Hamlet: Character Profile - Gertrude


Basic Facts:

Gertrude is Hamlet¡¦s mother and the queen of Denmark. Although she is a significant character in the play, Shakespeare often leaves the reasoning behind her actions unexplained and one clear example of this would be her hasty marriage to Hamlet¡¦s uncle, Claudius, as the motivation behind her marriage is never addressed. Nonetheless we are presented with various possibilities ranging from the claim that she had desired Claudius all along to the idea that, as a woman, if she wants to live any form of a successful life then she has little choice but to align herself with the most powerful male figure. Having said that, the main reason that Shakespeare (or at least Hamlet) seems to give for her marriage to Claudius is that, again as a woman, she is weak and lacks the necessary moral strength to resist the temptations of wealth, influence and physical intimacy offered by Claudius. Additionally, her inherent fickleness (or ¡¥frailty¡¦) implies that her attachment to Old Hamlet was never that deep in the first place because women are incapable of the depth and sincerity of male commitments.


Through Gertrude¡¦s interaction with Hamlet in the first scene, it can be seen that Gertrude has a very close relationship with her son and is much gentler towards him than Claudius. Despite this, Hamlet views Gertrude¡¦s marriage as a sign of betrayal and consequently, this leads to audience to have a less sympathetic view of Gertrude. Furthermore, in conjunction with the details Hamlet provides of Gertrude¡¦s actions after Old Hamlet¡¦s death, we begin to see that Gertrude may be an unreliable character whose appearances can be deceptive.


Reading Hamlet from a feminist perspective we can see that Gertrude is constantly surrounded by males which may be read as demonstrating her reliance on males in this patriarchal society. Later on, we can see that Gertrude sympathizes with Ophelia and also wishes that Ophelia will marry Hamlet and this concentration on familial values may be seen as reinforcing the idea that women should primarily concern themselves with family matters. Finally, in Acts III, IV, and V, we can see that although Hamlet continues to hurt Gertrude with his words and actions she remains forgiving towards him and thus, even under extreme provocation, continues to maintain play a motherly role.



Quotations & Analysis:







¡§Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, // And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark¡¨

Gertrude¡¦s first line in the play is directed towards Hamlet. Her language is very gentle, as she addresses Hamlet as ¡§[g]ood¡¨ and uses the word ¡§let¡¨ instead of directly telling Hamlet to ¡§look like a friend on Denmark¡¨ all of which serves to create a gentle, motherly feel to her character.




¡§Do not for ever with thy vailed lids // Seek for thy noble father in the dust. // Thou know¡¦st ¡¥tis common, all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.¡¨

Getrude¡¦s suggestion that Hamlet has ¡§vailed lids¡¨ suggests that she believes Hamlet is misled by his grief. Perhaps she feels it her duty to make Hamlet aware of his behavior. Consequently, this suggests that Gertrude believes she is the one who is seeing clearly and is level-headed. This idea is reinforced when she says ¡§[t]hou know¡¦st¡¨, creating the impression that she is appealing to the rational side of Hamlet, which may be intentional to show Hamlet that she still believes in him to make correct choices. Additionally, her description of death as ¡§passing through nature to eternity¡¨ not only emphasizes her gentleness when dealing with Hamlet, as her uses of ¡§eternity¡¨ provides a more euphemistic view of death, but it also shows how she may be a more optimistic person.




¡§Hamlet: Ay, madam, it is common.

Gertrude: ¡§If it be¡¨

The use of stichomythia indicates the closeness between Gertrude and Hamlet as they are sharing the line.




¡§Let not they mother lose her prayers¡¨

Gertrude addresses herself as ¡§thy mother¡¨, yet later on she addresses herself as ¡§I¡¨. This implies that through the word ¡§thy¡¨, Gertrude hopes that Hamlet will feel a sense of responsibility for her, as ¡§thy¡¨ is generally associated with a belonging, and will then stay in Denmark with his mother.




¡§so loving to my mother // That he might not beteem the winds of heaven // Visit her face so roughly.¡¨

Hamlet¡¦s reference to Old Hamlet protecting Gertrude from the wind creates the impression that Gertrude is very delicate. The actions of Old Hamlet also show that Old Hamlet had a very close relationship with Gertrude and was very protective of her.




¡§Why, she should hang on him¡¨

Hamlet views Gertrude as being very reliant on Old Hamlet. This emphasizes Gertrude¡¦s need for a male presence. ¡§[H]ang¡¨ also creates the impression that Gertrude is nothing without something to support her; without a support, she would just be unsubstantial and have no structure.




¡§Frailty, thy name is woman!¡¨

Hamlet applies his opinion of Gertrude to all women. It shows that Hamlet clearly views Gertrude as weak, emotional, and frail.




