Few Shakespearean characters have caused as much uncertainty as Gertrude, the beautiful Queen of Denmark. The play seems to raise more questions about Gertrude than it answers, including: Was she involved with Claudius before the death of her husband? Did she love her husband? Did she know about Claudius’s plan to commit the murder? Did she love Claudius, or did she marry him simply to keep her high station in Denmark? Does she believe Hamlet when he insists that he is not mad, or does she pretend to believe him simply to protect herself? Does she intentionally betray Hamlet to Claudius, or does she believe that she is protecting her son’s secret?
These questions can be answered in numerous ways, depending upon one’s reading of the play. The Gertrude who does emerge clearly in Hamlet is a woman defined by her desire for station and affection, as well as by her tendency to use men to fulfill her instinct for self-preservation—which, of course, makes her extremely dependent upon the men in her life. Hamlet’s most famous comment about Gertrude is his furious condemnation of women in general: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (I.ii.146). This comment is as much indicative of Hamlet’s agonized state of mind as of anything else, but to a great extent Gertrude does seem morally frail. She never exhibits the ability to think critically about her situation, but seems merely to move instinctively toward seemingly safe choices, as when she immediately runs to Claudius after her confrontation with Hamlet. She is at her best in social situations (I.ii and V.ii), when her natural grace and charm seem to indicate a rich, rounded personality. At times it seems that her grace and charm are her onlycharacteristics, and her reliance on men appears to be her sole way of capitalizing on her abilities.
At one point Hamlet lashes out at her with all the rage he can muster but Gertrude remains faithful to him, protecting him fron the King. And, although her love for Claudius is wrong by moral standards, she became his queen, and remains loyal to him. We see she has the potential for great love — she wants to protect Claudius from the mob, and she cares deeply about Ophelia and Polonius, and is concerned for Hamlet in the duel even though she has no idea that it is a trap. It is Gertrude’s underlying propensity for goodness that redeems her. Her men forgive her for her shallow, sensual nature and her addictions to comfort and pleasure because they see that she is innocent of premeditation. It is sad but fitting that Gertrude meet her end drinking from the poisoned goblet, demanding that she taste what is in the pretty cup, as trusting as a new-born babe.
“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!–won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.”
“O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn’st my very eyes into my soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct (III.iv.88-91)
…O speak to me no more;
these words like daggars enter my ears;
No more, sweet Hamlet!”
“Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
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.”