Gertrude: Wife, Mother, Widow, Queen More Information

The queen—Hamlet's mother, his father's widow, his uncle's bride—is one of the more difficult characters for commentators to write about because she does not give away much about herself. That is, it’s difficult for those who want to do her justice as an important Shakespearean character and see her as a fully rounded creature, revealed by her words and actions as well as by the behavior of other characters towards her. Many commentators have been quick to judge her. Yet, the many Gertrudes on stage and film vary considerably, showing that no one way to read her character will fit all bills. While modern productions must choose one interpretation that works with the whole production, commentators need not be limited in this way. Still, they often play the role of director manqué by arguing for a single interpretation, not only of Gertrude, of course, but of the whole play. Her role is underwritten, requiring interpretation and intervention. Her meager 128 lines (Van Dam p. 252), almost all her speeches limited to a sentence or two—the exception being the Willow speech describing Ophelia's death (3158-75)—give her few overt opportunities to express herself. The lines about her by ghost, Hamlet, and king, are more expansive by far. Of the major characters, only the ghost has fewer lines (84), and he speaks in only two scenes while she speaks in ten (1.2, 2.2, 3.1, 3.2, 3.4, 4.1, 4.5, 4.7, 5.1 and 5.2). Yet when commentators pay attention to all her lines, as well as to those to her and about her, they can find evidence of a full portrait.
The arguments about Gertrude's guilt or innocence started early: Nicholas Rowe, the first named editor after over 100 years of anonymously published Shakespeare editions (1709, 1:xxxiii), thought Gertrude a murderer and an adulteress. Only a year later, Charles Gildon, who added to Rowe's six volumes a seventh volume of poems, commentary, and a glossary, came down on the other side of both issues. He asserts that “Hamlet's Mother has no Hand in the Death of her Husband, as far as we can discover in this Poem, but her fault was in yielding to the incestuous Amour with her Husband's Brother; that at least is all that the Ghost charges her with.” Gildon absolves her of adultery if we consider Amour to be Claudius' love-making after King Hamlet's death. And so it goes: No sooner is one position stated than another rises to challenge it.
The discovery in 1823 of a copy of the Q1 Hamlet published in 1603 gave editors and commentators some fascinating insights they had not had before, but since the provenance of the edition is uncertain, it has not had a major effect on the thinking of many editors. [See the complete text elsewhere on this site.] Much shorter than either Q2 or F1, it makes Gertrude's role in some scenes even more slight than they are in the other texts. But it also enlarges her role significantly. She appears with the king in 4.3 when he assures her he is sending Hamlet off for his own good; she has a new scene with Horatio corresponding to 4.6 in which she declares her determination to help Hamlet. And most importantly, in the closet scene (3.4) she assures Hamlet that she played no role in her former husband's murder; moreover she asserts that she will help him achieve his revenge:
The numbers to the left here and in all the quotations from Q1 are the equivalent Q2/F1 Through Line Numbers (TLN); when there is no number, the Q1 line has no Q2/F1 echo. The numbers to the right are Q1 Consecutive Line Numbers (Q1CLN).
2543 Forbeare the adulterous bed to night, 1589
2545-6 And win your selfe by little as you may, 1590
In time it may be you wil lothe him quite: 1591
And mother, but assist mee in reuenge, 1592
And in his death your infamy shall die. 1593
2573 Queene Hamlet, I vow by that maiesty, 1594
That knowes our thoughts, and lookes into our hearts,
2574-5 I will conceale, consent, and doe my best, 1596
What stratagem soe’re thou shalt deuise. 1597
2584 Ham. It is enough, mother good night: 1598
Why Q1 is explicit where Q2/F1 are vague is a question to be asked. But it seems certain that commentators are not in favor of extending to Gertrude the benefit of the doubt that Q1 provides. Q1 is too uncertain an entity, too possibly far removed from Shakespeare's intentions in the other texts.
Perhaps the first as well as the youngest published writer to come to Gertrude's defense is the Southern American secondary school student, Miss N. B. Bowman, a winner in 1882 of an essay contest conducted by the New Shakspere Society (England). The essay, submitted by her high school instructor, William Taylor Thom, lightly treats the queen's allure, focusing on the text and the words said by her, to her, and about her by characters in the play. Bowman claims that Gertrude as depicted is not as bad as she has been thought to be; and dramaturgically “without the Queen—without just that Gertrude of Denmark, woman as well as Queen—the play of Hamlet would have been merely an impossibility” (p. 114). From Bowman's perspective the queen is a fragile, beautiful creature, a model of the Southern belle. Bowman projects onto Gertrude the qualities her society valued in a woman of her time and place. Intelligent enough to flatter her lord with her attentive interest, Gertrude is smart enough not to bore him with her own ideas. Bowman’s remarks are wonderful to read because they show so clearly the stamp of the post-bellum southern ideal for women. Bowman does not treat the adultery issue, so much at the center of most writers' concern, and she considers that Gertrude sacrifices herself for Hamlet at the end by purposely drinking the poisoned wine—an idea that surfaced over sixty years later in Olivier's 1948 film.
Interestingly enough, the Q1 text provides some support for the purposeful drinking of the wine because lines 3750 and 3758 are so close together, with intervening lines cut:
3750 King Giue him the wine. 2157
3752 Ham. Set it by, I’le haue another bowt first, 2158
I’le drinke anone.2159
3758 Queene Here Hamlet, thy mother drinkes to thee. 2160
Shee drinkes. 2161
The word adultery appears only once in Q2/F1, and that in the form adulterate [729], which has more than one connotation (see its use for example in Comedy of Errors, 2.2.140). Yet many commentators are certain or lean heavily on the suspicion that she is an adulteress; others have argued that, since the ghost applies the word to his brother rather than to his wife, adulterate refers to Claudius and his illicit desires. When the Q2/F1 king confesses his crimes. he does not mention adultery: speaking of those effects for which he murdered, he lists 'My Crowne, mine owne ambition, and my Queene" (2331). In Q1, however, he specifically names adultery in the prayer scene.
2326 When I looke vp to heauen, I see my trespasse, 1459
The earth doth still crie out vpon my fact, 1460
2314 Pay me the murder of a brother and a king, 1461
And the adulterous fault I haue committed: 1462
2329O these are sinnes that are vnpardonable: 1463
But adulterous may be as problematic as adulterate.
If the king murdered to gain the queen it seems likely that he had not possessed her sexually before the murder; of course he might have wanted her to himself. But in Q2/F1 he does not say that. Though commentators like Wilson (1934), Jenkins (ed. 1984) and many others, weighing the evidence carefully, decide that it suggests but does not prove that she is an adulteress, others are as incautious as Rowe was in their condemnation of her as an adulteress. (See the commentary notes for line 729.)
Still others, most notably Bertram Joseph (1953), argue that the word adultery in Shakespeare's time included, or indeed stressed, the idea of incest, the crime that both the ghost and Hamlet deplore, a word that is spoken five times in Q2/F1 (TLN 341, 729, 768, 2365, 3807). Q1, though half again as long, names incest as the crime four times, once where Q2/F1 (729) have both incestuous and adulterate. Her marriage to her husband's brother, a forbidden degree of consanguinity, is incest. Since modern audiences are unlikely to be much concerned about this level of incest, however, to convey the same degree of disgust, directors may feel forced to overplay the adultery/sexuality angle. However, the speed of the remarriage alone can resonate with audiences of any period.
Perhaps Shakespeare purposely left Gertrude’s character vague for political reasons. Since Queen Elizabeth's birth followed Henry the VIII's divorce from Catharine of Aragon on the grounds of incest (she was, of course, the widow of Henry's elder brother). it is possible that Shakespeare had in mind the history behind his sovereign's birth and her right to the throne as the daughter of, as Henry might have argued, his first legal wife, Anne Boleyn. Since Henry subsequently disposed of Anne using the excuse of adultery, it might have been impolitic of Shakespeare to make Gertrude overtly guilty of adultery.
Similarly, Mary Queen of Scots may have also been in his mind: as Queen of Scotland, she was thought to have instigated the murder of her second husband and then married the alleged murderer. Shakespeare may have trod on less dangerous ground in reflecting in an adulterous Gertrude a reminder of Mary, executed, perhaps reluctantly, by Elizabeth in 1587. But since by 1600 the rise of Mary's son James VI of Scotland to the English throne was thought by many to be imminent, making Gertrude somehow akin to Mary Queen of Scots might not have been a good move either. However distanced from his mother James was by 1600, he might not have appreciated a staged queen-adulteress who inspires her lover to murder. Shakespeare was safer to be indirect. We may then argue that the reason her crime, if any, is so unclear may be political caution on Shakespeare's part, and his caution would perhaps give directors and commentators permission to fill in the gaps that political expediency forced him to leave. On the other hand, we have very little information about continued performances of Hamlet during Shakespeare's lifetime; nor can we be sure that either Elizabeth or James would have been aware of the play and its argument—or that Shakespeare would have cared.
