What is a feminist approach to Act 3, Scene 4 in Hamlet?

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A feminist approach to act 3, scene 4 of Hamlet would focus on Gertrude and consider her multiple roles as queen, woman, wife, and mother. Such an approach would provide context to the broader issues Gertrude faces as a recently widowed woman who is also a queen determined to retain her power.

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During act 3, scene 4 of Hamlet, the Danish prince confronts his mother, Queen Gertrude, about what he considers her scandalous conduct in marrying Claudius, the late King Hamlet’s brother. Before this scene, he had not found a time to speak with her alone as she was always with her new husband. As Hamlet tries to find out whether Claudius did kill King Hamlet, he continues to worry that his mother had been involved as well. Because of these suspicions, he does not want to take Gertrude into his confidence, so she still believes that he is mad. Gertrude shows both her determination to draw him out and her vulnerability to his attacks, as she demands to know, “What have I done?”

A feminist approach to the scene would shift the focus from Hamlet’s concerns to Gertrude’s perspective on the situation. Analyzing her behavior in this particular scene depends as well on the reader’s understanding of Gertrude’s multiple—and often conflicting—identities. As Denmark’s queen, she is responsible for all her country’s people and apparently has been unable or unwilling to rule alone. In addition, a feminist analysis would consider Gertrude as an adult woman who desires a romantic and sexual partner.

The latter aspect is of great concern to Hamlet, who seems to find it repugnant to think about his mother in sexual terms. He equates her sexual relations with Claudius to the larger corruption that affects Denmark. Analyzing the dialogue between mother and son from a feminist perspective would emphasize her agency, not just her reactions to her son’s challenging statements.

While Hamlet has most of the dialogue in the scene, once he sees his father’s ghost—which she does not see—she takes a more assertive stance. Her speech beginning in line 128, as she challenges his “discourse” with “vacancy”—or speaking to empty space—marks a turning point. As she tries to take control of the situation, Gertrude seems both an authoritative queen and a concerned mother.

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