Introduction to Gertrude in Hamlet
Gertrude is, more so than any other character in the play, the antithesis of her son, Hamlet. Hamlet is a scholar and a philosopher, searching for life's most elusive answers. He cares nothing for this "mortal coil" and the vices to which man has become slave. Gertrude is shallow, and thinks only about her body and external pleasures. Like a child she longs to be delighted. We do not see much of her in daily activity, but if we could we would see a woman enraptured by trinkets and fine clothes, soft pillows and warm baths. Gertrude is also a very sexual being, and it is her sexuality that turns Hamlet so violently against her. The Ghost gives Hamlet, who is already disgusted with his mother for marrying his uncle such a short time after his father's death, even more disturbing information about the Queen:
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
Many critics misread the line "adulterate beast" as proof that Gerturde had been the lover of Claudius even before Hamlet's father had died. This would make the Queen a far more loathsome character than Shakespeare had intended, and the rest of the play makes no mention of this adultery. Adulterate, by definition, means to change to a worse state by mixing; to contaminate with base matter. And Claudius has indeed, according to the Ghost, contaminated his precious Gertrude, but this does not mean that Claudius did so before Hamlet's father died.
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,--
O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce!--won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen. (I.V.42-5)
If Gertrude were an adulteress, she would have been almost certainly been involved in Claudius' plot of murder, and therefore she would be the play's villainess and not its child-like victim. Claudius would believe her to be an accomplice and confide in her, but he does not. Moreover, if it were true, it most surely would be foremost on Hamlet's mind, but when Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her closet and announces all her crimes, he does not once even imply that she has committed adultery. And, as Olav Lokse points out in his book Outrageous Fortune:
[The scholar J.W. Draper] also draws attention to the Ghost's complaint that he was "Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatch'd" (I.v.75), which is echoed by Claudius's "My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen", in III, iii, 55, which may be taken to indicate the sequence in which the pre-play events had occurred. (82)
That Gertrude has an aversion to the truth is not in dispute. She lies to herself about the consequences of her actions, and she lies to those around her. But she lies to protect. Hers are not cruel and wicked falsehoods; hers are white lies that she feels she must tell in order to keep her and those around her safe physically and emotionally. She must tell the King that Hamlet has killed Polonius, but, she does what she can to help Hamlet, telling Claudius that Hamlet "weeps for what is done" when clearly he does not.
On the surface it is hard to comprehend why Hamlet, his father, and Claudius all have such a deep devotion to Gertrude. But the qualities that save her from condemnation along with Claudius are subtly woven into the play. She loves Hamlet, and, underneath her shallow exterior, shows great emotion when he confronts her. Gertrude truly does not know what she has done to make Hamlet so furious, and it is only when he tells her that she understands her actions to be wrong:
O Hamlet, speak no more:
There is no reason to believe that Gertrude is lying to appease Hamlet in the above lines. No where else in the play is Gertrude portrayed as cunning or Janus-faced, as is Claudius.
Thou turn'st my very eyes into my soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct (III.iv.88-91)
...O speak to me no more;
these words like daggars enter my ears;
No more, sweet Hamlet! (III.iv.94-6)
Even though Hamlet lashes out at her with all the rage he can muster, Gertrude remains faithful to him, protecting him fron the King. And, although her love for Claudius is wrong by moral standards, she is now his queen, and remains loyal to him. We see she has the potential for great love -- she wants to protect Claudius from the mob, and she cares deeply about Ophelia and Polonius, and is concerned for Hamlet in the duel even though she has no idea that it is a trap. It is Gertrude's underlying propensity for goodness that redeems her. Her men forgive her for her shallow, sensual nature and her addictions to comfort and pleasure because they see that she is innocent of premeditation. It is sad but fitting that Gertrude meet her end drinking from the poisoned goblet, demanding that she taste what is in the pretty cup, as trusting as a new-born babe.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Gertrude. Shakespeare Online. 15 Aug. 2008. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/gertrudecharacter.html > .
Granville-Barker, Henry. Prefaces to Shakespeare. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.
Loske, Olaf. Outrageous Fortune. Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1960.
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