An adulterous relationship would possibly, though not necessarily, preclude great grief at the death of the betrayed husband. While Hamlet faults his mother for her quick recovery from grief, he does not express doubt about her grief having been genuine. In fact that it had been genuine makes her recovery into a detested marriage all the more galling to him.
If she is an adulteress, it seems more likely, but not inevitable, that she would also be complicit in the murder. In the play’s main texts, her innocence or guilt depends entirely on the way she says one line "As kill a King" (2411) which ends in Q2 with a period, perhaps indicating a sentence interrupted, and in F1 with a question mark, which could be equivalent to an exclamation point or an interrogatory. After reiterating the accusation without taking it back: "I Lady, it was my word" (2412), Hamlet never brings the issue up again. His last line may mean either that he is satisfied that she was an accessory to the murder, which is not his main concern at that moment, or that she wasn't. In performance, Gertrude's response can be a dawning realization that her new husband has committed murder; or a realization that Hamlet knows she has committed murder and an acceptance of that burden; or a shocked denial of any knowledge of murder, and more. Q1's punctuation here is much more explicit: “Queene How! kill a king!” (1511) and she later expands on her exclamation: “I neuer knew of this most horride murder” (1583). Q1 clarifies what in Q2/F1 remains obscure. If Shakespeare is responsible for all three versions, he moved decisively towards opacity.
More commentators than not are certain that the spotty textual evidence allows that she has absolved herself of murder if not of adultery. Joseph Quincy Adams (ed. 1929) has the interesting idea that Hamlet, from the time of the ghost's revelations until her response in the closet scene, thought she was a murderer, so up to that point, he operates as if she is a murderer. Hamlet’s misconception leads to his delay in exacting the revenge his father had demanded.
The remainder of Hamlet's harangue in the closet scene has to do with the ghost's urgent plea not to allow the "royall bed of Denmark be A couch for luxury and damned incest" (768-9): by its very nature the plea covers action after the murder; that is, since the murder, the royal bed of Denmark has become polluted by rank sexuality and incest. As far as her crimes are concerned Hamlet is to "leaue her to heauen" and to her own conscience (771-3). This he does, working mightily, however, to awaken it. She does not lack consciousness of the speed of her flight from widowhood—commenting on Hamlet's distemper, she lays it to "His fathers death, and our <o're> hastie marriage" (1081)—but she seems to recognize no blot in the incest and note that it is only in F1 that it was excessively (o're) hasty. Q1 does not have this line.
In the closet scene she admits guilt—but of what? He accuses her of choosing a man far inferior to her first husband and giving way to sexual desire, something that she should have outgrown. He elicits the response he must want, but he is so caught up in the pleasures of lecturing her that he must continue beyond her seeming acquiescence to his view of things.
2464 {Ger.} <Qu.> O Hamlet speake no more,
2465Thou turnst {my very} <mine> eyes into my <very> soule,
2466And there I see such blacke and {greeued} <grained> spots
2467As will <not> leaue {there} their tin'ct.
2468 Ham. Nay but to liue
2469In the ranck sweat of an inseemed bed
2470Stewed in corruption, honying, and making loue
2471Ouer the nasty stie.
2472 {Ger.} <Qu.> O speake to me no more,
2473These words like daggers enter in {my} <mine> eares,
2474No more sweete Hamlet.
Not allowing her to escape his sermon, he continues with a more pointed assault on the object of her lust:
2475 Ham. A murtherer and a villaine,
2476A slaue that is not twentith part the {kyth} <tythe>
{I3v}Of your precedent Lord, a vice of Kings,
2478A cut-purse of the Empire and the rule,
2479That from a shelfe the precious Diadem stole
2480And put it in his pocket.
2481 {Ger.} <Qu.> No more.
2482Enter Ghost.
2483 Ham. A King of shreds and patches,
Hamlet here lays out for her the true nature of her current lord, as he sees him, but, while she begs him to stop, she does not acquiesce in his view.
Feminists rise to Gertrude's defense for the same reasons that others condemn her: with so many questions unanswered, critics are apt to read into her character what they want to see. Both sides find her to be either passionate or ambitious or both. Gertrude's ambition rather than her sexuality, could have led her to marry Claudius; being a king's mother is not as grand as being a queen (see the Anthony Burton essay on this site). But ambition, for some, would be more heinous than simple passion, even lust.
Carolyn Heilbrun's first published essay, in 1957, argued her groundbreaking defense of Gertrude. To her, Gertrude's main characteristic is passion; her desires for sexual fulfillment lead to her remarriage, but she shows tact and intelligence in everything she says.
Ellen O'Brien (1993) discusses the shaping effects of cutting Gertrude's role, and Irene Dash continues the discussion (1997, 111-53), showing how productions diminish her potential characterization by eliminating many of her few lines. This diminishment is true of stage as well as film. A strong actor can compensate to some extent for absent lines by demonstrating her feelings for the king, for power, for her son, her control over the situation (or lack of it) through gesture and expression, but it's a question to consider: since she has so few lines in any case, why cut any of them? Dash demonstrates that cutting lines leading to hers also has a detrimental effect on Shakespeare's characterization. The character lends itself to enhancement in performance, as her demeanor creates an impression that overrides the many words said against her by the ghost and Hamlet. Claire Bloom, for example (BBC 1980) is elegant, intelligent, and regal. Judy Parfitt (1969), earthy and sensuous, enjoys too well the wine she so frequently imbibes. She exceeds the ghost's criticism of her behavior, making its view seem moderate.
The discussion continues; perhaps showing nothing so much as the fact that the truth lies in the eye of the beholder, or better yet, the truths lie in the many possibilities still to be explored on stage, page and screen. In the selections below, the writer's prejudices and preconceptions will be apparent. Beware of words ending in -ly, such as merely, surely, certainly and obviously: nothing about Gertrude is certain or obvious.


Rowe (ed. 1709, 1: xxxi): “Hamlet is founded on much the same Tale with the Electra of Sophocles. In each of 'em a young Prince is engag'd to Revenge the Death of his Father, their Mothers are equally Guilty, are both concerned in the Murder of their Husbands, and afterwards married to the Murderers.”
Anon. (Tatler 13 Dec. 1709, 2:146), writing of the second scene: “The young Prince was not yet acquainted with all the Guilt of his Mother . . . ”
Gildon (1710, p. 137): “Hamlet's Mother has no Hand in the Death of her Husband, as far as we can discover in this Poem, but her fault was in yielding to the incestuous Amour with her Husband's Brother; that at least is all that the Ghost charges her with.”
Auditor [Cave, the editor] (Gent. Mag. 3 [1733]:114): One letter from “an unfortunate woman” inspires a response from Hamlet.Shakespeare has found room for Pity, where he would have been excusable had he shewn the greatest Hardness of Heart. This appears in the Words he put into the Mouth of the Ghost of Hamlet's Father, when he bids him revenge his Murder: 'But howsoever thou pursu'est this Act, Taint not thy Mind, nor let thy Soul contrive Against thy Mother, ought [770].—Oh! step between her and her fighting Soul' [2493].
“Yet Hamlet's Mother committed Adultery, and murder'd her Husband.”
Gentleman (1770, 1: 37): “The Queen should be an object of detestation or pity, yet is neither, but an odd compound of both.—Mrs. Pritchard here, as in many [other roles] much more interesting—when shall we see her like again.”
Griffith (1777, 2: 284-5) takes for granted the guilt of Gertrude but is not explicit about its nature. . <p. 284> “ There is something extremely remarkable and pleasing in the following part of the Ghost's speech to Hamlet:
[769But {howsomeuer} <howsoeuer> thou {pursues} <pursuest>this act,
770Tain’t not thy minde, nor let thy soule contriue
771Against thy mother ought, leaue her to heauen,
772And to those thornes that in her bosome lodge
773To prick and sting her, . . . 769-73]
He repeats the same fond caution to him again:
[2492But looke, amazement on thy mother sits,
2493O step betweene her, and her fighting soule,
2494Conceit in weakest bodies strongest workes,
2495Speake to her Hamlet. . . . 2492-5]

No Eastern sentiment, inspired by the first beams of the Sun, and refined by the sublimest morality of Confucius, ever rose to so high a pitch, as the tenderness expressed in these two passages toward his wife—even after her crimes. Have either the </p. 284> <p. 285> Greek or Latin masters of the Epic afforded us so beautiful an instance of forgiveness, and of love subsisting even beyond the grave? They have both of them presented us with scenes after death; but compare the behaviour of Dido, upon meeting Æneas in the Elysian fields, with this, as being the most parallel passage I can recollect. He had not been any thing near so culpable towards her, as this queen had been to her husband; and yet, the utmost temper that the heathen Poet could bring his Ghost to, upon that occasion, was, merely to be silent, an [sic] not upbraid, in speech; though he makes her sufficiently mark her resentment, by her looks and behaviour. </p. 285> ”
Steevens (ed. 1778): “This interrogation [F1 2411 'As kill a King?'] may be considered as some hint, that the queen had no hand in the murder of Hamlet's father.”
