Hamlet The First Quarto of Hamlet: Reforming Widow Gertred
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9,201 words.)