The First Quarto of Hamlet: Reforming Widow Gertred
The First Quarto of Hamlet: Reforming Widow Gertred
Dorothea F. Kehler, San Diego State University
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."1 Once informed that her new 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. Moreover, throughout the play she has been pious, reserved, passive, unexceptional; who would not have his widow so? Although the First Quarto does not resolve questions about Gertred's sexual behavior or erase the story's inherent misogyny, it does present a queen who differs so significantly from her counterparts that she impresses critics as the site of greatest difference between the variant texts.2
Of the three texts, Ql, first discovered in the 1820s, is the most enigmatic, retaining its notorious distinction as the best known of the "bad" quartos, even as that term is challenged.3 To adumbrate the most problematic features of Ql: signs of proofreading are few and many passages are garbled; prose lines are capitalized, thus suggesting verse; verse lines are frequently mislineated (printing, e.g., two pentameter lines as a hexameter and a tetrameter); the quality of the writing is radically uneven; and plotting is inadequate and inconsistent. When Ql is compared with the other texts, additional problems appear: it is little more than half the length of F and Q2; names and titles are inconsistent (in the case of Polonius and Reynaldo, entirely different); several scenes differ in placement or content (for example, Hamlet ponders whether "To be, or not to be" and raves at Ophelia before rather than after he first encounters Gilderstone and Rossencraft or the players, and Laertes does not lead a rebellion against the king); and in a scene unique to Ql, the queen learns from Horatio, who trusts her loyalty to Hamlet, of Claudius's attempt on Hamlet's life.4
Despite these problematic features, the quarto's title page claims to offer the play "As it hath beene diuerse times acted by his Highnesse seruants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Vniuersities of Cambridge and Oxford, and else-where." Granted that the title page may be no more than an advertising puff, unacceptable as hard evidence of Ql's performance history;5 that Hamlet on the page can only approximate individual Hamlets on the stage; and that theatrical researchers have yet to discover Ql's performance sites "else-where." Notwithstanding, even in our own time Ql has proven to be a playable text,6 and chances are that it was indeed played as the title page claims, not only before but also after publication. But where else besides "the Cittie of London" and the "Vniuersities"? Questions about playing venues for Ql are, I suggest, linked to the characterization of Gertred, the cultural production 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 Ql was played enters into this story.
I. Widows and Remarriage
Although some twenty-five to thirty-five percent of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English marriages were remarriages,7 censuring remarriage was tantamount to a convention for early modern writers. Pernicious clichés about widows (but not widowers) are found in polemics, and can be household manuals, and plays of the period8 and can be explained politically, in that, of the socially endorsed roles available to women—maid, wife, widow9—the last is most perplexing for patriarchal theory. Solanio's quip in The Merchant of Venice about a hypocritical widow who "made her neighbors believe she wept for the death of a third husband" (3.1.9-10)10 reminds us that widowhood is problematic because the weaker vessel survives the stronger but because she may remarry, thus, some would say, cuckolding her former husband(s), albeit belatedly. In consequence, remarrying widows are liable to be figured as "lusty widows."
Of some thirty-one widows in Shakespeare, ten remarry—Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, Tamora, Hortensio's wife, Hostess Quickly, Gertrude, Mistress Overdone, Cleopatra, Octavia, and Cymbeline's Queen; one might also include Lear's Regan, who intended to remarry. These, lusty or not, were more liable to wed calamity than joy. Six of them die—or seven, if we include Regan. Two of them are killed by their husbands (Anne by Richard III and Gertrude by Claudius), and...
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II. The Widow Gertred
Significantly, whatever Ql's relationship to Q2 and F Hamlet—whether Ql was itself reformed from an early version of the play and precedes Q2 or is a later version of the Q2 or F texts—an early modern audience would find little in Gertred's onstage words or actions to substantiate the prejudice against remarriage. So dependent is Gertred, Claudius's pale accessory and echo, that she appears foreordained to remarry. Her precipitate second marriage casts her as a lusty widow, but despite the stereotype, her speeches and actions are characterized almost exclusively by meekness and silence. For one thing, Gertred is neutralized politically, being largely overlooked by Claudius and slighted by Corambis.26 Yet silence seems as much native to her as imposed by others' disregard. Gertrard/Gertrude's plea to Hamlet (Q2/F1TLN 248-53 and 255-56) to end his mourning does not appear in Ql;27 Gertred speaks only two lines in the entire scene, begging Hamlet to stay (Q1CLN 194-95). Her words follow and summarize two longer speeches by Claudius in which he entreats Hamlet to remain in Denmark as "the Ioy and halfe heart of your mother" (Q1CLN 176), this phrase itself underlining Gertred's domestic, maternal role. Welcoming Rossencraft and Gilderstone, Gertred speaks but one line of thanks (Q1CLN 734), echoing Claudius; she greets Corambis's announcement that he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's madness with "God graunt he hath"...
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From the characterization of Gertred, who behaves much like her counterpart in the play's sources, one might infer that Ql preceded the later printings of Hamlet—the assumption being that the more closely a particular version adheres to its sources, the earlier the text is apt to be.37 In any event, focusing on Gertred as a step toward unraveling the relationship between the various Hamlet texts suggests that wherever else besides "the Cittie of London" and the "Vniuersities" Ql may have been played, it especially lent itself to performance where ideas about the sacred nature of celibacy and the faithful widow lingered longest. Indisputably, on its surface Ql holds the queen to a very narrow standard of chastity. Although in all three texts the Dutchesse/Player Queen brands a remarrying widow a murderer—"A second time, I kill my Husband [Ql : Lord that's] dead, / When second Husband kisses me in Bed" (Q2/F1TLN 2052-53; Q1CLN 1327-28)—the Dutchesse's explicit death wish is unique to Ql: "When death takes you, let life from me depart" (CLN 1321).38 Subject to so demanding a code, Gertred's guilt does not lie in when she remarried or whom she remarried; that she remarried at all condemns her. By attempting to reform the lusty widow and prodigal mother, by presenting the audience with a good woman gone wrong—"her sex is weake" (Q1CLN 1566)— then showing her...
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