Ritson (1783, pp. 205-6): <p. 205> “This exclamation [2411], which mr. Steevens thinks may be considered as some hint, that the queen had no hand in her </p. 205> <p. 206> husbands murder, is as likely to proceed from surprised guilt, as conscious innocence. There is, indeed, no direct proof before us, of her being accessory to the late kings death but his referring her punishment '—to Heaven, And to those thorns that in her bosom-lodge, To goad and sting her;' and her own confession of the black and grained spots [2466] she sees in her very soul, which will not leave their tinct, surely, render her state in that shocking transaction very suspicious.” </p. 206> Ed. note: Ritson had unique ideas about orthography.
Hazlitt (1817, p. 111), after describing Ophelia, says: “Nothing can be more affecting or beautiful than the Queen's apostrophe to Ophelia on throwing flowers into the grave. [and he quotes]
Shakespear was so thoroughly a master of the mixed motives of human character, and he here shews us the Queen, who was so criminal in some respects, not without sensibility and affection in other relations of life.—”
Coleridge (ms. notes dated 1819 in ays3): “I confess that Shakespeare has left the character of the queen in an unpleasant perplexity—was she or was she not conscious of the fratricide?”
Jackson (1819, p. 354): “It is, however, evident that the Queen had a criminal intercourse with the usurper before he murdered his brother. See [729] where the Ghost says,—'Ay, that incestuous—that adulterate beast:' and this knowledge it is that fires the indignation of Hamlet and actuates him to use the cutting words—As kill a king! [2410] for, he considers that his mother, by her illicit connection, was the primary cause of his father's death, and that ambition to ascend the throne was an after consideration of the usurper.”
Gunthio pseudonym (for Collier?) (1825, p. 345), “There are few points connected with the play which have been more frequently discussed than the question whether Shakspeare intended that the Queen should be supposed privy to the murder of her husband. They who maintain the affirmative, refer to the implied charge of guilt made by the Ghost in speaking of 'the thorns that in her bosom lodge, to prick and sting her;' while they who advocate the contrary opinion assert that this relates merely to her incestuous marriage, and urge that she not only betrays no emotion during the performance of the mock play before the court, but expresses much astonishment when taxed with the deed by Hamlet in the closet scene. Whatever Shakspeare's subsequent ideas were, his original intention is, I think, decisively ascertained by the Queen's positive denial in the first edition:
'Alas, it is the weaknesse of thy braine,
Which makes thy tongue to blazon thy heart's grief:
But as I haue a soule, I sweare by heauen,
I never knew of this most horride murder.'
“This declaration she subsequently seems to make good, by displaying a natural indignation on discovering the plot against Hamlet, and even abetting him in his design upon the King; e.g.
'Queene. Then I perceive there's treason in his lookes,
That seem'd to sugar o're his villanie:
But I will sooth and please him for a time,
For murderous mindes are always jealous;
But know not you, Horatio, where he is?
'Horatio. Yes, Madame, and he hath apoynted me
To meete him on the east side of the cittie
To-morrow morning.
'Queeene. O faile not, good Horatio, and withal, commend me
A mother's care to him, bid him a while
Be wary of his presence, lest that he
Faile in that he goes about.
“Her character, in short, is raised from that of an insignificant personage, whose innocence at best is problematical, to that of a prominent agent in the drama, with no particular fault but her objectionable marriage.”
MacDonell (1843, p. 36): believes that the Ghost's reference to “those thorns that in her bosom lodge To prick and sting her” [772] “obviously implies her guilt.”
Hudson (1848, 2: 130-2) sees Gertrude as wicked, but her wickedness is somewhat mitigated by her feeling for Ophelia. Thus Shakespeare helps us to see Ophelia's influence. He considers Gertrude to be “depraved.” The love Ophelia engenders in the queen “prevent[s] the pity which her condition moves from lessening the respect which her character deserves. It tells us that Ophelia's helplessness springs from innocence, not from weakness. “Shakespeare . . . exhibits [the queen] with that mixture of good and bad which neither disarms censure nor precludes pity. Herself dragged along in the terrible train of consequences which her own guilt had a hand in starting. . . ,” she is a fond mother (to both Hamlet and Ophelia) but a guilty wife. Without specifying her crime, he states that she is an accomplice in crime. “Corrupted by the seductions which swarm about her station, her criminal passions bind her to the designs of her wicked but wily associate; and she stops not to consider he nature of her conduct.
Walker (1860, 3: 259-60): <p. 259> “On the question whether the Queen in Hamlet was accessory to the King's murder, note the dumb show in the Murder of Gonzago; the conclusion especially is decisive in her favour,—'The poisoner woos the Queen with gifts: she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but, in the end, accepts </p. 259> <p. 260> his love. ' Besides, was the Queen capable of such a crime? or would the Ghost have spoken of her as he does,—with such remains of tenderness, I mean,—if she had been an accomplice in his murder? [quotes 2494-5] Contrast the shade of Agamemnon, Odyssey 11: 427 ff </p. 260>
He refers to this passage: “The bitch-faced woman Turned away, as I went to Hades she could not bear To shut my eyes with her hands and close up my mouth. So there is nothing more dreadful and shameless than a woman Who would set out within her mind such deeds as these. The sort of disgraceful deed which that woman plotted, Devising murder for her wedded husband. (424-30, trans. Albert Cook. Norton Critical Edition: Homer The Odyssey. New York: 1974.
James (“Master Eustace” 1871): Henry James's version of Gertrude, Mrs. Garnyer, was unlike Gertrude, whom the narrator describes as having 'the harder, heavier parts, the selfishness, the ambition, the power to insist and to calculate' (ed. Edel 342). The story features a forced marriage to a much older, brutal man. Eustace was the result of a love affair between Mrs. Garnyer and Mr. Cope. Though she is a loving mother, her son takes more after her first husband than his real father, Mr. Cope. He is mean and 'sullen.' See Janowitz in Hamlet Studies 24 (2003): 189-99. on
Malleson (1874, pp. 483-4): <p. 483> “Having allowed her love to be won by her husband's brother during her husband's life-time, she suppresses any outward sign of the agonies of conscience, and continues quietly with her betrayed but unsuspecting lord until his sudden death (she is not [privy] to the murder), and then, within a month of the funeral, without any vacillation at all, gives her hand to her paramour. And just as no outward sign of flattering or remorse on her part awakened suspicion in her first husband, so now to all appearances she was prepared to lead a serene respectable dignified life, had it not been for the moodiness and melancholy of Hamlet. An easily led woman she appears to me, not introspective, not given to searchings of conscience; the very reverse of her son . . . . ” </p. 483> <p. 484> Malleson assumes that Hamlet believes his mother was unfaithful to his father during the latter's life; but offers no evidence for his assertion. The fact that Gertrude is little affected by the play-within proves to him that Hamlet did not intend to affect her. </p. 484>
Marshall (1875, p. 50): “The answer of the Queen [to Hamlet, 2411] affords still further proof that she had no guilty consciousness of complicity in the murder of her husband; but the amazing insensibility which she displays with regard to her scarcely less serious crime, infidelity to that husband, both during his lifetime and after his death, fully justifies the language in which Hamlet addresses her—”
Marshall (1875, p. 59): Does Gertrude tell the king about Hamlet's murder of Polonius out of his madness in an effort to do as Hamlet has requested? Or does she really believe Hamlet is mad? See CN 2593.
Teichmann (1880, p. 6): “Geruthe had adulterous intercourse with her husband's brother already during life-time of the former, according to Belleforest, [n. 5] while in Saxo's tale [n. 6] Fengen gains her only after the death of Horvendile.”
[n. 5] fol 76 A. il avait incestueusement souillé la couche fraternelle, abusant de la femme de celuy, d[?] il deoit autant pourchasser l'honneur, comme il en poursuivoit: et effectua la ruine.
[n. 6] p. 138.
Ed. note: Shakespeare was unlikely to have known the Saxo version directly.
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 105), claiming that the opinions of critics are not useful to her, turns to a close reading of the play. “The veil of uncertainty cast about her, lends to Gertrude that peculiar fascination which always attends the mysterious. Nor does the poet ever wholly tear away this veil . . . .” To a careful observer, he does provide hints that the great majority of critics ignore in their certainty of her guilt.
