The character of Gertrude in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ is a very complex one, and as a character has many interpretations. The most common of these being that of a very sexual being, thinking only about her body, and physical, bodily pleasures. It is her sexual appetite that initially turns Hamlet against her so violently. Her marriage to Claudius a mere few months after the death of Hamlet’s father is sudden and shocking, to both Hamlet and the audience.
This marriage has soured the relationship between mother and son, and Hamlet is disgusted with Gertrude, Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears, Had left the flushing her galled eyes, She married. O most wicked speed, to post, With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” The shock of her marriage to Claudius in such a short time after King Hamlet’s death gives the impression that the pair were partaking in an illicit relationship while the King was still alive. The theory is emphasised when the Ghost relays to Hamlet more disturbing information about his mother, “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast”.
The use of the word ‘adulterate’ can be read to assume that Gertrude was Claudius’ lover before the King’s death. This would make Gertrude a much more loathsome character than she is, however throughout the rest of the play there is no mention of this adultery, and therefore not enough evidence for this interpretation to be taking too seriously. The definition of the word ‘adulterate’ is to make impure by addition, and the Ghost is saying that Claudius has made his “most seeming-virtuous queen” impure.
The reading that Gertrude was an adulteress would also have made her a much more important character in the play, perhaps assisting Claudius in the murder of King Hamlet, making her the villianess to Claudius’ villain. During the play, Claudius does not refer to her as his accomplice, nor does he confess anything to her, either protecting her through love, or simply covering his own back. Additionally, if Gertrude were indeed an accomplice in the murder of his father, Hamlet would have been more directly involved with her in the play in regard to his father’s murder.
Yet when he confronts her in the famous closet scene and he announces all her crimes, he does not once imply she has committed adultery. Some scholars believe that there is evidence of an incestuous relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet, a view universalised by Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus complex. In Freud’s psychoanalytical theory of human development, he proposes the idea that all sons go through a phase in childhood where they see their fathers as a rival for their mother’s affection and wish to establish a romantic relationship with their mothers.
Freud explains that this desire is unconscious but if these feelings and desires are repressed, the boy make inadvertently preserve an unhealthy love for his mother. In Hamlet’s case, the complex is furthered by the death of his father. Hamlet’s repressed desire to take the place of his father in his mother’s affection is usurped by Claudius, who instead takes this prestigious place. Hamlet also seems to have an obsession with the sexual relationship between Gertrude and Claudius, “Not this, by no means, that I bid you: Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed”.
I feel this interpretation of Gertrude further emphasises her role as a sexual and sensual woman, capable of enticing all those men around her. It is hard to understand the deep devotion that Hamlet, his father and Claudius all have for Gertrude, but it is perhaps her way of surviving in the play. Gertrude can be interpreted as an almost ‘trophy wife’ incapable of thinking and there merely for aesthetics, and is often described as dumb and dull by scholars and critics of ‘Hamlet’ but this cannot be the case.
Her intelligence, though not on the same philosophical level of thinking as her son’s, nor the level of political thinking of Claudius’, cannot be doubted. During the reign of her late husband, she was Denmark’s beloved Queen, and after his death could have been cast into the shadows. But she managed to hold onto her position in the monarchy through her marriage to Claudius. The marriage can be interpreted as a motherly sacrifice by Gertrude, in order to preserve her son’s right to the throne. Gertrude can also be seen as, perhaps more than any other characters in the play, the antithesis of her son.
Hamlet is a learned scholar, a philosopher capable of deep thinking and is constantly searching for hidden answers. Gertrude is a shallow woman, driven by her sexual desire. She is like a small child, with a need for constant attention and entertainment. Not much is seen of her in daily activity, but we can imagine her as a woman fascinated by trinkets and gifts, and enjoying the material pleasures of life. This however does not make her a bad person. She reserves her deepest love for her son, and despite her shallow exterior, she shows great remorse and emotion when he confronts her in Act 3 Scene 4.
She honestly does not know why he despises her and how she has made him so furious, and it is only when he relays to her her actions, that she understands the great hurt she has inadvertently caused him, “O Hamlet, speak no more: Thou turn’st my very eyes into my soul, And there I see such black and grained spots, As will not leave their tinct” No where else in the play is Gertrude portrayed as cunning, so it is not possible that during this scene, she is lying to appease him.
