Extended Character Analysis
Gertrude is the Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother. Two months after the death of her first husband, King Hamlet, she marries his brother, Claudius. Her marriage is a source of bitterness for Prince Hamlet, who views her actions as morally corrupt and sinful since by Elizabethan standards, marrying one’s brother-in-law was considered incest. Gertrude seems to want what is best for her son, encouraging him to cheer up after his father’s death and trying to understand his apparent madness. However, her relationship with Hamlet is compromised by her marriage to Claudius and by her involvement in Claudius and Polonius’s duplicitous schemes.
Gertrude is described primarily by the men around her, most notably Hamlet and Claudius. By contrast, she is given very few opportunities to delineate her own thoughts and feelings. However, she does show moments of wit and independent thought, such as when she says, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks," in response to being asked what she thinks of the Player Queen’s performance in act III, scene II. Her sarcastic response indicates her belief that the play’s—and, by extension, Hamlet’s—views of love and marriage are impractical and overly sentimental. She also displays moments of guilt regarding her marriage to Claudius, describing it as “o’erhasty” and begging Hamlet to stop when he confronts her about it in her room. The Ghost tells Hamlet to come between Gertrude and her “fighting soul,” implying that she is a conflicted character.
The nature of Gertrude’s conflict is one of the enduring critical debates surrounding Hamlet. The question stands as to what role, if any, Gertrude played in the death of her first husband. By one reading, Gertrude is an innocent and guileless woman who either married Claudius out of convenience or was seduced by him after the death of King Hamlet. This interpretation positions Gertrude as a loving wife and mother who is simply making the best of a bad situation. Furthermore, her role as the “imperial jointress” makes her a prime target for an ambitious schemer like Claudius, suggesting that she may have been manipulated into the marriage.
However, Gertrude can also be read as an accomplice to Claudius, complicit in the murder of King Hamlet. King Hamlet’s ghost implies that Gertrude may have been unfaithful even before his death, hinting that the corruption in Denmark did not start with the murder of the king. This introduces the possibility that Gertrude and Claudius were truly in love and that they killed King Hamlet to pave the way for their marriage. By this reading, Gertrude and Claudius used her role as the “imperial jointress” to secure the crown and silence objections to their union. However, if she is truly Claudius’s confidante and accomplice, her decision to drink from the poisoned cup in act V, scene II raises questions. By one reading, Gertrude’s love for Hamlet overcomes her love for Claudius, and she drinks from the cup in an attempt to prevent Hamlet from doing so. By another reading, Claudius knows that Gertrude does not have the heart to kill her son, so he intentionally excludes her from his plans to get rid of Hamlet, with tragic results.
Gertrude is a complicated figure, rendered even more ambiguously motivated by the lack of definitive details given about her character and her role in King Hamlet’s murder. Is she an innocent and naive woman caught up in Claudius’s ambitions? Is she a master manipulator who orchestrated the death of her husband in order to marry her lover? Or is she the product of a society where women have very little power, forced to make hard choices in order to secure her own future? The precise nature of Gertrude’s involvement in Claudius’s machinations remains a mystery, as does her moral compass, but her love for her son seems unquestionable.