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 106): “With personal charms she seems to have been particularly endowed. Beautiful, with that fragile, clinging loveliness which appeals to all hearts, her natural grace of manner was heightened by refinement and culture . . . ” She also had “intelligence, which, though not profound, was yet quick and appreciative—all qualities of which the combination yields just that rare type of womanhood, whose society one feels sure of finding ever restful, ever refreshing—a woman ready to entertain and to be entertained as suits the mood of her favored companion; one who would know how to flatter by an intelligent interest, even in metaphysical subjects, should it please his lordship to discourse upon such themes, without possessing either the ability or inclination to bore him in turn with tedious and hair-splitting theories of her own. The innate courtesy that we should expect is seen in the Queen's reception of her husband's guests, and we acknowledge the delicacy which prompted the inserted repetition of the King's words, 'Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,' as she says, 'Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz' [1054-5]. Perhaps herein lies the explanation of her irrational conduct in uniting herself so soon after her husband's death to a man to whom her former lord was as 'Hyperion to a Satyr' [324]. It is undoubtedly the desire to please which prompts the latter as well as the former act, rendering her unable to deny the earnest entreaties of her 'sometime brother' [echoing 186].”
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 107): Gertrude's flaw is a “negatively-active spirit of selfishness—the fundamental principle of Gertrude's character. Her womanly vanity demands admiration,; her womanly weakness demands protection; her woman's heart demands love. To gain these three requisites a woman must please; does not this explain the desire on her part? Instinctively does she know the art, which consists, to a very great extent, in judiciously flattering the self-love of others; her womanly tact enables her to accomplish just this, her natural charms do the rest. But by no means do we believe that Gertrude is in the least conscious of the selfish motive actuating her conduct, She is sweet, gentle, and lovable, because such is her nature, and to be disagreeable would be fatiguing in the extreme. Were we required to designate in a word the most striking feature of the woman's character, we should unhesitatingly respond, weakness! Lack of moral strength! She wanted force, that which is absolutely essential to any positive character, without which it is impossible to be either very good or very bad. And just here naturally arises the interesting and much-disputed question, whether Gertrude was or was not stained with that deadliest of crimes—a husband's murder? After the preceding exposition of character, it would seem scarcely needful to assert that we have been unable to find any satisfactory evidence against her, while many things bear witness to her innocence.
“In the first place, that devotion of the former king to his wife seems strong presumptive evidence for her. The tenderness and constancy exhibited in the words of the Ghost to Hamlet, concerning his mother are beautiful. We observe how he shields her, putting the whole blame on the wicked brother [quotes 730-3]” Ed. note: See Bowman's further comments in CNs 769, 2097, 2138. 2382, 2410, 2464, 2745, 2762, 3435 where she stresses the queen's weakness; Bowman does not confront "prey on garbage" [742]; nor does she explain the queen's strength in facing down Laertes [2867, 2871, 2875, 3021]
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 110): “The one strong feature in her whole life was her intense and constant devotion to Hamlet. . . . All her free actions tend to his interest and safety. And finally, to her honor, she quaffed the poisoned cup and met death through love to him!”
Bowman (1882, in Thom 1883, p. 111) observes “the influence exerted by her upon the principal characters, and so upon the entire action of the play.” her passivity does not detract from her importance. “Passivity is not nonentity; and in the Queen we recognize a powerful, although negative, force—the occasion, although not the cause, of the whole drama.”
(1882, in Thom 1883, pp. 112-13): <p. 112> “The silent, yet strangely powerful, influence of Gertrude can be traced even to </p. 112> <p. 113> that dread and final catastrophe, which is but the legitimate issue of these treacherous 'indirections' adopted for her sake. . . ” From the beginning, she is the main motivation of Hamlet's horrible distress. If only she had sought Hamlet's support, “had Hamlet, on his return to Elsinore, found, as he expected, a heart-broken mother clinging to him for support, in protecting and comforting her, would he not have been drawn out of himself—away from his own brooding sorrow?”</p. 113>
Gervinus (1883, p. 551): Claudius “supplanted on the throne the son of the deceased king, and had even during the life of the latter stolen the affection of his queen by insinuation and gifts. Ambition, thirst of power, and evil desires, had urged him to this unnatural deed; he understood how 'with devotion's visage, and pious action, so to sugar o'er the devil himself,' that the queen, now his wife, surmises not the murder [1698-1700].”
MacDonald (ed. 1885): “How can it be doubted that in this speech [730] the Ghost accuses his wife and brother of adultery? Their marriage was not adultery. See how the ghostly revelation grows on Hamlet—his father in hell—murdered by his brother—dishonoured by his wife!”
Bradley (1904, p. 137) writes of her “soft animal nature. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun . . . . No doubt she considered equality of rank a mere trifle compared with the claims of love.”
“Her only chance was to be made unhappy. When affliction comes to her, the good in her nature struggles to the surface through the heavy mass of sloth. Like other faulty characters in Shakespeare's tragedies, she dies a better woman than she had lived. . . .[S]he does feel remorse; and she loves her son, and does not betray him. She gives her husband a false account of Polonius's death, and is silent about the appearance of the Ghost. She becomes miserable [at the beginning of 4.5, 2762-3]. She shows spirit [2859] when Laertes raises the mob, and one respects her for standing up for her husband when she can do nothing to help her son.”
Bradley (1904, pp. 137-8) <p. 137> does not think she has the sense to realize what Hamlet's purpose might be and what the king might do to prevent it: </p. 137> <p. 138> if she had “she must have suffered torture in those days. But perhaps she was too dull.” </p. 138>
Bradley (1904, p. 136): “She did not merely marry a second time with indecent haste; she was false to her first husband while he lived. This is surely the most natural interpretation of the words of the Ghost, coming as they do before his account of the murder. And against this testimony what force has the objection that the queen in the "Murder of Gonzago' is not represented as an adulteress? Hamlet's mark in arranging the play-scene was not his mother, whom besides he had been expressly ordered to spare [cites 770-1].”
Bradley (1904, p. 139): “how pitifully characteristic of her” that the king won her at least partly by presents [this claim he derives from the play-within, cherry-picking his evidence].
Porter & Clarke (ed. 1905, p. xxi) think that Claudius won the throne through gaining Gertrude's love.
Trench (1913, p. 50): “Claudius cannot but feel [in 1.2] that [Hamlet's gloom] savours as much of moroseness as of sadness, and may be chiefly due to animosity toward himself. The Queen, lacking in wisdom as well as in refinement of feeling, at once discloses the suspicion that this is indeed so, by begging her son to adopt a more friendly attitude towards the King: while as to his father's (and her late husband's) death, she adds that there is nothing 'particular' about that, death being the commonest thing in the world. Claudius must endeavour to make up by prudence and tact for his consort's awkwardness, and although feeling uneasy he is much too wise to show that he thinks of any other cause for Hamlet's gloom than the loss of his father.”
Trench (1913, pp. 257-9)) points out that since Elizabeth's legitimacy depended on the illegality of her father's marriage to his sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon, Shakespeare's audience would have understood that the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude had to be wrong.
Wilson (MLR 13 [1918]: 140-1), echoing Bradley, <p. 140> declares that because the ghost relates to Hamlet the details of how Claudius won the queen before telling the details about the murder, the events of 730-42 took place before the murder [744-67]. He is telling Hamlet something new. Hamlet already knew that the marriage was incestuous. The words the ghost uses are not applicable to “Gertrude's second marriage, which, though maybe uncanonical, indecently swift, and to Hamlet, </p. 140> <p. 141> with his devotion for his father, shocking in the extreme” but it's the fact of adultery that is devastating. The ghost does not accuse her of complicity in murder. </p. 141>
T. S. Eliot (1919, Selected Prose, ed. Kermode, p. 145, apud Thompson & Taylor (ed. 2006, p. 38): “ 'Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her'; hence the play lacks an 'objective correlative'—an appropriate matching of emotion to object.”
Eliot (1919 apud Lupton & Reinhard, 1993) ignores the effect of a material Gertrude, the actor who is quite capable of being the objective correlative Eliot misses on the page. Lupton & Reinhard go on to say that Eliot says she arouses feelings but does not represent the feeling.
Jacqueline Rose (1986 apud Lupton & Reinhard 1993, p.65) “ argued, in 'Hamlet—The "Mona Lisa" of Literature,' [that] Hamlet's mother is the figure of the feminine whose representational inadequacy led T. S. Eliot to formulate the ideal of the objective correlative. Eliot writes: ‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative': in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked . . . The artistic inevitability lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. . . . Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her [. . . [I]]t is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.' Sacred Wood 100-1.”
