Gertrude Ignites the Tragedy in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

Updated on July 18, 2016
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I am a high school English teacher who is passionate about writing, theater, directing and enjoying a positive life with family and friends.

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare | Source

The number of male characters in Shakespeare’s plays far outnumber the number of female characters. This may be due to the fact that women were not allowed to be actors in Shakespeare’s time, so all the women characters had to be played by men. Regardless of the reason, it seems that when Shakespeare creates a female character, she must be important to the plot in some way. Shakespeare created Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and a symbol of female sexuality, for Hamlet. Gertrude’s presence is important in that it seems to initiate the tragedy in Denmark.

One of only two women in the play, Gertrude’s character is not fully developed. We are left to ask many questions: Did she have an adulterous relationship with Claudius before King Hamlet was killed? Did she help Claudius murder King Hamlet? Did she even know anything about the murder? Does it matter? These and many other questions arise from the ambiguity of her character.

Gertrude is not an individual.

Gertrude is not seen as an individual. According to Janet Adelman, in her book Suffocating Mothers, “Whatever individuality she might have had is sacrificed to her status as mother” (34). I would say that her individuality is also sacrificed to her status as wife and queen.

Even though she is not an individual, one could say that the tragedy in this play falls on Gertrude’s shoulders. According to Carolyn Heilbrun, in her book Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, Gertrude is seen as weak and lacking depth, but she is essential to the play. “…Gertrude [is] vital to the action of the play; not only is she the mother of the hero, the widow of the Ghost, and the wife of the current King of Denmark, but the fact of her hasty and, to the Elizabethans, incestuous marriage, the whole question of her “falling off,” occupies a position of barely secondary importance in the mind of her son, and of the Ghost” (9).

"Passion's Slave"

Heilbrun describes Gertrude as “passion’s slave” (17). “Unable to explain her marriage to Claudius as the act of any but a weak-minded, vacillating woman [some people] fail to see Gertrude for the strong-minded, intelligent, succinct, and apart from this passion, sensible woman that she is” (Heilbrun 11). Whether one sees her as the frail woman that follows the whims of the men in her life or as the strong woman that knows exactly what she is doing, Gertrude’s sexuality is at the heart of this tragedy. “The ‘something’ rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90) leads directly … to the degraded sexuality in which Gertrude is trapped” (Erickson 73).

As I see it, Gertrude’s sexuality leads to the downfall of this court in two ways. First, Claudius murders the King in order to marry this sexual woman and through her gain access to the throne. Although we hear Claudius confess through prayer that he did kill the king later in the play, we first hear of the murder and motive from the ghost. “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, / With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts – / O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power / so to seduce!” (1.5.42-45). In other words, Claudius used his power to seduce Gertrude in order to take the throne.

The second way that Gertrude’s sexuality leads to the downfall of this court is that her seemingly adulterous and incestuous relationship with Claudius and her quick marriage plague Hamlet throughout the play. He cannot identify with his father because he now links his father with his sexual mother. With this link in mind, he does not want to link himself with his sexual mother.

Hamlet - A confused son

According to Peter Erickson in his book Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare’s Drama, “The patriarchal imperative equates love with obedience; love not being granted unconditionally, the son proves his loyalty by performing his duty as the father sees it. The conflict between the role his father imposes on him and the separate self toward which he gropes does not collapse in favor of the former” (67-69). As the Ghost, Hamlet’s father, sees it, Hamlet’s duty is to avenge his death. Hamlet’s increasing hatred for Claudius is apparent as the play progresses; he wants to fulfill his father’s wishes by murdering Claudius. However, Gertrude gets in the way. Hamlet is bothered by the relationship that his mother has with Claudius. He is sidetracked from his task by his attempts to steer his mother back onto the right track.

Adelman states, “The Henry IV plays and Julius Caesar both strikingly represent the defining act of the son’s manhood as the process of choosing between two fathers; in both , the son attempts to become fully himself by identifying with the true father rather than the false, an identification signaled by the son’s willingness to carry out the true father’s wish that the false father be disowned or killed” (12). This description could easily be describing Hamlet as well if Gertrude was not present. Hamlet is expected to think of Claudius, his uncle, as his father because he is married to Gertrude. Hamlet wants to identify with his real father and carry out his wish to get rid of Claudius, his false father. However, he has Claudius bound to Gertrude in his mind. Hamlet calls Claudius his mother when he is being sent off to England. When Claudius corrects him saying, “They loving father, Hamlet.” Hamlet replies, “My mother. Father and mother is man and wife, man / and wife is on flesh, and so my mother…” (4.4.52-54). So even in trying to fulfill his task he is distracted by Gertrude’s presence.

Hamlet’s references to his preoccupation with his mother’s sexuality are numerous. We see that he is plagued by his mother’s marriage even before he speaks to the ghost. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet says, “But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two…Let me not think on’t; Frailty, thy name is woman” (1.2.138-146).

The Play within the Play

In the play within the play, Hamlet included some of his own dialogue. The dialogue does not center on the killer of the king, but rather on the queen. In this play within the play, Hamlet believes that the queen’s unfaithfulness is what kills the king. “The Player Queen declaims, “A second time I kill my husband dead, / when second husband kisses me in bed” (3.2.184-185). The widow has already “kill’d the first” husband when she wedded the second (3.2.180) because she obliterated from her memory with the second marriage all traces of her first husband” (Blincoe 2).

It's mom's fault!

The most telling scene of how Hamlet feels about his mother and her sexuality is generally what is referred to as the closet scene, Act 3, scene 4. Hamlet has been summoned by the Queen. He goes to her room, or closet, where she waits with Polonius listening behind the arras. The Queen intends to reprimand Hamlet for his mad behavior and the offensive dialogue that he wrote for the players. Hamlet intends to make his mother see the error she has made in marrying Claudius. Gertrude says, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.” Hamlet answers with his true feeling by saying, “Mother, you have my father much offended” (3.4.9-10). Hamlet tells the queen that she is being too sexual for her age. He also shows his repulsion of her choice of Claudius over his virtuous father.

The tragedy partly comes out of Hamlet’s procrastination over killing Claudius. He does this partly because he is obsessed with his mother’s sexuality and her new marriage. So when it is said that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90), some would agree that the “something” is Gertrude.

Gertrude provides the maternal presence in Hamlet She embodies the sexuality that creates this tragedy. As Adelman says, “In the histories, maternal absence functions to enable the son’s assumption of his father’s identity…(13). The absence of fully female sexuality is … what enables the holiday tone of these plays [the comedies]; that sexuality is for Shakespeare the stuff of tragedy…” (14). Gertrude knows from the start that her marriage is what is causing Hamlet’s madness. She says, “I doubt it is no other but the main – / His father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage (2.256-57). “This statement is concise, remarkably to the point, and not a little courageous. It is not the statement of a dull, slothful woman who can only echo her husband’s words” (Heilbrun 12). With this statement Gertrude tells the audience that this tragedy comes from her actions. She confirms that it is her presence that ignites the tragedy that occurs in Denmark.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers. NY: Routledge, 1992.

Blincoe, Noel. "Is Gertrude an adulteress?" ANQ. Fall 1997: 18-24. Found on proquest.

Erickson, Peter. Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Hamlet's Mother and Other Women. NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. NY: W.W. Nortona & Company, 1997.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Donna Hilbrandt

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