Did Gertrude, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, commit adultery with Claudius before Hamlet’s father was murdered? This issue has been much debated by Shakespeare scholars, with some arguing that Gertrude must have committed adultery, while others claiming that no incontrovertible evidence exists that she did.
As almost every commentator on this issue notes, the key piece of evidence in favor of the argument that Gertrude did commit adultery are these words from the ghost, referring initially to Claudius:
Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
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.42-45)
The word “adulterate” has been used to support the claim that Claudius and Gertrude were literally adulterers before old Hamlet’s death. Yet the word “adulterate” could mean simply impure and debased. If Shakespeare had intended to make Gertrude seem literally guilty of adultery, would he have relied on one ambiguous word?
In his overview of the controversy about this issue, Noel Blincoe summarizes other reasons for skepticism about the claim that Gertrude committed adultery, and he provides a further reason of his own:
Substantial evidence that Gertrude did not commit adultery before King Hamlet's death lies in the dumb show that Hamlet stages to "catch the conscience of the King" (2.2.605). This show presents a sequence of events in which the poisoner first kills the King, exits, and then afterward reenters and courts the Queen, who resists before being seduced. The pantomime of the subplay does not in any way indicate that the Queen committed adultery with Claudius before King Hamlet was murdered but does, in fact, suggest that the Queen's affair with Claudius arose after the King's death.
Blincoe also notes that the word “adulterate” in this period could also refer to a widow failing to remain loyal to her dead husband.
It seems likely that if Shakespeare had really wanted to make it absolutely clear that Gertrude was guilty of adultery, he could certainly have easily done so. It also seems likely that if the ghost were truly convinced that his wife had committed adultery, he would be far angrier toward her than he seems. Instead, his main wrath, even in the passage quoted above, seems directed at Claudius. Finally, if Gertrude were truly guilty of adultery, would Shakespeare have presented her as sympathetically as he does in the play’s final scene?
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to claim that this issue can be easily decided, since some eminent Shakespeare scholars have come to the conclusion that Gertrude was indeed guilty of adultery.
The Ghost says, "... adulterate beast ... won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen."
One might interpret that to mean that Claudius and Gertrude had an affair prior to the elder Hamlet's death.
I think that "cut of even in the blossom of my sin" means that Hamlet's father died without receiving the last rights.
In Act III Scene 3, Hamlet says, "He took my father grossly, full of bread."
In the Geneva Bible, Ezekiel uses the term "full of bread" to suggest that the people of Sodom sinned by gluttony, among others, so dying "full of bread," could also mean not receiving the last rights.