As with the post on Claudius, this is a summary of Gertrude’s main appearances in the play. It is not an interpretation of her character – you have to make up your own mind. Is she a person we admire or despise? Why? Are there moments when she redeems herself? Is she a good mother? A good wife? Is she guilty of the crimes her son accuses her of – adultery? incest? murder? (remember our understanding of incest differs from that of a Shakespearean audience). Does she show remorse for her crimes? Does she try to protect those she loves? (Hamlet / Claudius). Does she deserve to die in the horrific manner that she does?

Act 1, scene 2 First impressions

  • Gertrude seems genuinely concerned for her son but is also eager for him to accept her marriage to Claudius “Cast thy nighted colour off and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark”. This desire to ‘move on’ makes her insensitive to her son’s genuine grief.
  • Hamlet feels that her hasty remarriage is an absolute betrayal of his father’s memory “a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer” and proof that women’s love is fickle “frailty thy name is woman“. Hamlet accuses her of being guilty of both adultery and incest (she prob is). Disgust at Gertrude’s weakness and disloyalty dominates Hamlet’s mind and soul and is the primary cause of his depression. Is he being too hard on her?

Act 1, scene 5 The ghost’s visit

  • The ghost desribes Gertrude as “my most seeming virtuous queen” and reveals that – in his opinion – Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius was based on lust not love. There is no conclusive proof that Gertrude and Claudius were involved in an adulterous relationship before the King was murdered but it would certainly explain a lot – their hasty remarriage, Gertrude’s guilt later on hen Hamlet accuses her of sinning and Claudius’ indifference to her death (perhaps he was just using her all along and seduced her while his brother was still alive to ensure that he gained the throne once he murdered the King.)
  • Despite his hurt that Gertrude grew tired of him “O Hamlet! What a falling off was there”  (who wouldn’t choose bad boy Claudius over a sap that worries if the wind blows too roughly in your face? Sounds to me like Gertrude just wanted a bit of rough. But don’ phrase it like this in your exam!) the Ghost obviously still loves Gertrude, ordering his son not to punish her “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven“.

Act 2, scene 2 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern arrive

  • Gertrude hopes that R&G can help discover the root cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness. She seems genuinely concerned about her “too much changed son” and recognises the part she may have played in prolonging his despair “I doubt it is no other but the main/his father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage”.
  • There is a hint here that she views her former husbands death as a natural event – she talks of his death, not his murder. This suggests that she had nothing to do with it and possibly does not know that Claudius killed King Hamlet.

Act 3, scene 1 The Nunnery Scene

  • Gertrude again shows motherly concern. She quizes R&G asking if they managed to cheer him up.
  • She is full of hope that Ophelia can bring him back to his senses “so shall I hope your virtues will bring him to his wonted way again” Although it seems wrong that she would go along with spying on her , she is son she is desperate to find some way to help him. Imagine if you caught your mother reading your diary? You’d find it hard to forgive her, but then again if she thought you were suicidal and was desperate to find out why so that she could help you, you might just forgive her.
  • When Polonius comes up with yet another spying plan “let the queen mother all alone entreat him to show his grief” Gertrude is not present. This is significant because Shakespeare wants us to see Gertrude as someone who despite her flaws is still looking out for her son rather than plotting and scheming against him. Is she weak for going along with the plan? Possibly, but again she is desperate to build bridges and to help her son.

Act 3, scene 2 The Player’s Play

  • Gertrude stays calm during the play despite hearing lines like “In second husband let me be accurst, noe wed the second but who killed the first”. When Hamlet asks “How like you this play Madam” she responds “The lady doth protest too much me thinks” to which he resonds cruelly “O, but she’ll keep her word”. Despite the public embarrassment she does not react, suggesting perhaps that she has nothing to hide.

