The First Quarto of Hamlet: Reforming Widow Gertred - Essay

William Shakespeare


(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 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 two die by their own hands (Cleopatra and Cymbeline's Queen). For the survivors the future is less than reassuring: Elizabeth Woodville, widowed yet again, has also lost her sons and brother; Hortensio's wife, having publicly discomfited her new husband, has gotten the marriage off to an unpromising start; Mistress Overdone, nine times a bride but "Overdone by the last" (Measure for Measure, 2.1.202), remains in prison; and Octavia, deserted by Antony, is an object of pity in Rome. Little wonder that Paulina remains silent when Camillo is thrust upon her. Because remarrying widows consistently fare ill, genre as the determinant of their destinies seems less relevant than a residual ideology of revered celibacy which the widows have violated, even though both desire and economics encouraged the Elizabethan social practice of remarriage.

In Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale," while we are invited to scoff at January's wishes for his young wife, May, his words nevertheless voice a widespread medieval ideal of widowhood:

For neither after his deeth nor in his lyf
Ne wolde he that she were love ne wyf,
But evere lyve as wydwe in clothes blake,
Soul as the turtle that lost hath hire make.11

These lines echo Catholic discourse on proper behavior for the devout. Following biblical, apocryphal, and patristic writings, the Church allowed but denigrated remarriage. In Leviticus 21:14 the widow is grouped with the divorced woman, the profane woman, and the harlot as an inappropriate wife. Paul honored pious matrons who were "widows indeed"; those over sixty who had been married only once were deemed fit to join the congregation (1 Timothy 5:3, 5, 9). Asserting that Jerome implied a similar binarism when he wrote "Fly the company of those widdowes, who are widdowes not in will, but of a kind of necessity," Father Fulvius Androtius, a Jesuit, describes "the Mantle and the Ring," a rite honoring the patristic view and celebrated in England from about 660 AD until the establishment of the Anglican Church.12 In this rite widows who had remained celibate for a number of years after the death of their...

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II. The Widow Gertred

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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" (Q1CLN 746), a sentiment both exemplary and concise. She urges the same concision on Corambis—"Good my Lord be briefe" (Q1CLN 781)—and exits at his request (Q1CLN 833). When Claudius promises lasting thanks to Rossencraft and Gilderstone, thinking them responsible for Hamlet's high spirits, Gertred again ventures no more than a two-line echo (Q1CLN 1182-83). In another two lines she agrees to see the play, saying "it ioyes me at the soule / He is inclin'd to any kinde of mirth" (Q1CLN 1186-87). At Corambis's and Claudius's request, she also agrees to summon Hamlet and question him while Corambis eavesdrops on his reply: "With all my heart, soone will I send for him" (Q1CLN 1202). No small part of why Gertred impresses us as "a relatively passive mirror of events, a surface without independent motives for action,"28 is her possessing in quantity the silence thought so proper to womankind: foremost among "The infallible markes of a vertuous woman," writes Barnabe Rich in 1613, are "bashfullnes, [and] silence … She must not bee a vaine talker."29

In addition, Rich counsels the virtuous woman to be "tractable to her husband."30 Her own subjectivity undeveloped, Gertred is scripted as tractable to everyone; she is a peacemaker as well. To placate Laertes, she tries to explain away Hamlet's behavior at Ofelia's grave; she concurs with Claudius's feigned desire that Laertes and Hamlet reconcile: "God grant they may" (Q1CLN 2082). She disobeys Claudius only as she attempts to protect him from Laertes. She does not disobey when she drinks from the poisoned cup; in Ql Gertred drinks before Claudius orders her not to:

Queene Here Hamlet, thy mother drinkes to
Shee drinkes.
King Do not drinke Gertred: O t'is the
poysned cup!
(Q1CLN 2160-62)

Unlike Gertrard/Gertrude of Q2 and Fl, Gertred could never be construed as a conscious site of resistance to social expectations.31 She is not self-willed; she makes no suggestions; and she is quick to fall in with the plans of others. But so tractable a wife to her second husband logically must have been no less compliant as the widow of her first. The virtue of female submissiveness proves itself a two-edged sword when the ideological goal is marital fidelity undaunted by the husband's death. Gertred's behavior throughout the play beckons us to read her acquiescence to a questionable and sudden second marriage as the corollary of an otherwise praiseworthy habit of obedience to male authority.

Just as Gertred's actions are marked by compliance, so her language is informed by piety. She typically alludes to her prayers and her soul, invokes God and heaven, and makes sacred vows. Her protestation of innocence is an oath: "But as I haue a soule, I sweare by heauen, /I neuer knew of this most horride murder" (Q1CLN 1582-83). She calls on God (as Bel-imperia, from whom the lines are lifted, does not) to witness her loyalty to Hamlet:

Hamlet, I vow by that maiesty,
That knowes our thoughts, and lookes into our
I will conceale, consent, and doe my best,
What stratagem soe're thou shalt deuise.
(Q1CLN 1594-97)

When Claudius hopes "to heare good newes from thence [England] ere long, / If euery thing fall out to our content" (Q1CLN 1678-79), Gertred devoutly observes, "God grant it may, heau'ns keep my Hamlet safe" (Q1CLN 1681). In fact, G. B. Shand observes that, "although her role is just over half the size of the Q2/F1 Gertrude, she has three times the number of references to God, heaven, her soul, and prayer, culminating in this vow to Hamlet [at CLN 1594-97]."32 All these iterations both sanitize Gertred and associate her with a comfit-maker's wife, making it difficult for an audience to believe that she would have committed adultery, and underscoring her innocence but for her misguided remarriage.

Silence, obedience, piety—such qualities become all Elizabethan women; when motherly concern and celibacy (a strong possibility for Gertred after the closet scene) are joined to these virtues,...

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III. "Else-Where"

(Shakespearean Criticism)

III. "Else-Where"

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...

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