We were talking about Hamlet today in class and the topic of how we feel about Gertrude as a character came up, which got me thinking.
One of the essential questions I think we need to ask when judging a character like Gertrude is how much personal autonomy does a woman like her have in what is presumably medieval Denmark? Sure, the question gets thrown out the window if you set the play in a more modern time, but I think that the question is valid when contemplating the play in its original setting. How much power did she have in regards to her marriage? It seems highly doubtful that she would have had the freedom of choice to choose who she marries. While we have a romanticized view of marriage in our modern world, this was not so for the time period that Hamlet is set in. More likely, Gertrude was married to King Hamlet for dynastic reasons; maybe their two families formed some sort of alliance through the marriage, maybe she would inherit great wealth and land from her father or some other sort of similar scenario, but I find it highly unlikely that they married for love. Sure, Hamlet claims that his father cared for her dearly, but what child doesn’t romanticize their parents’ relationship? Additionally, he has been gone at school in Germany for presumably some time and thus his memory of his father’s relationship is obscured from lack of everyday contact. Stricken by grief and what he feels as the horror of reality, Hamlet venerates his father to make him out to be a glorious figure. It makes sense then for him to think of his father as this great devoted husband.
How then, can we judge Gertrude too harshly for her actions? It was very likely that she didn’t even love King Hamlet in the first place – but this begs the question why do we care if she loved him in the first place? Why does her being a good person revolve around her loving her husband? Because we have the expectation that a woman should be a good and loyal wife? True, if she was part of the plot to kill Hamlet then we should condemn her for that. But why should we judge her for trying to find happiness – through marrying Claudius – within the confines of the place of the woman in this society? Others cite her treatment of Hamlet as cold and distant, condemning her for that, but again, can we really blame her for feeling distant from a child that she was forced to have? In this society she would have essentially been forced to have children; though she obviously has a high political status it is still her role as a woman to do so. Is it any wonder that she might feel distant from a child that represents the fetters that society has forced upon women? This is a moot point though, because she obviously shows affection for Hamlet, even if she does act perhaps insensitively towards his father’s death. But why should she sacrifice her happiness for his comfort? As she wisely states, all people die. Hamlet will eventually get over his grief. But will if marrying again will bring her happiness, I think that it was prudent for her to jump on this chance.
I don’t necessarily think that Claudius loved Gertrude. If he had, I think he would have found some way to stop her from drinking that poisoned wine and afterwards he would have not claimed that she was just swooning from the sight of blood. He wanted her to wife and, as with her marriage to King Hamlet, did she really have the power to refuse his desire? He would have been the king regardless of whether he married her. If he found another wife, where would Gertrude be? Her husband can no longer protect her and her son is an adolescent studying in Germany. Marrying Claudius was safe. Yet there is evidence that Gertrude values romantic love. At Ophelia’s funeral she states that “I hoped thou shouldst be m y Hamlet’s wife. / I thought thy bridebed to have decked, sweet maid, / and not have strewed they grave” (Act V.1 line 233-236). Ophelia and Hamlet would never be married because of their disparate social statuses, but Gertrude wishes that they had been allowed to. Perhaps she even wishes this for herself.
All in all, I think that Gertrude is as trapped in this society as Ophelia is and that we judge her far too harshly.