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Drama Essay / Eng 113-700
April 28, 2006
In William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Queen Gertrude’s culpability of King Hamlet’s death has been the subject of much debate. Although her guilt or innocence in this matter is arguable, her culpability of many other deaths is also a subject worth investigating. Queen Gertrude is a woman observably guilty of poor judgment and weak character. Her decisions, based largely on desire, lead to her death and the casualty of others as well. A defense of Gertrude in the matter of King Hamlet’s death is in order only if she knew that Claudius had poisoned King Hamlet, and nothing in the text indicates that she knew of the murder. Even the ghost of King Hamlet himself did not implicate Gertrude in the murder, but only asked Hamlet to “leave her to heaven and the pangs of her own conscience.” Queen Gertrude’s lack of action and critical thinking prove her guilty not of King Hamlet’s death, but indirectly guilty of each subsequent death within the play.
We first realize in Act 1, Scene 2 that poor judgment is Gertrude’s major character flaw. As the mother of a grieving son, Gertrude should have been more sensitive to Hamlet’s feelings. Her hasty marriage to Claudius, her former brother-in-law, left Hamlet humiliated and disgusted at what he perceived as an incestuous act. Gertrude showed a marked lack of sensitivity toward Hamlet’s feelings of such a marriage. She seems to be defined by her desire for station and affection, tending to use men to fulfill her instinct for self preservation, making her dependent on the men in her life. She displays an inability to think beyond what is normal and expected. Although she loves Hamlet deeply, she is a shallow and weak character who seeks affection and status more urgently than moral rectitude or truth. She never exhibits the ability to think critically about her situation, but seems to move instinctively towards seemingly safe choices, as when she immediately runs to Claudius after her confrontation with Hamlet in her closet. Gertrude is at her best in social situations as portrayed in Act 1, Scene 2 and Act 5, Scene 2 when her natural grace and charm seem to indicate a rich, rounded personality. At times, she seems to possess only grace and charm, devoid of depth or intellect. According to essayist Angela Pitt, “Although her character is not a sterling example of moral strength, she does not betray any sense of guilt regarding the death of her husband. She is chiefly concerned with her present good fortune, and neither lingers over the death of her husband nor analyses her motives in taking another” (“Pitt,” 46-47).
Although Gertrude exhibits a lack of sensitivity toward Hamlet’s feelings, her actions lead the audience to believe that she would not intentionally hurt Hamlet, as participating in the murder of King Hamlet would surely have done. Hamlet, however, is not convinced of his mother’s innocence and remains blinded to her positive attributes by his jealousy and hatred of Claudius. John Wilder’s commentary on Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude sheds light on Hamlet’s ill feelings toward his mother: “Coming so swiftly after her first husband’s death, Gertrude’s remarriage seems to him [Hamlet] to show a callous indifference to his father’s memory, and her former expressions of love now appear false and hypocritical. Moreover by marrying in middle age a palpably inferior man, she has revealed a desire for sexual gratification which her son finds repellant” (“Wilder,” 73). Hamlet feels that his mother should be giving him more attention during the mourning period rather than marrying so quickly after King Hamlet’s death. During Act 1, Scene 2, he is further injured by her asking him to move on emotionally as well:
GERTRUDE. Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted 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 into eternity. (68-73)
Gertrude’s exhortation to Hamlet reveals her lack of empathy and interest in her own son’s feelings and her inability to see why he is angry. Hamlet expresses his outrage with Gertrude’s hasty marriage during his first soliloquy:
HAMLET. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!” (156-7)
Gertrude is shown to be a loving mother, but a parent who cannot read into her son’s behavior. When answering Hamlet, she says that it is common for all men to die, but this is not just any man who has died, she should realize; it is Hamlet’s own father. At this point, Gertrude has the opportunity to ask Hamlet what he is implying and face the issue, but she is the type of woman who wants everything to be smoothed over without thinking too deeply. Someone might wonder whether Gertrude really is concealing some knowledge about a murder, but in Act 2, Scene 2, there is evidence that Gertrude really hasn’t taken part in the plot. Hamlet suspects her of being an accomplice with Claudius in the father’s murder. It is unfortunate therefore, that Hamlet doesn’t hear Gertrude’s private conversation with Claudius during Act 2, Scene 2, in which she gives her theory about Hamlet’s anger:
GERTRUDE. I doubt it is no other but the main,
His father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage. (56-7)
Her comments show that Gertrude is probably not an accomplice, since she makes no reference to any murder plot. Her worst offense seems to be insensitivity toward her son’s feelings and a lack of investigation into his true cause of anger and melancholy. Finally, in Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet forces Gertrude to see what he is accusing her of: murder, incest, and adultery. He does reach her conscience, as indicated by her words:
GERTRUDE. Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct. (89-91)
She could be admitting a mistake in a too-early marriage to Claudius but not necessarily anything worse. Hamlet really wants to put Gertrude on a moral path when, in Act 3, Scene 4, he tells her:
HAMLET. Go not to my uncle’s bed.
Assume a virtue, if you have it not. (159-160)
Her next question, “What shall I do?” is more rhetorical in nature than a direct address to Hamlet. She is not considering changing her behavior, only reflecting on her conflict between pleasing Hamlet and her husband, an impossible feat at this point in the drama. Once again, Gertrude missed an opportunity to abate some of Hamlet’s anger by showing sympathy and concern for his feelings.
