the queen and wife of Claudius and mother of Hamlet. This essay will explore the character, role, and importance of Gertrude.
Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is apparently disturbed by her son’s appearance in solemn black at the gathering of the court, and she 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. She joins the king in asking Hamlet to stay in Elsinore rather than returning to Wittenberg. Respectfully the prince 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”). Gertrude would be hurt even more if she were to overhear Hamlet’s first soliloquy, which expresses anger at the quickness of his mother’s marriage and its incestuousness: “Frailty, thy name is woman! . . . .”
When the ghost talks privately to Hamlet, the prince learns not only about the murder of his father, but also about the unfaithfulness and adultery of his mother. Gertrude was seduced by “that incestuous, that adulterate beast, / With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts” – Claudius himself – prior to his brother’s passing. “So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed,/And prey on garbage.” This revelation shows Gertrude’s complex temperament and motivation and renders her much more rounded in the dramatist’s development of her (Abrams 33). The ghost asks the protagonist to disregard revenge on Gertrude: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught,” and to leave her “to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, / To prick and sting her.”
Gertrude has a contrasting character in the person of Ophelia, who is the picture of purity and innocence. Ophelia obeys her very morally and socially conservative father, Polonius, in every detail, even to the extent of giving him her love-letters from Hamlet; unlike Gertrude, who brazenly violates her marriage vow, then breaks social conventions in marrying within a month of her first husband’s funeral, and incestuously marrying her husband’s brother. Though Gertrude and Ophelia contrast morally, they are close socially; the queen confides in...