Adams (1929, pp. 213-15): <p. 213> “The news of the murder constitutes the first part of the Ghost's revelation. It is startling enough. But if that were all the Ghost had to tell, there would have been no tragedy. Hamlet would have 'swept' to his revenge at once, and the play would have come to an end in the First Act. The Ghost. however, has further news to impart, even more startling—news about Hamlet's mother. She had been merely a 'seeming-virtuous' woman. Before the death of her husband, she had been thus 'preying on garbage.' It is the old story, so common in criminal annals, of an unlawful passion leading to the murder of the husband. Yet in its details this murder was far more repulsive than the average: </p. 213> <p. 214> [quotes his own edition's 712-13: 'Murder, most foul at best, But this most foul, strange, and unnatural'] It was 'foul' because inspired by the foulest of motives—the motives of lust and ambition; 'strange' because of the close kinship of the perpetrator; and 'unnatural' because it involved incest between brother and sister-in-law. ” Her haste in marrying had plunged Hamlet into “deep melancholia. But her haste in remarrying was as nothing compared to her incestuous adultery with her husband's younger brother. Nor was that all. The horror in Hamlet's mind was increased by his jumping to the conclusion that his mother had shared with Claudius the blood-guilt, that she had plotted with her paramour the death of her unsuspecting husband, and thus was, by connivance at least, a murderess.
“The inference was natural. And that Hamlet believed it is clear from the subsequent scenes. For instance, in the play he wrote [sic] to be acted before the guilty couple presenting their crime as he understood it, he makes the Player-Queen say: 'None wed the second but who killed the first' [2048]; and, with his eyes riveted to his mother's face, he murmurs, 'Wormwood, Wormwood!' [2049]. Again, he makes the Player Queen say: 'A second time I kill my husband dead' [2052]; and he grimly asks, 'Madam, how like you this play?' [2097]. Still again, when he stabs Polonius behind the curtain, and Gertrude exclaims, 'O what a rash and blood deed is this!' [2708] quick as a flash he retorts:
Hamlet. A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother!'
</p. 214> <p. 215>
Gertrude. As kill a king?
Hamlet. Ay, lady, 'twas my word! . . . [2409-12].
“Unquestionably, then, Hamlet thinks his mother part-guilty in the murder. But did Gertrude really have a share in that crime? The Ghost does not actually say so; and her astonished reply to Hamlet's accusation, as quoted above, shows her innocence. Thereafter Hamlet abandons the thought. But [after 1.5 and until her exclamation in 3.4] he fully believes her guilty of the murder; and the effect on him, therefore, is just as great as if it were really true.”
</p. 215>
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 223): “There is the question of [the king's] love for Gertrude, and hers for him. They never themselves refer to its illicitly passionate days. There are, indeed, no love passages between them. They are only twice, and for the space of a few lines, left alone together, and then trouble is heavy on them. . . [which has] begun to separate them; for Gertrude tells him no more than she need of what has passed with Hamlet in her closet. But throughout the play, alone with her, or before the Court, Claudius shows her very much that loving respect which Hamlet says his father showed her. The relation, as it now is, seems not to lack dignity; and the actor may justifiably discount the 'Hyperion to a satyr' [324], and, still more, 'the bloat king' [2558], and the paddock, bat and gib [2566] of the closet-scene as the language of angry grief, the pent-up poison of a sick mind.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 225) notes how much about the relationship between the queen and king is left between the lines so that actors must take their cue from hints. “If Gertrude, from the closet-scene onwards, does a little self-consciously hold aloof from [the king] (except when, for a moment, he is in danger from Laertes), and if he shows himself soberly aware of it, the lines . . . will take color from this. And such an attitude will in itself be eloquent; especially by contrast to the earlier happiness . . . But it is a pity that these ends of character are left loose.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 226-7) <p. 226> believes that “the presenting of ripe womanhood and its charm would obviously be beyond” the boy actors of Sh's stage, who could manage only extreme youth and austere middle or old age. A charming but mature Gertrude, however, “would obviously be beyond them. . . . There- </p. 226> <p. 227> fore she must still be young, only as much older than Ophelia as dress and conduct can suggest. But Shakespeare, by an adroit twist, converts necessity here to profit . . . ; a pretty creature, as we see her, desperately refusing to grow old.
. . . She has but a passive part in the play's action. She moves throughout in Claudius' shadow . . . . She does little but echo his wishes. . . . We practically never see her apart from him, except at his and Polonius' urging, she has sent for Hamlet to her closet; and then he follows her to bid her 'translate' [2589] what has passed.” </p. 227>
Ed. note: G-B takes a supposition about the boy actors and turns it into an indictment of Gertrude. But how did the boys interpret Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth?
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1:227 ) makes her a coquette rather than a woman with a will of her own: when her husband tells her not to drink [3760-2], Granville-Barker says, “in pretty defiance she disobeys him and drinks from the cup he has prepared for her son ”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 228) asserts that “watching her, we know this shallow, amiable, lymphatic creature was an adulteress, cunning enough to deceive her husband.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 229): The fact that she hears and sees nothing of the ghost “implies, we feel, a blindness of soul in her . . . .” To Granville-Barker, she is a creature of her senses only, incapable of understanding at any deep level her trespasses against morality.
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 230): He does, however, assert that the Ghost understands that her soul is fighting [2493], “knowledge befitting the dead, that even unawares something within her is struggling for salvation. But, with Gertrude as with Claudius, Shakespeare leaves these last threads of their story loose-ended.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 230-1) <p. 230> at the end finds a welter of interesting details about her character that do not, he believes, hang together in a unified portrait—her sick feeling [2762] and her sense of duty that allows Ophelia to enter [2761]. Her gallant defense of her husband [2871]. Her grief for Ophelia's death [3158-75; 3435-8]. She comes to Hamlet's defense when she sees that he is still, apparently mad [3470]. </p. 230> <p. 231> And when Hamlet “speaks of [his madness] as a thing conquered and left behind . . . her natural gaiety has play again.” Granville-Barker believes that she dies knowing all: Claudius' full guilt and “even, it may be, of her dying son's implacable farewell. [n. 21. There is nothing in the text to mark the moment of her death; but . . . there is no reason she should not live . . . long enough, at least to learn the truth. The King dies swiftly; but by sword as well as poison.]” </p. 231>
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 237): Gertrude is crushed by Hamlet's words in the closet scene; “yet—he is certain—infatuate still.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 237 n. 24): “It is not easy to distinguish the significance of Hamlet's varying forms of address to his mother. 'Madam' in public would be but a natural tern if respect both for mother and Queen; in private there may be some estrangement in it.” Guildenstern's 'your mother's' is “slightly impertinent” thus eliciting Hamlet's play on the word in response; see 2187, 2194-5, 2199-2200
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 237) thinks that her question 'What shall I do' [2556] and Hamlet's sarcastic response 'Not this by no meanes that I bid you doe' [2557] denote her limited understanding of her immoral position and Hamlet's despair. His following lines tell us “that the poison in himself is by no means purged. Plead as he might, she will relapse, he feels, to [Claudius' seduction, described in 2558-61]. So she will act, for so at heart she is.”
Granville-Barker (1930, rpt. 1946, 1: 238): After Hamlet's conflation of Claudius and his mother [2713-16], Hamlet “troubles no more about her, makes no contact with her when he returns from his adventurous voyage, his 'madness' shed. He ignores her at the graveside. His one reference to her is the cursory, brutal 'He that hath killed my king and whored my mother . . . ' [3568]. And when . . .she approaches him reconcilingly with the pretty, motherly 'Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows' [3757], the coquettish 'The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet' [3758], a coldly courteous 'Good Madam' [3759], is all his response. In his last cry as he kills the King in the 'Follow my mother!" [3810] there is a last echo of the old afflicted love. But, stricken himself he has no kinder farewell for her than a 'Wretched queen, adieu!' [3817] as she lies there dying or dead.
“The story of Hamlet and his mother is of a second and spiritual parturition.”
Wilson (1932, MSH, published 1934, p. 307), who thinks the name should be Gertrude as it is throughout F1, ascribes the difference in Q2 to the compositor's mistaking of u for a, and vice versa, of which instances abound in Shakespeare and especially in Q2. He gives among other examples, course for coarse (287) and quietas for quietus (1729).
Wilson (1935, rpt. 1986, pp. 292-4) argues for Gertrude's adultery. Hamlet's speech in 2423-34 “is altogether extravagant if taken as referring only to her marriage.” Later, Hamlet says Claudius whor'd his mother [3568]. Wilson also declares that Horatio sums up Claudius's action in one line: “carnal, bloody and unnatural acts [3876].” Wilson admits that the text could be more explicit but does not doubt Shakespeare's intention.”