Act 3, scene 4 Murder of Polonius

  • Gertrude expects Hamlet to treat her with respect (“have you forgot me?”) not contempt (“You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and would it were not so, you are my mother“).
  • She actually believes he might kill her “Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho“.  Her panicked screams cause Polonius to also shout for help, which results in Hamlet stabbing the mystery person who’s hiding.
  • Gertrude is shocked “O what a rash and bloody deed is this” and then confused by Hamlet’s reply “A bloody deed, almost as bad, good mother, as kill a King and marry with his brother” to which she responds “As kill a King?”. Here we have confirmation that she had nothing to do with King Hamlet’s murder “What have I done?” “What act?” and truly believed that he died of natural causes.
  • When Hamlet presents her with two pictures – one of King Hamlet, one of Claudius – and asks how she could have chosen the lesser man, she begs him to stop “O Hamlet, speak no more, thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul“. He accuses her of letting her lust/passion/desires overcome her common sense “Nay but to live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed” and again she is ashamed “No more, sweet Hamlet“.
  • Gertrude is deeply concerned about her son when the ghost appears “O gentle son… whereon do you look?
  • Hamlet begs her to repent her sins and reject Claudius but she cannot bear the idea of being forced to choose between her son and her lover/husband “O Hamlet thou hast left my heart in twain” despite the fact that she now knows what Claudius did (maye she thinks he did it so that they could be together? We think he did it to gain power).
  • As the sene ends she agrees to help her son “What shall I do?” and when Hamlet asks her not to reveal that his madness is just an act she promises to keep his secret “I have no life to breathe what thou hast said to me

Act 4, scene 1

  • Gertrude covers for Hamlet when she describes the murder of Polonius to Claudius, claining that her son is “mad as the sea and wind“. 

Act 4, scene 5 Ophelia’s madness

  • Gertrude reluctantly agrees to see Ophelia after initially saying “I will not speak with her“. Perhaps she cannot bear to see the pain her son has caused through his murder of Polonius.
  • She is filled with foreboding. Every event seems a sign that some great disaster is imminent “to my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, each toy seems prologue to some great amiss”. Here Gertrude again recognises that she has sinned – she is probably referring to adultery and incest.
  • She remains loyal to Claudius in spite of all that Hamlet has told her. She allows her emotions (love) to take precedence over her sense of right and wrong (she should be morally outraged and disgusted by what he has done). When she hears a mob outside calling for Laertes to become King she is outraged “O! this is counter you false Danish dogs“. When Laertes enters she tries to keep him calm and then tries to physically restrain him from attacking Claudius. She is terrified that Laertes will kill Claudius before they get a hance to tell him that Claudius did not kill Polonius.

Act 4, scene 7 Ophelia’s death

  • Gertrude describes Ophelia’s death and there is a poetic beauty in her tragic words “There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke; When down her weedy trophies and herself Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide; And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up: Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes; As one incapable of her own distress, Or like a creature native and indued Unto that element: but long it could not be Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay To muddy death”.
  • Gertrude seems deeply distressed and repeats the words “drowned, drowned” sadly. Here we see a sharp contrast between Gertrude’s genuine sadness & Claudius’ selfish response which endears her to us.

Act 5, scene 1 Ophelia’s funeral

  • Gertrude’s genuine grief is again evident “Sweets to the sweet, farewell! I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife”
  • She again tries to protect her son by explaining away his attack on Leartes saying “this is mere madness“.

Act 5, scene 2 Final scene

  • Gertrude hopes Hamlet will win his fencing match against Laertes – she wipes his brow, then drinks to his health, accidently drinking from the poisoned cup.
  • Claudius’ pathetic attempt to save her life makes us feel deep sympathy for her It seems she truly loved him whilst he loves only himself.
  • Her final deed in the play is to try to save her son’s life “the drink, the drink – o my dear Hamlet – …. I am poisoned

Now you need to organise this information into 6 coherent paragraphs.

  • You could begin by discussing our first impressions of her – she is accused of adultery, incest and a hasty remarriage which implies a betrayal of her first husband’s memory. She is initially insensitive to Hamlet’s grief.
  • You could then discuss the Ghost’s view of her and her inability to see what kind of man Claudius truly is. Yet there must be something to love in her (the Ghost still loves her and despite everything that has happened so does her son).
  • You could then look at the evidence of her motherly concern which is clear throughout the play -through all the spying plots & particularly after he murders Polonius.
  • Look at how she reacts when Hamlet confronts her – she is not guilty of murder, but admits to her sins and is tortured by them. She is racked by guilt (prob for incest/adultery/betrayal) and shows genuine remorse.
  • Gertrude’s humanity shines through in her compassionate reaction to Ophelia’s madness and death.
  • Finish examine the final scene: look at how she pays the ultimate price for her inability to see her man for who he truly is. She dies.

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