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Queen Gertrude evokes both pity and criticism from the audience for what she has done, is doing, and does not do.
Her actions seemingly speak of a woman who has betrayed her husband, her son and her kingdom. From the outset it is apparent that she had not shown much grief at her husband's death. Her son, Hamlet, seems to be filled more with sorrow than she is. In fact, it did not take her long to remarry, for she wed Claudius quite soon after her husband's passing. She advises her son to shed his cloak of woe, instead of showing empathy for her son's grief.
Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
Furthermore, she had no qualms in denying her son his rightful succession to the throne for, in marrying Claudius, he became monarch. This obviously led to Hamlet resenting his mother for he saw her literally, 'sleeping with the enemy' and suspected that she had been involved in Claudius plot in the murder of his beloved father.
It appears that the queen had been guided more by lust than by practical considerations and love for her son. It is for this that Hamlet also holds her responsible for his father's death. In addition, she had ignored Hamlet senior's great legacy of good governance, and chose to cavort with a leader who seems to constantly host celebratory get-togethers at odd hours - a fact commented on by her son in Act One.
The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
It is also clear that she chooses to side with her husband in whatever decisions he makes with regard to Hamlet. She allows herself to be dominated and overwhelmed by him. This creates the impression that she is quite feeble-minded and acquiescent, almost servile, in her obedience to Claudius. This also becomes a matter of great frustration and resentment for Hamlet, who wishes her to stand up for him and challenge Claudius. Hamlet feels utterly betrayed by her and relies on his best friend, Horatio, for support. He has lost all trust in her.
One feels pity for her because it seems as if she cannot help herself, she is guided by base desire and instinct - emotions that she apparently cannot control. She seems to lack rational thought and is bereft of loyalty to her son or her kingdom. For this, we cannot pity her, for she should have instinctively, as a mother, wanted to protect everything she once held dear, and should continue to do, including taking care of her son's needs.
Queen Gertrude also seems to lack a moral gauge. Could she not realise that marrying Claudius so soon after her husband's death would be deemed inappropriate and immoral? Even Horatio comments on this fact when Hamlet suggests that it was so.
HAMLETI pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
HORATIOIndeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon
How could she also have missed the fact that Claudius viewed her son as a threat and wanted him out of the way? Even her comment about the play Hamlet presents to court when she says, 'The lady protests too much, methinks' shows her unwillingness to acknowledge or see her wrongfulness although she had, on a prior occasion, stated to Claudius that they had married too soon and that was one of the reasons for her son's distress. She, in spite of this, supported whatever Claudius decreed and ignored her son's desperate cry for help.
The only occasion in which Queen Gertrude shows a modicum of motherly care towards Hamlet is when she consults him in her chamber and even that reveals her despicable nature for that was also contrived, since Polonius was hiding behind the arras, spying, with her knowledge.
One cannot help but feel that Queen Gertrude and Claudius got their just desserts. The true tragedy lies in the fact that innocents such as Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes had to die because of her poor judgement, intentional or not.
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