Wilson (1935, rpt. 1986, pp. 39, 43, 208, 307.), on the other hand, <p. 39> claims that what disturbs Hamlet is the sin of incest, her “infringement of ecclesiastical law” </ p. 39> <p. 208> Hamlet is “trapped and defiled by the slimy coils of Gertrude's lust,” but he is not insane. </ p. 208> <p. 307> With the horror of incest, Wilson counters T. S. Eliot's judgment that Hamlet's emotion is " 'in excess of the facts as they appear' " (qtd from The Sacred Wood (2nd ed. pp. 98-101). </ p. 307>
Schücking (1937, p. 6): “The Queen, her peace of mind and untroubled conscience ruthlessly assailed, becomes uneasy, even bitter [2762-5].”
Schücking (1937, pp. 38-9) <p. 38> acknowledges that modern audiences cannot appreciate the abhorrence of incest that Shakespeare's audience felt. He also admits that the hasty marriage “was bound </p. </p. 38> <p. 39> to upset a son devoted to his father.” But he questions whether Hamlet is correct to consider her lustful. He considers Hamlet's opinion to be conditioned by attitudes appropriate to a melancholy person (earlier he had mentioned Lear's similar diatribe against women). “Her outlook being limited she has no suspicion of what has been, or still is, happening around her; but that she feels real affection for her second husband is shown by he throwing herself between him and his assailants in an attempt to shield him with her own body when his life is threatened [2859, 2866, 2875]. Moreover she is warm-hearted, full of pity for the unfortunate Ophelia [2771], and before all else, imbued with true maternal feeling for her son. She is greatly upset at his condition, makes excuses for his conduct [3482 ff], shows anxiety of his bodily welfare during the fencing match [3756 ff], and breathes his name in anxiety and despair in her last moments [3789].” </p. 39>
Bethell (1944, pp. 91-2) removes from her characterization her longest speech: <p. 91> “ Gertrude loses her identity during an entire speech, so that she may perform the part of messenger to inform us of Ophelia's end. Such depersonalization is purely a matter of convenience and economy. It is rendered plausible by </p. 91> <p. 92> the poetry: there is nothing in its elegiac strains to remind us of the queen who exchanged 'Hyperion for a satyr] [324].” </p. 92> Ed. note: A messenger had come in with the letters; why not another or even the same one to report the drowning? So we must assume, Shakespeare wanted her to deliver the speech. See Heilbrun.
Kerrigan (1944, p. 78): “There is no way to understand Hamlet, Othello, Posthumous, or Leontes without considering varieties of the virgin/whore split.” He sees the split reflected in the language of the play, such as the soliloquy “too, too . . . . ”
Ellis-Fermor, Una. (1945, rpt. 1964, pp. 88-9): <p. 88> “The imagery of Claudius and Gertrude furthers. without our necessarily being aware of the means, our understanding both of their characters and their relationship. . . . </p. 88> <p. 89> In Gertrude's speech there are remarkably few images, and those generally colourless and drawn almost entirely from commonplace themes. They have little vigour and hardly ever call up a vivid picture: the images of a mind that has never received sharp or deep impressions, that is, in fact, incapable of any imaginative effort.” </p. 89>
van Lennep (1950, p. 10) imagines “the resplendent mother” urging her son to cast off his black garments [248] so much in contrast to her gorgeous attire. “How galling the sight of the son, . . . how irritating this unobtrusive, constant reminder of her shameful, secret guilt, this voiceless filial reprehension felt the more sharply because discreet and deserved. ” Ed. note: the text has no direction about her garments.
van Lennep (1950, p. 32): In the closet scene, Hamlet's mother “is in an aggressive frame of mind. Thus his chilly reception. Now if she had been prompted by plain and holy innocence, if there had been a hinge or loop for Hamlet to hang a doubt on, how different his reaction. But her self-assurance is mere effrontery, her attempt to intimidate and scold a bomb bursting in her own hand”
Robson (1950, p. 322) implies that the ghost had implicated her in the murder as well as in adultery: “The most peculiar aspect of the dumb-show, and of the dialogue that follows, is this. Neither suggests that the Queen was party to the murder or involved in adultery with the murderer. This shows a clear disparity with the account of the crime given by the Ghost [730 ff). What is happening here? Are we to think that she is guilty, but Hamlet is protecting her from exposure? Or is she innocent (in which case the Ghost version of the crime is unreliable).” Ed. note: Most agree that the ghost does not implicate her in murder. For the contemporary meaning of incest as adultery, see Joseph.
Joseph (1953, p. 33) says that Lavater (: Of Ghosts and Spirits 1596, sig. L ivv) may be worth noting: “sometimes spirits are seen and heard not only (as some have thought, as Plutarch witnesseth in the life of Dion) of children, women, sick folks, dotards, and otherwise very plain and simple creatures, but also to men of good courage, and such as have been perfectly in their wits.”
Joseph (1953, p. 94): absolves her of murder by way of interpreting her line 2411, describing her response to Hamlet's accusation as “so sincerely horrified that Hamlet does not make the accusation again.”
Joseph (1953, p. 96), explaining Hamlet's harangue: “Shakespeare realized the quality of the effort which must be made to touch a conscience so blinded and inured to sin.”
Joseph (1953, p. 155): In the first movement of the play, “Gertrude's love for her new husband gives a radiance which does not blind us to her no less deep love for her son.”
Heilbrun (1957, rpt. 1990, p. 11): One of the mistakes that Bradley, Granville-Barker, and to a lesser degree J. D. Wilson make (1: 226) is their belief “that a woman of forty-five years of age cannot feel any sexual passion nor arouse it. This is one of the mistakes which lie at the heart of the misunderstanding about Gertrude. . . . They are unable to see lust, the desire for sexual relations, as the passion, in the Elizabethan sense of the word, the flaw, the weakness which drives Gertrude to an incestuous marriage, appalls her son, and keeps him from the throne. Unable to explain her marriage to Claudius as the act of any but a weak-minded vacillating woman, they fail to see Gertrude for the strong-minded, intelligent, succinct, and, apart, from this passion, sensible woman that she is.”
Heilbrun (1957, rpt. 1990, p. 12) says of Gertrude's words in scene 2: “Her speeches have been short, however warm and loving, and conciseness of statement is not the mark of a dull and shallow woman.” Heilbrun follows with a description of her in 2.2: “We next hear her, as Queen and gracious hostess, welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the court.” And when the king tells her about Polonius's news, she answer with a concise assertion, “remarkably to the point, and not a little courageous. It is not the statement of a woman who can only echo her husband's words.”
Heilbrun (1957, rpt. 1990, pp. 11-13): <p. 11> “She is, except for her description of Ophelia's death, concise and pithy in speech, with a </p. 11> <p. 12> talent for seeing the essence of every situation presented before her eyes. If she is not profound, she is certainly never silly. . . . ” </p. 12> <p. 13> Gertrude abandons pithiness in telling Laertes about his sister's death, first “giving her news directly, realizing that suspense will increase the pain of it, but this is the one time in the play when her usual pointed conciseness would be the mark of neither intelligence nor kindness, and so, gently, at some length, she tells Laertes of his sister's death, giving him time to recover from the shock of grief, and to absorb the meaning of her words.” </p. 13>
Heilbrun (1957, rpt. 1990, p. 15): “Where, in all we have seen of Gertrude, is there the picture of 'a soft animal nature, very dull and very shallow' [as Bradley claims]? She may indeed be 'animal' in the sense of 'lustful,' But it does not follow that because she wishes to continue a life of sexual experience, her brain is soft or his wit unperceptive.”
Heilbrun (1957, rpt. 1990, pp. 15-17) <p. 15> confronts the issue of the word adulterate (TLN 729), quoting the arguments for her adultery by Bradley and Dover Wilson (see CN 729 for both): </p. 15> <p. 16> “The Elizabethan word 'adultery,' however, was not restricted to its modern meaning, but was used to define any sexual relationship which could be called unchaste, including, of course, an incestuous one [n. 6] . . . . It would not to an Elizabethan audience necessarily mean that [Hamlet's father] believed Gertrude to have been false to him before his death. It is important to notice, too, that the Ghost does not apply the term 'adulterate' to Gertrude, and he may well have considered the term a just description of Claudius' entire sexual life.”
“But even if the Ghost used the word 'adulterate' in full awareness of its modern restricted meaning, it is not necessary to assume . . . that she was unfaithful to him while he lived. . . . [in short,] it is not necessary to consider Gertrude an adulteress to account for the speech of the Ghost.” </p.16>
<p. 17> Heilbrun assumes that lust led Gertrude to marry Claudius: “Gertrude's flaw of lust made Claudius' ambition possible, for without taking advantage of the Queen's desire to be married, he could not have been king.” </p. 17>
[n. 6] Bertram Joseph, (Conscience of the King, pp. 16-19):
Putzel, Rosamond, in “Queen Gertrude's Crime,” Renaissance Papers, 1961, ed. George Walton Williams (Durham, N. C.: Southern Renaissance Conference, 1962, pp.123-41, apud Smith, p.209) “argues that the evidence in the play does not prove that Gertrude committed adultery and that her characterization suggests she did not.”
