The Troubled Relationship Between Gertrude and Hamlet
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius murders his brother, the King of Denmark, and subsequently usurps the Danish throne. Shattering the purity of the royal family, he allures Queen Gertrude into an incestuous wedding so hastily that “The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables” (I.ii.180-1). Lost in this sullied household is Prince Hamlet, shrouded in the black of mourning, who condemns his mother’s quick, lustful willingness to marry his uncle. Hamlet’s abject tears melt into vengeance, however, when the ghost of his father orders him to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.25). He complicates his command to the Prince by admonishing him to “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (I.v.85-6). Although he must avenge his father’s assassination without harming Gertrude, Hamlet’s disappointment, disgust, and frustration with his mother obviate his duty to insulate her from his revenge; and his failure to do so ultimately leads to her death.
Gertrude’s limited substantive involvement in the play creates difficulty for understanding her relationship with Hamlet. Of the nearly four thousand lines in the work, Hamlet takes almost half while Gertrude has a meager 157. Before the climatic “closet scene” (III, iv), she speaks only 18 times – usually in brief sentences. Why does Shakespeare devote so few lines to Hamlet’s mother? The answer is not clear; however, although the queen is detached verbally from the play, she maintains a significant presence during the ten scenes in which she appears.
Critics interpret Gertrude in a number of different ways; however, they tend to judge her by her silences or by what other characters say about her. On the one hand, some describe her as a meek, reserved, and passive instrument of Claudius. A.C. Bradley, no doubt basing his opinion on Gertrude’s lack of dialogue, asserts:
She had a soft animal nature, and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun; and, to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy, like more sheep in the sun (167).
Bradley’s point, however, that “[Gertrude] loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun” ignores her active involvement in the court espionage and her struggle with guilt near the end of the play.
On the other hand, some examine her through the words of her fellow characters. Marvin Rosenberg, compared with Bradley’s critique, presents a largely different view of the queen:
But many who listen to what Claudius, old Hamlet, and his son say of Gertrude discern quite another queen – a woman of some power, described by such adjectives: cunning, deceptive, sensual, erotic, loving, shrewd, urbane, hard, conscienceless, lustful, sexy, the epitome of falseness, corrupted (71).
Within this spectrum of analyses, Gertrude remains a complicated, enigmatic character; yet, at her core, she is the focus of love for three...