¡§a beast that want discourse of reason // Would have mourn¡¦d longer¡¨

Hamlet¡¦s comparison of Gertrude to a beast implies that Gertrude is lacking the conscience and morals that make us human. Furthermore, Gertrude seems to be able to change her emotions quickly as she did not mourn Old Hamlet for a long enough time.




¡§With such dexterity to incestuous sheets¡¨

Gertrude¡¦s actions are regarded as incestuous and this leads one to question Gertrude¡¦s motives, as she is willing to marry her brother-in-law. It also contributes to the presentation of her as sexually corrupt which echoes the presentation of women in the Bible where women, as represented by the archetype of Eve, are seen as easily succumbing to temptation and the source of evil in the world.





O wicked wit and gifts that have the power // So to seduce! ... my most seeming virtuous queen¡¨

The ghost views Gertrude as being easily manipulated, as he believes she was seduced by Claudius¡¦ gifts and charming words. ¡§Seeming¡¨ also suggests that Gertrude is not who she portrays to be and it creates uncertainty about her actions and thus suggests an inherent weakness or unreliability about women.




¡§So [lust], though to a radiant angel link¡¦d¡¨

According to the ghost, Gertrude seems to be a very lustful person, filled with sexual desires, even though she is a ¡§radiant angel¡¨. The ghost suggests that this is why Gertrude married Claudius and, once again reading from a feminist perspective, we can see that Shakespeare is reinforcing (consciously or not) a set of patriarchal / Biblical values that view women as the source of sexual corruption, sin and evil.




¡§O most pernicious woman!¡¨

Hamlet appears to be torn in his attitude towards Gertrude. Here she seems ¡§pernicious¡¨ but at other points he is far more affectionate and gentle towards her, which may indicate the tension Hamlet feels between the love he bears his mother and his anger at what he seems to perceive as the betrayal of this father. It is also interesting to consider the fact that, when he is being critical of his mother, Hamlet tends to view her as representative of woman-kind in general ¡V hence ¡¥pernicious woman¡¦ rather than ¡¥pernicious queen¡¦ or ¡¥pernicious mother¡¦. Reading the text from a feminist perspective, this may be seen as reinforcing the values of the dominant patriarchal system of the time which viewed women as morally unreliable and a source of corruption.




¡§If it will please you // To show us so much gentry and good will // As to expend your time with us a while // For the supply and profit of our hope, // Your visitation shall receive such thanks // As fits a king¡¦s remembrance.


Gertrude¡¦s language reveals her eloquence and suggests that she is adept at playing the role of a queen. Perhaps hinting at an unreliability or disingenuousness to her character.



¡§I doubt it is no other but the main, // His father¡¦s death and our [o¡¦erhasty] marriage.¡¨

Gertrude understands the reason for Hamlet¡¦s moody behavior and attributes it to Old Hamlet¡¦s death and her hasty marriage to Claudius. This shows that she possesses a degree of awareness that the other characters seem to lack at points and also implies an intimate understanding of her son¡¦s thoughts and feelings and thus a closeness between the two.




¡§I shall obey you.¡¨

This quotation shows that the Queen is quite powerless in this patriarchal society which reflects the general position of females in the Elizabethan world.




¡§The lady doth protest too much, methinks¡¨

Gertrude is defending herself, be it subconsciously or consciously, when she comments that the Player Queen is protesting too strongly about her loyalty to her husband. This may be reas as suggesting either a sense of pragmatism (the queen knows how limited the position of women really is in society) or alternatively guilt about the way in which she made such promises to Old Hamlet but quickly overturned them.




¡§I¡¦ll warrn¡¦t you, fear me not. Withdraw...¡¨

Gertrude is seen here asserting herself over Polonius. She appears confident that she will be able to communicate with Hamlet, which suggests that, despite their differences, she still cares deeply for him and still sees him as her son.




¡§Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue¡¨

This reprimand shows Gertrude attempting to assert some form of parental authority over Hamlet and as well as a sense of anger / exasperation as Hamlet is refusing to communicate clearly and obey the rules of normal social interaction. This perhaps reflects the way in which Hamlet is using his madness to step outside the bounds of normal social behaviour which in turn enables him to do things (e.g. challenge the power of the King) that would otherwise be unacceptable. Gertrude¡¦s exasperation, then, reflects the exasperation that anyone feels when someone else is refusing to ¡¥play the game¡¦ and this perhaps suggests something about the rule-based and codified nature of all social interaction.




¡§As kill a king!¡¨

The queen¡¦s surprise and shock at the mention of killing a king suggests that she was not aware that Claudius killed Old Hamlet. However, she may be feigning surprise or be surprised that Hamlet knows about it.




¡§What have I done, that thou dar¡¦st wag thy tongue // In noise so rude against me?¡¨

Gertrude¡¦s question implies that (at least on the surface) she feels that she has done nothing to deserve Hamlet¡¦s censure which suggests that either Hamlet is over-reacting to her actions after his father¡¦s death or that Gertrude really is heartless and fickle.