Maxwell (1964 SQ 246): Only with her last words does Gertrude, “for the first time” seem “to understand the essence of the situation. Only in the last speech does she recognize or admit to herself the villainy of her second husband. Only here—long after her counterpart in Belleforest had done so—does she take her position beside her son and against the King.”
Frye, Northrop (1980, p. 88): “One reason why it's Gertrude rather than Claudius who drives Hamlet up the wall is her total unconsciousness of having done anything wrong. She is a soft, easygoing, sentimental woman who 'would hang on' her late husband [327] and be treated with the greatest gratitude in response, and Hamlet does not see that the instinct to hang on his father was the same one that prompted her to attach herself after his death to the nearest strong-looking man who presented himself. Because of her compliant nature, Hamlet finds her delightfully easy to bully [in the closet scene], and she keeps crumbling under his ranting until the exasperated Ghost comes in to derail him again. We notice that the Ghost is still solicitous about her, in spite of his purgatorial preoccupations.”
Barton (1980, p. 27) finds Gertrude's adultery and incest “implicit in her union with Claudius.”
Smith, (1980, p. 194) examines Kozintsev Olivier, and Richardson films to prove her point that these filmmakers and others “have simply taken the men's words and created a Gertrude based on their reactions.” Smith, however, declares that “what her words and actions actually create is a soft, obedient, dependent, unimaginative woman who is caught miserably at the center of a desperate struggle between two 'mighty opposites,' her 'heart cleft in twain' [2540] by divided loyalties to husband and son. She loves both Claudius and Hamlet, and their conflict leaves her bewildered and unhappy.”
Smith (1980, p. 203): in 3.4, “Hamlet never accuses her of adultery, but abhors her choice of an 'adulterate' second husband.”
Smith (1980, p. 205): “Obviously, this analysis of Gertrude's behavior does not suggest any changes or clear moral development in her.” While she seems to obey Hamlet in telling the king that her son is mad [she may, however, say so more because she really believes it than to obey him], she never promises to avoid Claudius's bed, and her behavior in subsequent scenes does not suggest that she is rejecting him.
Smith (1980, p. 206): “Gertrude has not moved in the play toward independence or a heightened moral stance; only her divided loyalties and her unhappiness intensify.”
Bamber (1982, p. 8, qtd. by Lynda Boose in Modern Philology 82.1 (August 1984): 91-5): “Women do not change in Shakespearean tragedy; they do not respond to the events of the play [ . . . ]. Gertrude never changes in response to her sense of being at fault . . . [Her] recognition leaves her untouched and is itself soon forgotten. [. . .].” The ellipses are Boose's.
Rose (1985, apud Thompson & Taylor ed. 2006, p. 30): “Jacqueline Rose puts politics back into Hamlet by tracing how influential male readers of the play, Ernest Jones as well as T. S. Eliot, have echoed Hamlet's misogyny and blamed Gertrude for what they saw as the aesthetic and moral failing of the play overall.”
Rose (1986, apud Lupton & Reinhard, 1993, p.65) “argued, in 'Hamlet—The 'Mona Lisa” of Literature,' [that] Hamlet's mother is the figure of the feminine whose representational inadequacy led T. S. Eliot to formulate the ideal of the objective correlative. Eliot writes: 'The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative': in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked . . . The artistic inevitability lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. . . . Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her . . . [[I]]t is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.' Sacred Wood 100-1.”
Kliman (1988, pp. 67-9): <p. 67> “In any production, the queen's presence is more telling than her words, and yet her few words are among the most enduring in social memory: 'The Lady doth protest too much' [2098], 'There is a willow grows aslant a brook' [3158], 'Sweets to the sweet' [3435]. Their music is conventional, regular, and unsurprising, but pure and sweet. Rarely speaking more than four lines at a time, she responds more frequently than she initiates conversation and then often with a half line. In her most important scenes, the closet scene and Ophelia's mad scenes, not she but the person to whom she responds takes stage center.
“The [1980] BBC production omits only a few of her speeches, but does cut one of the longest, her political remark to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern promising rewards for doing the king's will, lines that indicate her power over the king and her awareness of political reality [1040-5]:
If it will please you
To show s so much gentry and good will
As to expend your time with us awhile
For the supply and profit of our hope,
Your visitation shall receive such thanks
as fits a king's remembrance (2.2.21-26)
Of course, productions, like Olivier's [1948], that eliminate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern altogether perforce omit these lines too; however. Halstead [Shakespeare As Spoken] lists dozens of productions that eliminate her speech, not all of which cut Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Q1 is perhaps the model here as in so many other places.
The BBC in the same scene cuts her command that 'some of you escort Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to 'where Hamlet is' [1058-9] </p. 67> <p. 68> </p. 68> This is Shakespeare's stage direction calling for several supernumeraries, without it the stage can be more bare, the court more stripped down. Perhaps that is why so many productions cut the lines. But cutting them eliminates Gertrude's only [verbal] opportunity to give a command, to show herself as queenly. The command 'Go some of you' also calls for Gertrude to raise her voice above the intimate tones reserved for 'Thanks Guildenstern and Gentle Rosencrantz,' calls for opening up the frame of audience attention. of course, a production can avoid that opening and still keep the line. In Evans's Hamlet, for example, a groom bends into the tight frame to do something at the moment Gertrude needs someone to escort Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet. Later in the scene, the BBC, by omitting the line 'So he does indeed' [1195], avoids the opportunity that Shakespeare provides for Gertrude to show by her enthusiasm or lack of it her complicity in the spying or her reluctance to b part of the plot that Claudius initiates and Polonius executes. 'So he does indeed' may, however, merely denote Gertrude's sympathetic pain for Hamlet, as it does in the McKellen production (1971). Halstead lists only three productions, including Q1, that cut it. In her closet, the BBC cuts her second mage describing Hamlet's demeanor after he has seen the ghost: 'O gentle son, Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper Sprinkle cool patience! [2503-5]—an interesting irony if, as her preceding lines demand, her words to Hamlet have shown her own disquiet and anguish. (Halstead shows that many productions, following Q1, cut these same lines.)
“The BBC keeps one of her most knotty lines, 'But not by him' [2875]. Olivier . . . avoids the line by beginning the second mad scene later, but Halstead lists only three other nineteenth-century productions that cut the line. Evans, eliminating Laertes's entrance and the whole second mad scene, of course cuts the line. The problem is, if Gertrude truly sees into her soul, recognizes what Claudius represents ('the rank sweat of an enseamed bed' [2469]), knows also what Claudius has done (at the very least stolen the crown from Hamlet)—if she understand all this, how can she not only deny Claudius's guilt a short time later but also in doing so endanger her son? For 'If not by Claudius, then who?' must be Laertes's next question. She, in fact, with her exclamation prepares the way for Claudius's persuasion of Laertes.
“Perhaps Q1, which has her reveal in a discussion with Horatio that she </p. 68> <p. 69> understands what Claudius is and is determined to side with Hamlet and which also has the line 'But not by him' [CLN 1731]. can help us. In Q1, the two attitudes—understanding and denial of Claudius's guilt—do not conflict. After making her rejection of Claudius explicit with the added Horatio-Gertrude scene [CLN 1808-54]. Q1 id not make Gertrude's exclamation a defense of Claudius per se. Since Q1 may represent someone's inferences drawn from seeing a performance of Hamlet, the Globe performance through acting and stage business may have made clear that Gertrude distances herself from Claudius after the closet scene in spite of 'But not by him.' The cry has dramatic value, for it gives Gertrude an opportunity to exhibit her bravery, her indomitable spirit and fearlessness. The line is a fascinating one because it can be used in so many ways: the [1981] Boston Shakespeare Company Hamlet had Gertrude say it to protect not Claudius but Laertes, who, powerless and alone, self-destructively throws himself at Claudius as one would splat a tomato against a wall. The [1971] Circle Repertory Company production had Gertrude say it out of a natural abhorrence of violence, but as soon as her words heave her mouth, with horror she realizes the implications for Hamlet's safety of what she has said. Perhaps only an actress of the caliber of Jacqueline Brookes, who played the role, could evoke so much from so few words. On the other and, Wirth (1960) has his Gertrude frankly cleave to Claudius.
“As the BBC's Claire Bloom interprets the role, Gertrude in the closet scene believes she will avid Claudius from then on, and in fact, [she] does not follow Claudius when he says 'Come' to her in 4.1 [2615, 2626, 2628+4]. But when Hamlet speaks about the lascivious bed [2469], we see her guilty embarrassment telling us she is all too drawn to that bed. Thus after Hamlet leaves and Claudius approaches her for sympathy ('O Gertrude, Gertrude! When sorrows come, they come not single spies, But in battalions!' (4.5.74-6 [2814-16], she responds to her husband. Bloom plays a woman who needs a man's support and who needs to support a am/. Had Hamlet remained, one feels her allegiance would have been to him. 'But not by him' denotes her forthright protection of Claudius.” Ed. note: The entire book from which this quotation comes can be found on the website.
