William Shakespeare is the playwright whose name implies the whole époque in the sphere of English drama and whose contribution to literature development one cannot overestimate. Along with the themes covered and the problems his works focus on, they attract the readers’ attention by the depth and skills depicted by the characters. All Shakespeare’s characters are presented with the highest level of the author’s proficiency and equally deserve the readers’ attention. But the current paper will focus on the female character of the playwright. The paper is concerned with the character of Gertrude from Shakespearean Hamlet and discloses all the peculiarities and features of her role in the story.
It is important to stress from the very beginning that the female character will be analyzed through the following perspectives: Gertrude as a wife, Gertrude as a mother and Gertrude as a queen. Overall, it is necessary to reveal the nature of relationship between Gertrude and Claudius and examine her relationships with Hamlet. The paper will also prove that this female character contributed to the play’s being called a masterpiece of the early XVII century, as, to much extent, it is the character’s skillful depiction led to the play’s immortality and popularity for centuries long.
One should start the analysis of the character with outlining the legal privileges and political implications that a queen who became a widow had at Shakespearean times. A widow was entitled to the use of more than the customary one-third of her deceased husband’s lands and income, and could be surer of holding onto it than she could a dower (Kahn 228). Therefore, as a widow, Gertrude possessed significant power and it is her rather than Claudius who has “popped in between the election” and her son’s hopes, obstructing and complicating the succession, which can no longer be the “closed, well-knit, concise” compact of male-male inheritance but has been put “out of joint” for Hamlet by the woman who is considered to be not only his mother but who has in effect conferred the state of Denmark upon him by bringing him her jointure in marriage (Kahn 229). By this the author wanted to highlight the real woman nature of hers and her great inner power.
Further, in Aguirre Manuel’s research Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty (1996) one can find various proofs of Gertrude’s magnificence as a queen. The researcher demonstrates the importance of such symbols as cup, water, and cloth that are known as essential attributes of female sovereigns.
For instance, considering the function of the cup used several times throughout the play Aguirre admits that a cup was a symbol of transmission of Sovereignty in Celtic tales: that is, when the queen handed someone a vessel that meant that she granted one her sexual favors and sovereignty over her territory (Aguirre 1). There is a very strong analogy with this tradition in Shakespearean play: Claudius’ cup in I, IV stands to represent the King’s sexual union with Gertrude and his accession to the Danish throne. The representation of the things in the life of the characters is very symbolic.
The reappearance of the elements like the cup throughout the play can be the reason for the fact that it was Gertrude rather than Claudius who possessed sole authority to choose the new king. And, what is more, that Gertrude’s marriage with Claudius was more a political rather than a personal act. Gertrude seems to be reluctant to take responsibility and make use of her powers and the union with Claudius is the only way out that she sees in her situation. One can think that because of her unwillingness to take responsibility Gertrude cannot be considered to be a good Queen. Still, this position is rather subjective.
In Aguirre’s research mentioned above there is also a sort of excuse for Gertrude’s getting married so soon after her husband’s death. The researcher speaks of the myths that there are numerous parallels to in the Hamlet which focus on the tendency to connect sovereignty with marriage.
Almost since the very beginning of the play the reader can follow Claudius and Gertrude’s immediate wedding and coronation. The meaning of the myths considered we can see the true intentions of both parties. Hamlet, however, viewed the marriage as adultery only. For him it is only sexual desire that his mother was moved by when getting married for the second time. He seems to believe that his mother does not care to differentiate between her objects of desire, and her sexual voracity prevents him form trusting her.
Though the character of Gertrude is one of the most ambiguous ones in the play, one thing remains unquestionable: Gertrude did not take part in the murder of her husband. This fact encourages seeking for some good traits in her character that will make some crucial transformation in her behavior possible.
In her conversation with the son Gertrude hears from him: “Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;/ And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,/ Or paddling in your neck with his damn’d fingers,/ Make you to ravel all this matter out,/ That I essentially am not in madness,/ But mad in craft.” (Shakespeare III, IV, 199) But after this Gertrude answers the King’s question about Hamlet in the following way: “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend/ Which is the mightier” (IV, I, 7) not betraying him in the situation. This act of hers speaks for her conscience that gradually evokes. Gertrude has become reserved with her husband since her conversation with Hamlet. The playwright stresses the intensification of her state of disease: “To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is,/ Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss./ So full of artless jealousy is guilt/ It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.” (IV, V, 20) This state symbolizes her going over to Hamlet’s side (to extent that was possible in her position). The woman has gradually understood that her present husband was responsible for some awful event crucial for the lives of all of them and her motherly love could not be defeated by her affection or some other feelings that united her with the King; and in her understanding her son, her moral power consists in.
As for Hamlet, if in the scene with her mother “Hamlet had to be cruel only to be kind” (III, IV, 199), later when he is told that the Queen wants he and Laertes make friends, he admits that his mother teaches him only good things. This also speaks for moral strengths of Gertrude in spite of the mistakes that she has made. Hamlet’s attitude to his mother thus takes on a range of shadows: from scolding the mother as one can scold an elderly parent to a mere sympathy and compassion.
It is important to stress that vengeance that Hamlet was moved by since the beginning of the play, did not overcome him when speaking of his mother. Even the Ghost who thinks that Gertrude is guilty of adultery and, may be, even of conspiracy of the murder, prescribes for Gertrude: “Leave her to heaven,/ And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge/ To prick and sting her” (I, V, 86)” Perhaps in the long run it happened as the Ghost prescribed. The ties of relationship between the mother and her son appeared to be stronger than gusts of passion that both of them were overwhelmed this or that time.
Other attitudes to Gertrude may differ sharply from the one we proposed above. Some consider Gertrude to be a deceitful, twofaced, hypocritical woman caring only of her political position and not of her own son. According to this view, the only noble deed of hers is her own death, but even that deed was not her own initiative.
Still, a reader can stick to the point that the character of Gertrude is one of the brightest in Shakespearean works. Partially, this is so because of the mystery that this character possesses and always keeps the reader wondering about the keys to solve this mystery; partially, this is due to the strength (though hidden) that the woman demonstrated. In all the three perspective analyzed in the paper Gertrude can be considered a powerful woman, with the remark made concerning her being the Queen as, in fact, she did not make use of her power. But again that was her own choice and that choice speaks for the strength of her character.
One more masterpiece by Shakespeare – one more skillfully depicted character. The dubious feelings towards Gertrude that appear while reading make the play really unfading, as the more questions the reader asks the more answers emerge. And as long as this dialogue exists as long the character remains immortal.
Aguirre, Manuel. “Life, Crown, and Queen: Gertrude and the Theme of Sovereignty.” Review of English Studies 47 (1996): 163-74.
Kahn, Coppelia. “Showing like a Queen: Female Authority and Literary Experiment in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton.” Shakespeare Studies (2002): 228.
Levin, Harry. The Question of Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1959.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Plain Label Books, 1997.