She does nonetheless accept that Hamlet’s madness may originate from her actions, “His father’s death, and our o’erhasty marriage. Despite Hamlet insulting her, Gertrude remains faithful to him, protecting him from Claudius. Although her love for Claudius can be seen as morally wrong due to him being the brother of her late husband, she understands the graveness of her wedding vows and remains equally faithful to him. This shows her as an incredibly loyal person, that despite being gravely insulted by her son, she seems to brush off the insults and remain devoted to him. “Nay but to live, In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying, and making love”,
Gertrude is an incredibly strong woman emotionally, “O Hamlet thou hast cleft my heart in twain”, undeterred by this, she defends him. This could be through guilt of her actions, but is more likely to be through an unbreakable maternal bond towards him. She is genuinely worried about him, and his downward spiral into madness, “But look sadly the poor wretch comes reading. ” Gertrude’s last words in the play show affection towards her son, “Here Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows. The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet”.
Unfortunately, she unwittingly drinks the cup of poison intended for her son, “No, no, the drink – o my dear Hamlet – The drink, the drink! I am poisoned. ” Gertrude’s image is of an honest queen as she makes no attempt to ease her conscience as she dies, implying she has nothing to confess, showing her innocence in the corruption of Denmark. Her love and affection for Hamlet and Claudius are strong, but she is divided by loyalties between her son and her husband, with this conflict of her heart leaving her bewildered and unhappy.
Gertrude wishes to be happy, and for those around her to share her happiness, and throughout the play she attempts to keep Hamlet close, “Let not thy mother lose her prayers Hamlet. I pray thee stay with us; go not to Wittenberg. ” She wishes to keep her beloved son close, and for him to cease mourning for his father and be merry, “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 father in the dust. Thou know’st ’tis common, that all lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity” She is asking him to leave his sombre mood and sombre attire behind, that it is inevitable that everyone will die and wishes him to celebrate her marriage to Claudius and to enjoy his life. Hamlet however does not respond to his mother’s kind words, showing his disrespect for her due to her actions. His reference to her as ‘madam’ during Act 1 Scene 2, shows him defamiliarising himself with her, almost as if she embarrasses him.
He sees her, and her gender, as weak as her sexual needs are too strong, “Frailty – thy name is woman. Gertrude’s good heart does not only care for the two men in her life, but for Ophelia as well, as she hoped that Ophelia would have eventually married Hamlet, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” and that his madness is a result of unrequited love. She shows great sympathy towards Ophelia when the young woman begins to lose her sanity, and great sadness at her death, portraying Gertrude as a kind hearted, compassionate woman, capable of great affection and tenderness.
Her description of Ophelia’s death is some of the most beautiful, yet tragic words of the play, When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up, Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature naive and indued Unto that element; but long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink. Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death”. Gertrude’s weakness is shown by her desire to help others, and make them happy.
She is easily persuaded to allow Polonius to hide in her room when she is talking to Hamlet, because she thinks Polonius can help uncover the reason behind her son’s madness, showing maternal love and compassion. Gertrude’s disinclination towards the truth is undeniable, but it is not in a malicious way. She lies to herself about the consequences of her own actions, of her marriage to Claudius, and she lies to those around her, but her lies are to protect those she cares about. Her lies keep not only herself, but also those around her emotionally and physically safe.
After Hamlet has killed Polonius, Gertrude knows she must tell Claudius, but when she does she also tells him that Hamlet “weeps for what is done”. Gertrude, and we, as the audience, know this is not that case, but this white lie makes Hamlet seem to regret his actions, thus making him appear repentant. From any perspective, neither Gertrude nor Ophelia are as developed characters as Hamlet or Claudius. Shakespeare gives them very little stage time or lines, despite them both being key to the plot of the play. The play accentuates the roles and stereotypes in Shakespeare’s England.
Women were expected to be quiet and submissive towards their male counterparts, daughters and wives were expected to be obedient to the requests of their fathers and husbands, and had no authority or control over their lives. This point is illustrated by the roles of Ophelia, the obedient daughter and Gertrude, the loyal and obedient wife and mother. The Elizabethan World Order sets the sovereign of the country at the head of the hierarchy, with nobles following after, all the way down through the social classes and ending with plant and rocks.
Men had more power than women did, as the society was a patriarchal one, so this leaves Gertrude in a confusing position of power. Claudius has more power than her, but he only has this power due to marrying her. As queen, she has more power than a lot of men around her, but as a wife, she is dependent on Claudius. This makes her a very powerful woman for her time, and she uses this power to protect her son. In conclusion, there are many interpretations of the character of Gertrude, the caring affectionate mother, or the sexual adulteress. Personally I think that Gertrude is one of the most complex and appealing characters in the play.
Her unwavering devotion to her son despite his obvious disgust at her is to be greatly admired, and she accepts that his madness is partly due to her marriage to his father’s brother. Her intelligence is not remarkable, but she shows an amazing aptitude for almost manipulating those around her to protect herself, and those who she cares deeply about. Gertrude’s sexual nature is unmistakable throughout the play, this may be her weakness, but she is an emotionally strong woman, who is not malicious but kind hearted and simply wishes everyone that she loves, to be happy and amiable to each other.