Traub (ShSt 20 [1988]: 217): “In Hamlet, Gertrude's adultery and incest—and uncontrollability, in short, of her sexuality—are in Hamlet's mind, projected outward to encompass the potential of such contamination in all liaisons between men and women. Gertrude's adultery turns all women into prostitutes and all men into potential cuckolds.”
Adelman (1992, pp. 12-13, quoted by Erlich 2005, p. 75): “The irritating cause of this collapse [between the two father figures, King Hamlet and King Claudius] is Hamlet's mother: her failure to serve her son as a repository of his father's ideal image by mourning him appropriately is the symptom of her deeper failure to distinguish properly between his father and his father's brother. Even at the start of the play, before the ghost's crucial revelation, Gertrude's failure to differentiate has put an intolerable strain on Hamlet by making him the only repository for his father's image, the only agent of differentiation in a court that seems all too willing to accept the new king in place of the old. Her failure of memory—registered in her undiscriminating sexuality—in effect defines Hamlet's task in relation to his father as a task of memory: as she forgets, he inherits the burden of differentiating, of idealizing and making status the past; hence the ghost's insistence on remembering (1.5.33, 91) and the degree to which Hamlet registers his failure as a failure of memory (4.4.40). Hamlet had promised the ghost to remember him in effect by becoming him, letting his father's commandment live all alone within his brain; but the intensity of Hamlet's need to idealize in the face of his mother's failure makes his father inaccessible to him as a model, hence disrupts the identification from which he could accomplish his vengeance.”
Adelman (1992, p. 20, quoted by Griffiths 2005, pp. 76-7: <p. 76> “Given her centrality in the play, it is striking how little we know about Gertrude; even the extent of her involvement in the murder of her first husband is left unclear. We may want to hear her shock at Hamlet's accusation of murder—'Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother' (3.4.28-9)—as evidence of her innocence; but the text permits us alternatively to hear it as shock either at being found out or at Hamlet's rudeness. The ghost accuses her at least indirectly of adultery and incest—Claudius is 'that incestuous, that adulterate beast' (1.5.42)—but he neither accuses her of nor exonerates her from the murder. For the ghost, as for Hamlet, her chief crime is her uncontrolled sexuality, that is the object of their moral revulsion, revulsion as intense as anything directed toward the murderer Claudius. But the Gertrude we see is not quite the Gertrude they see. And when we see her in herself, apart from the characterizations of her, we tend to see a woman more muddled than actively wicked; even her famous sensuality is less apparent than her </p. 76> <p. 77> conflicted solicitude for her new husband and her son. . . . .
“The lack of clarity in our impression of Gertrude contributes, I think, to the sense that the play lacks, in Eliot's famous phrase an 'objective correlative.' For the character of Gertrude as we see it becomes for Hamlet—and for Hamlet—the ground for fantasies quite incongruent with it; although she is much less purely innocent than Richard III's mother, like that mother she becomes the carrier of a nightmare that is disjunct from her characterization as a specific figure. This disjuncture is, I think, the key to her role in the play and hence to her psychic power: her frailty unleashes for Hamlet, and for Shakespeare, fantasies of maternal malevolence, of maternal spoiling, that are compelling exactly as they are out of proportion to the character we know, especially as they seem to reiterate infantile fears and desires rather than an adult apprehension of the mother as a separate person.” <p. 77>
Juliet Dusinberre (1992, 20-pg typescript, reported on shaksper 11-93): “in an interesting essay presented at the ISA in August 1992, 'Women and Boys: Stealing the Show?' speaking of Gertrude played by a boy actor, she says, “With a woman actress playing Gertrude one could say a good deal about how she has been silenced on stage and robbed of a language of her own. But I would argue that this was originally done in the interests of making sure that the boy could manage the part—a very difficult one for someone his age, in that it requires him to represent the sexuality of a middle-aged woman. Shakespeare wanted to make sure that the boy actor would have no licence to turn the bedroom scene into burlesque, which like many great tragic scenes, it could all too easily become. Instead he allowed the boy apprentice the stage relish of accusing Shakespeare's greatest adult male actor, a shareholder and the most powerful man in Shakespeare's company, Richard Burbage himself, of overacting his part. This is surely an ideal recipe not only for a performance carried out with conviction, but for the creation of harmony in the company between adults and apprentices, adolescent youths and their masters.”
Dusinberre (1992, p. 14): “Gertrude is made to feel morally judged by Ophelia's innocence and loss of sanity [2762-65].”
O'Brien (ShSur 45 [1993], p. 34): “ ... Nineteenth-century cutting made of Gertrude an unresponsive, mindless figure, momentarily distraught by Hamlet's closet scene harangue, but ultimately unaffected by it.”
Adelman (1992, apud Thompson & Taylor, ed. 2006, pp. 29-30): <p. 29> Adelman's “powerful reading of Hamlet makes it exclusively a family drama. It foregrounds the return of the mother [into Shakespeare's works] and the subsequent release of infantile fantasies and desires involving maternal malevolence and the submerged </p. 29> <p. 30> anxiety of the male regarding subjection to the female. . . . This is not to say that Gertrude herself is a completely realized character for Adelman; she sees her as 'less powerful as an independent character than as the site for fantasies larger than she is' (Adelman 30)—fantasies concerning the need for masculine identity to free itself from the contaminated female body.” </p. 30>
Lupton & Reinhard (1993, pp. 82-3): <p. 82> “Olivier's Hamlet tenderly returns </p. 82> <p. 83> the affections of his mother in a forties-Freudian reading that emphasizes Gertrude as the object of Hamlet's incestuous desire. Zeffirelli's production, on the other hand, places the mother as the Other of demand: at once overanxious and oversexed, Gertrude's hungry kisses and caresses are resisted with barely concealed disgust by her son; ending the first soliloquy with 'Frailty, thy name is woman!' Gibson's Hamlet appears viscerally repulsed by his mother's sexuality. As Lacan writes about Hamlet, 'It's not his desire for his mother [[pour sa mere]], but rather his mother's desire [[de sa mere]] that's in question,' a distinction that measures out the difference between the 'classical' Freudian reading and its postclassical repetition (Ornicar? 25:20).” </p. 83>
Kehler (SQ 46 [1995], pp. 398-9): <p. 398> “Critics who compare the First Quarto's Gertred with Gertrard of the Second Quarto and Gertrude of the Folio have for the most part found Gertred more 'sympathetic.' Once informed that her husband is a murderer, she commits herself unequivocally to Hamlet's cause, promising to keep up connubial appearances only to deceive Claudius. Rather than another variation on the Shakespearean category 'woman with divided loyalties,' like King John's Blanche, Antony and Cleopatra's Octavia, or Hamlet's Gertrard/Gertrude, Gertred is now all mother. </p. 398> <p. 399> Questions about playing venues for Q1 are, I suggest, linked to the characterization of Gertred, the cultural productions of a particular historical moment. To that end, my essay contextualizes Gertred's representation, seeing her as a quasi-allegorical object lesson in the consequences of rejecting celibate widowhood. Hers is a story, I argue, that validates the deeply rooted, lingering prejudice against remarrying widows. Where Q1 was played enters into this story.” </p. 399>
Kliman (2000): “What the king says in 3.3 suggests that his crime was murder, not adultery and then murder; he does not mention adultery here when he is alone and trying to repent. Four times, however, he alludes to the murder [2313-14, 2320, 2328, 2330]. In 2330 he says he murdered to gain the queen, suggesting that that he had not possessed her before the murder.”
Thompson & Taylor (ed. 2006, p. 39): “The extent to which the present King's marriage to the Queen has consolidated or even ensured his election' is not made clear in the play . . . . ”
Levin (2008: 305-26): “Repeating the word “adultery” over and over and applying it to Gertrude, Levin does not so much argue that Gertrude committed adultery as insist on it. See CN 729.
Levin (2008, p. 321): “Gertrude tacitly admits to the adultery in the closet scene [2464-7; 2472-4; 2481; 2539-40, etc.] and again in her aside in 4.5. 17-20 [2762-5].” Ed. note: Most readers would not see any admission, tacit or otherwise, of adultery in these passages; that's not what Hamlet is accusing her of nor what she expresses in her one soliloquy. (See CN 2762.)
Levin (2008, p. 322): Gertrude “does not initiate any action except to drink the poisoned wine at the end.”
Note: See also the archives of shaksper the listserv monitored by Hardy Cook for many discussions of Gertrude.
Bernice W. Kliman