Gertrude cannot be considered a wholly unfeeling and unsympathetic mother. She tried to protect Hamlet from Claudius’s wrath in Act 4, Scene 1. When describing Hamlet’s murder of Polonius to Claudius, Gertrude covers up Hamlet’s indifferent attitude by saying that he cried afterwards. Gertrude’s attempt to smooth over a difficult situation may indicate her realization that Claudius is not all that he seems to be, but does not answer why she could not see any fault in Claudius up to that point. Again, the answer lies in the fact that Gertrude does not possess the insight necessary to distinguish between sincerity and deception in those close to her. It is only at the very end, when Gertrude realizes that the cup contains poison that she faces the truth and the audience finally receives the pleasure of her complete understanding. Before this moment, the irony in this scene is that Gertrude actually offers the wine to her son to help and encourage him in his challenge against Laertes. At this point, she finally has to admit to herself that Claudius is guilty of murdering King Hamlet and of trying to murder her son. When she warns Hamlet not to drink the wine, she is again showing compassion for her son and her wish to protect him from danger.
Why did Gertrude marry so quickly after King Hamlet’s death? If she was innocent, why wasn’t her grief for King Hamlet longer? The answer may lie in her shallowness of character. Marrying Claudius allowed her to keep her accustomed place as queen, and the social status along with it. Gertrude needed the position and man to feel complete, so she married hastily after King Hamlet’s death. She loved Claudius naively and unquestioningly. She followed his direction in spying on Hamlet, even though she probably knew Hamlet better than Claudius. There is some speculation about whether Gertrude and Claudius engaged in an adulterous relationship prior to King Hamlet’s death, but her lack of suspicion in Claudius after the King’s death only adds to the mystery of their relationship. Harold Bloom offers his opinion of Gertrude and Claudius in his book, “Hamlet, Poem Unlimited”: “Shakespeare does not resolve the enigma of how far back the relationship with Claudius goes, but we can assume that Gertrude required some solace whenever the warlike King Hamlet was off slaying the first Fortinbras or smitting the sledded Polacks on the ice” (Bloom 58-59). Although we learn that Claudius adored Gertrude, he did not love her enough to resist the attempted murder of her son, whom she adored immensely.
Throughout the play, Gertrude is presented with many opportunities to make connections between Hamlet’s behavior and the events around her, but she never fully realizes the truth until the very end. The Mousetrap put on by the players offered the first major opportunity for the queen to draw conclusions about her husband’s death. Her reaction to the play however, does not give the audience a sense of any guilt on her part. Instead, she reacts not to the death of the player-king, but to the protestation of the player-queen, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Her comment reveals her own belief that a widow would easily want to remarry quickly. Gertrude’s reaction also shows that she is unaware of Claudius’s guilt. She questions Claudius about his hasty exit at the end of the mousetrap, “How fares my lord?” As an accomplice to King Hamlet’s murder, Gertrude would surely have known the reason for her husband’s distress. She does not leave with Claudius to discuss the implications of the play, but retires to her own closet where her pivotal confrontation with Hamlet is about to take place. This confrontation marks a change in Gertrude’s attitude. As Polonius falls to the ground, murdered by Hamlet, the queen screams, “O what a rash a bloody deed is this!” To this, Hamlet’s response is, “A bloody deed – almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother.” Gertrude is taken aback by the accusation, “As kill a king?” Gertrude seems truly astonished at Hamlet’s statement but goes on to say, “O Hamlet, speak no more, Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct.” Is her comment an admission of guilt or evidence of her realization that Claudius may be a murderer? In Act 4, Scene 5, Gertrude states her guilt over Polonius’s death, since she knew he was hiding behind the arras and did not alert Hamlet to his presence. She fears disaster at every turn and feels her guilt spilling out at will. Her countenance is dramatically changed from her previous joviality. Now, after Hamlet’s revelation, she is fearful and suspicious where she was once happy and amiable.
While Gertrude’s character does not reveal proof of murder, she is arguably guilty of selfish ignorance, ignoring evidence, and failing to think critically about events around her. Her lack of action and judgment prove her culpable for the eventual deaths of Laertes, Hamlet, and herself, and possibly the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. One of her greatest and earliest mistakes was marrying Claudius without regard to Hamlet’s feelings. She mistakenly thought she could separate herself from the father and have no negative consequences on her relationship with her son. Another grave consequence she could have prevented through thoughtful action is the death of Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. By discerning Hamlet’s melancholy as a product of his grief, she might have alerted Polonius and Laertes to Hamlet’s true disposition and spared their lives, thus saving Ophelia from her madness and death as well. Even after Hamlet’s accusation in her closet, Gertrude still does not see the truth regarding Claudius until the moment of her death. Throughout the play, she seems more concerned with being caught between the two men in her life rather than with the possibility that she has done anything immoral. Her goal is to keep everyone, including herself, happy. Even though her lack of action and intellect caused many of the problems in the first place, she refuses to sacrifice her own happiness for Hamlet, at a great cost to many.
Ultimately, the queen is culpable for not seeing what was happening to Hamlet and doing something to stop it. She should have spoken openly with Hamlet about his feelings toward her marriage, King Hamlet’s death, and the reasons for his erratic behavior. The mousetrap should have connected the dots in her mind, but she was used to the easy way, following her “man” and not causing trouble. Angela Pitt sums up Gertrude’s character and her true guilt: “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” (“Pitt,” 46-47). Gertrude’s world existed in the social realm, and her preference for her own happiness over that of others was purchased at a great cost.
Bloom, Harold. Hamlet, Poem Unlimited. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.”Readings on the Tragedies of William Shakespeare. 1996.
Wilder, John. “John Wilder’s Preface to Hamlet.”Bloom’s Guides, Hamlet. 2004.
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