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Gertrude (Hamlet)

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Title: Gertrude (Hamlet)  
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Subject: Hamlet, Moscow Art Theatre production of Hamlet, Characters in Hamlet, Hamlet (2009 film), Hamlet (2000 film)
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Gertrude (Hamlet)

"Hamlet and His Mother" by Eugène Delacroix
Creator William Shakespeare
Play Hamlet
Family King Hamlet (husband)
King Claudius (husband)
Prince Hamlet (son)

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Gertrude is Hamlet's mother and Queen of Denmark. Her relationship with Hamlet is somewhat turbulent, since he resents her for marrying her husband's brother Claudius after he murdered the King (young Hamlet's father, King Hamlet). Gertrude reveals no guilt in her marriage with Claudius after the recent murder of her husband, and Hamlet begins to show signs of jealousy towards Claudius. According to Hamlet, she scarcely mourned her husband's death before marrying Claudius.

Role in the play

Gertrude is first seen in Act 1 Scene 2 as she tries to cheer Hamlet over the loss of his father, begging him to stay at home rather than going back to school in Wittenberg. Her worry over him continues into the second act, as she sides with King Claudius in sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to raise the spirits of her son. Also, rather than ascribing Hamlet's sudden madness to Ophelia's rejection (as thought by Polonius), she believes the cause to be his father, King Hamlet's death and her quick, subsequent marriage to Claudius: "I doubt it is no other but the main; His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage."[1] In Act three, she eagerly listens to the report of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on their attempt to cheer him, and supports the King and Polonius' plan to watch Hamlet from a hidden vantage point as he speaks with Ophelia, with the hope that her presence will heal him.

In the next act, Gertrude tells Claudius of Polonius' murder, convinced that Hamlet is truly mad. She also shows genuine compassion and affection as she watches along with others as Ophelia sings and acts in absolute madness. At Ophelia's burial, she expresses her former hope that the young woman might have married her son: "I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife."[2] When Hamlet appears and grapples with Laertes, she asks him to stop and for someone to hold him back—saying that he may be in a fit of madness now, but that will alleviate soon. At the beginning of the play, Gertrude lies more with her husband than her son; however, after the closet scene the whole situation is switched.

In the final scene, Gertrude notices Hamlet is tired during the fight with Laertes, and offers to wipe his brow. She drinks a cup of poison intended for Hamlet by the King, against the King's wishes, and dies, shouting in agony as she falls: "No, no, the drink, --O my dear Hamlet,-- The drink, the drink! I am poison'd."[3]

Other characters' views of the Queen are largely negative. When the Ghost of her former husband appears to Hamlet, he describes her as a "seeming virtuous queen", but orders Hamlet not to confront her about it and leave her judgement to heaven. However, he also expresses that his love for her was benevolent as he states that he would have held back the elements if they "visited her face too roughly".

Hamlet sees her as an example of the weakness of women (which affects his relationship with Ophelia) and constantly hurt in his reflections of how quickly (less than a month) she remarried.


Gertrude's last words show affection towards her son. She does not confess to any sins before she dies which suggests she was naive about the "corruption" in Denmark. Therefore, Gertrude is most likely an honest queen and a passionate mother (which is debatable depending upon interpretation) as she makes no attempts to ease her conscience regarding whether she would be sent to Heaven or Hell (the Christian ethos formed a backdrop to the play as a technique used by Shakespeare).

Other considerations point to Gertrude's complicity in the murder of Hamlet's father. After repeated erratic threats towards his mother to no response, Hamlet threatens to discover the true nature of Gertrude's character by setting up a mirror at which point she projects a killer:[4]

In the essay "Hamlet and his problems" T. S. Eliot suggests that the main cause of Hamlet's internal dilemma is Gertrude's sinful behaviour. He states, "Shakespeare's Hamlet... is a play dealing with the effect of a mother's guilt upon her son." [5]

In the 1940s, Ernest Jones—a psychoanalyst and Freud's biographer—developed Freud's ideas into a series of essays that culminated in his book Hamlet and Oedipus (1949). Influenced by Jones's psychoanalytic approach, several productions have portrayed the "closet scene",[6] where Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters, in a sexual light. In this reading, Hamlet is disgusted by his mother's "incestuous" relationship with Claudius while simultaneously fearful of killing him, as this would clear Hamlet's path to his mother's bed.

Carolyn Heilbrun's 1957 essay "Hamlet's Mother" defends Gertrude, arguing that the text never hints that Gertrude knew of Claudius poisoning King Hamlet. This analysis has been championed by many feminist critics.[7] Heilbrun argued that men have for centuries completely misinterpreted Gertrude, believing what Hamlet said about her rather than the actual text of the play. By this account, no clear evidence suggests that Gertrude is an adulteress: she is merely adapting to the circumstances of her husband's death for the good of the kingdom.[8]


Women were almost exclusively banned from appearing as actresses on the stage until approximately 1660 and in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, troupes appeared that were composed entirely of boy players. Indeed, they are famously mentioned in Hamlet, in which a group of travelling actors has left the city due to rivalry with a troupe of "little eyases" (unfledged hawks).[9][10] Glenn Close played mother to Mel Gibson in the Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 Hamlet.

Julie Christie appeared as Gertrude in Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet. Despite her classical training as an actor, it was her first-ever venture into Shakespeare.

In Michael Almereyda's 2000 Hamlet, Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet as a film student, while Diane Venora portrays Gertrude, wife to the former and present CEOs of "Denmark Corporation".

In Ryan Imhoff's Chicago production of "The Hamlet Project," Gertrude is played by critically acclaimed actress Angela Morris.[11]


Gertrude and Claudius, a John Updike novel, serves as a prequel to the events of the play. It follows Gertrude from her wedding to King Hamlet, through an affair with Claudius, and its murderous results, until the very beginning of the play. Gertrude also appears as a character in Howard Barker's Gertrude—The Cry, which uses some of the characters from Hamlet.

Hamlet has played "a relatively small role" [12] in the appropriation of Shakespeare's plays by women writers. Margaret Atwood's "Gertrude Talks Back", in her 1994 collection of short stories Good Bones and Simple Murders, sees the title character setting her son straight about Old Hamlet's murder: "It wasn't Claudius, darling, it was me!"[12][13]

The character of Gemma Teller Morrow on the FX show Sons of Anarchy which incorporates plot elements from Hamlet, is influenced by and shares many traits with Queen Gertrude.


  1. ^ Hamlet II:2
  2. ^ Hamlet V:1
  3. ^ Hamlet V:2
  4. ^ Act III, scene IV (line 20)
  5. ^ "Hamlet and his problems", The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1922
  6. ^ The Closet Scene: Hamlet 3.4.
  7. ^ Bloom (2003, 58-59).
  8. ^ Bloom (2003, 58–59); Thompson (2001, 4).
  9. ^ (II, ii,339)
  10. ^ G. Blakemore Evans, ed., The Riverside Shakespeare, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; p. 1156 n. 339.
  11. ^ "The Hamlet Project Chicago". Retrieved 2014-07-18. 
  12. ^ a b Thompson and Taylor (2006a, 126–132).
  13. ^ "Gertrude Talks Back" by Margaret Attwood
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