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Women living in Elizabethan times, although more liberated than medieval women, were still expected to do their husband’s will and obey at all times. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Queen Gertrude begins the play acting as a typical Elizabethan woman. She sits beside her new husband, Claudius, and reiterates each statement he makes. Further into the play, persuaded by Hamlet, Gertrude begins to question her quick remarriage. As she finally learns the truth of Claudius’s betrayal, she breaks free from his hold and warns Hamlet of the poisoned cup. Shakespeare’s character Gertrude shows emotional growth, from her dependency on Claudius, to questioning her actions, to her betrayal of Claudius in a futile attempt to save her son, Hamlet.
Gertrude begins the play supporting Claudius and backing up his every word. As the deceased King’s widow, she possesses more authority than Claudius, but she chooses not to exercise that authority. As the newly crowned Claudius first speaks to Hamlet, he begins by praising him, but then reprimands him for mourning the King’s death for too long. “‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet… ‘Tis unmanly grief” (1.2.90-98). After Claudius’s lengthy speech that advises Hamlet to remain in Elsinore, Gertrude adds her thoughts paralleling Claudius’s statements. “Let not they mother lose her prayers, Hamlet. / I pray thee, stay with us” (1.2.122-123). Gertrude’s actions in the court scene nearly mirror Claudius’s. “Gertrude’s speech, therefore, functions as a wife’s reinforcement and skillful reshaping of her husband’s orders” (Dash 115). Although the Queen rightfully owns all authority in Elsinore, and could do as she pleases, her character acts weakly dependant on her new King and husband. “At the play’s opening, she adopts the more dependant role, believing she can juggle her several functions. Only as the tragedy progresses, does she discover the impossibility of that assumption and move toward a clearer definition of who she is” (Dash 111-112).
As the play moves forward, Gertrude’s character and sense of self grows. In the closet scene with Hamlet, the Queen learns of Claudius’s treachery. Prior to telling his mother the truth, Hamlet verbally attacks her for her quick remarriage with Claudius: “O shame, where is thy blush?” (3.4.91). Unable to take her son’s criticism and seeing the error of her ways, Gertrude responds with: “O Hamlet, speak no more!/ Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,” (3.4.99-100). The Queen’s actions show her conscience growing. As Gertrude learns that her new husband tricked her, she begins to formulate her own opinions (Wright 43). Gertrude no longer acts under her husband’s influence. At the conclusion of the closet scene, Hamlet tells her that Claudius may be to blame for his father’s death and enlightens her to his plan, telling her of his pretended insanity and offering Gertrude a choice. Conflicting loyalties between her new husband and her son create a difficult dilemma for Gertrude: “O Hamlet, thou has cleft my heart in twain!” (3.4.177). Hamlet asks his mother not to tell Claudius the information she has just learned. A natural response for dependant Gertrude would be to run to her husband and tell him what she has learned; however, the Queen’s personality has changed. Gertrude makes a choice to stand by her son and does not tell Claudius the truth. “The scene marks the beginning of Gertrude’s uncertainty about Claudius. For the first time, she realizes that she must choose between husband and son” (Dash 123). Gertrude’s actions show more confidence and independence. Although she still shows allegiance to her husband, signs of breaking away become evident.
Gertrude’s breaking away from Claudius occurs during the last scenes of the play. After the closet scene with Hamlet, Gertrude is aware of Claudius’s treachery. In the duel scene, Gertrude shows her allegiance to Hamlet by offering her handkerchief to him to wipe his brow. After this show of support, Gertrude drinks to Hamlet’s good fortune. It is when Claudius says, “Gertrude, do not drink,” and she replies, “I will, my Lord, I pray you pardon me” (5.2.317-318) that the Queen proclaims her independence from him. The cup she drinks from contains poison placed there by Claudius. In her dying breath, Gertrude calls out to warn her son of her husband’s plot: “No, no, the drink, the drink! O, my dear Hamlet!/ The drink, the drink! I am poisoned” (5.2.340-341). The Queen’s last words show her transformation from dependence on Claudius to independence and free thinking. She no longer follows Claudius, who allowed her to drink the poison, but betrays him and warns Hamlet.
Gertrude’s change throughout the play shows her liberation from her husband and her progression to a free-thinking woman. Gertrude’s opening scene portrays her sitting alongside her husband and standing behind every word he says. Her loyalty to Claudius disappears and slowly switches to Hamlet as she learns of her husband’s wrongdoing. The play ends with Gertrude betraying her husband and attempting to save her son from him. Hamlet portrays Gertrude’s gradual switch from a dependant woman to a liberated queen; unfortunately the change arrives too late – with her death.
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