¡§O, speak to me no more! // These words like daggers enter in my ears. // No more, sweet Hamlet!¡¨

These lines are significant as they suggest that Gertrude is capable of feeling guilt and that she is less superficial and fickle than might otherwise have appeared. This moment could also be read as an example of the power that reason has to overcome emotion as Hamlet has explained to his mother why Old Hamlet was a better example of a man and king than Claudius and this has forced Gertrude (at least momentarily) to ¡¥see through¡¦ her emotional / sexual attachment to the new king.




¡§As Mad as the sea and wind when both contend¡¨

This is another ambiguous line from Gertrude ¡K previously Hamlet assured his mother that he was just pretending to be mad and asked her to keep his secret but then when the ghost enters her chamber she sees nothing and so at this point it is not clear if Gertrude is keeping Hamlet¡¦s secret or genuinely reporting to Claudius that her son is mad. This ambiguity is not resolved and so contributes to the general air of confusion and uncertainty that runs through the play.




¡§like some ore // Among a mineral of metals base, // Shows itself pure. He weeps for what is done.¡¨



Gertrude suggests that despite Hamlet¡¦s madness he retains some sense of moral judgment and once again we are left unsure about where Gertrude¡¦s loyalties lie.




¡§I will not speak with her¡¨

Gertrude¡¦s decision not to speak to Gertrude suggests a certain weakness of character and an unwillingness to face hard or unpleasant truths ¡K once again, perhaps, reinforcing the stereotypical presentation of women as weak.




¡§To my sick soul, as sin¡¦s true nature is ¡K it spills itself in fearing to be split¡¨

Gertrude¡¦s line here suggests not only a consciousness of her own guilt but also a general statement about all human behaviour. Shakespeare¡¦s ability to comment with precision on the human condition (in this case the fact that guilty people often give themselves away by the very nature of their attempt to appear innocent) that makes his work beautiful and gives it the power to transcend time.




¡§I hop¡¦d thou should¡¦ve been my Hamlet¡¦s wife.¡¨

This is one of Gertrude¡¦s more poignant lines and suggests, at heart, a caring and compassionate nature.




¡§I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me¡¨

This appears to be the first time Gertrude opposes the king in public and in front of Hamlet and this suggests an increasing allegiance to her son over her husband and thus perhaps creates sympathy for her just before she dies ¡V after all she dies as a result of a gesture of kindness. It is ironic that her act of defiance results in her death and although this could be read from a feminist perspective it is perhaps more convincing just to see this as one of the great moments of tension in the play.




¡§Come, let me wipe thy face¡¨

Gertrude is once again taking on the role of the caring mother and here she is in full support of Hamlet as he duels with Laertes. Once again we can perhaps see this as a method that Shakespeare uses to evoke increasing sympathy for the Queen and thus further vilify Claudius as she is the innocent victim of his cowardly plot to dispose of Hamlet.




The drink, the drink! I am pois¡¦ned.

Using her final words, Gertrude attempts to warn Hamlet about the poison in the goblet and in so doing seems to confirm her as a character with whom, overall, we should sympathise. Her ignorance of the plot to kill Hamlet, her concern for him and the fact that her last words appear to point to a final and fatal moment of realization as well as an irrevocable turning against Claudius all help reinforce this impression.




Role in the Play:

Gertrude is in some ways a bridge and connection between Hamlet and Claudius as she attempts to alleviate the tension between the two of them. Gertrude¡¦s hasty marriage to Claudius also serves as one of the reasons for Hamlet¡¦s anger and is thus an important plot device used to create tension. Gertrude¡¦s apparent preference for Claudius over Hamlet allows the audience to witness the beginnings of Hamlet¡¦s isolation from the court and his growing despair and, read from a feminist perspective, Gertrude also helps establish some of the gender roles in the play, such as the fact that females are viewed as emotional and unreliable. Furthermore, Gertrude¡¦s reliance on males in the play reemphasizes the frailty of the female.


Gertrude is very much concerned with Hamlet and Ophelia and she feels sympathetic towards Ophelia after her suicide. Gertrude¡¦s longing for Hamlet¡¦s madness¡¦ reason to be Ophelia suggests that she believes that love can drive one to do irrational things and perhaps further reinforces the idea of the conflict between reason and emotion that lies at the heart of the play. This focus on her son and marriage suggests that the role of females is to concentrate on familial values and not concern themselves with things such as political issues.


Once again, reading from a feminist perspective, Gertrude can be seen as demonstrating the dominate patriarchal understanding of the time that women are emotionally weak and unreliable. We can see this most obviously in the fact that both of the female characters end up dead by the end of the play but we also see this in the way that both Hamlet and Claudius seem to be battling for control over her. The idea that it is the proper place of women to obey men may also be suggested by the fact that it is when Gertrude openly disobeys Claudius¡¦ order that she meets her end.