THE RELATIONSHIP OF CLAUDIUS AND GERTRUDE: SAMPLE ESSAYS

A marriage of mutual
self-interest
.

Claudius wanted to be king. Gertrude wanted to remain as queen.

In the end, both die by the same poison Gertrude’s second husband used to murder her first.

In six parts — your free sample essay on the relationship of Claudius and Gertrude in Hamlet. From Hamlet: Model Essays for Students by Brendan Munnelly.

Introduction

The marriage of Claudius and Gertrude survives many challenges: Young Fortinbras’ threat of invasion, Hamlet’s pretend madness, Polonius’ murder, Laertes’ castle-storming rebellion, and his sister Ophelia’s madness and drowning.

But their relationship cannot escape a secret murder that hides in the past. As Prince Hamlet says: “Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (1.2).

Hamlet’s role in relation to the royal couple is “to hold a mirror up to nature” (3.2). The prince brings Denmark’s false king to his knees in a moment of genuine repentance-seeking: “O, what form of prayer / Can … Forgive me my foul murder?” (3.3). And it is through Hamlet that Gertrude could see the “black and grained spots” (3.4) in her soul.

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#Hamlet: Gertrude dies by the same means her second husband used to murder her first: poison.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Act one of Hamlet presents audiences with a most unusual spectacle: a country ruled over by two monarchs, each of whom married their way to the throne.
  • In Shakespeare’s era, the marriage by a man to his late brother’s widow was not regarded as incestuous on religious or legal grounds. No other character in the play speaks of it as such. In 1.2, Claudius thanks the nobles “have freely gone / With this affair along.”
  • Nevertheless, marriages between former in-laws were viewed with some suspicion.
  • For the centuries-old prohibition was intended to prevent exactly the type of crime perpetrated on old King Hamlet by Claudius: the motivated-by-jealousy murder of one brother by another, followed by the theft of their inheritance from the victim’s rightful heir.

Key Supporting Quotes

14
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The wedding of Claudius and Gertrude:
“With mirth in funeral”

After the funeral of her first husband, old King Hamlet, whose coffin “she followed … all tears” (1.2), we can imagine the widowed Gertrude’s fear that her privileged life as “the beauteous Majesty of Denmark” (4.5) had too come to an end.

Responding ‘I do’ to Claudius’ marriage proposal held out for her the attractive prospect of retaining through a second marriage what she had for three decades enjoyed through her first: the position of Denmark’s queen.

And so, as Prince Hamlet sarcastically notes, “the marriage tables” were “coldly furnish(ed)” with the “funeral baked meats” (1.2).

With the reigning queen as his wife, Claudius was afterward able to present himself to the nobles as the candidate for kingship who offered Denmark the prospect of continuity and stability.

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Claudius & Gertrude in #Hamlet - the villainous king and self-deluding queen.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • In 1.5, the Ghost calls Claudius an “adulterate beast”—that is, a debased individual—but not, significantly, an adulterous one.
  • When Hamlet rages against Gertrude in her closet in 3.4 (“Mother, you have my father much offended”), he never suggests she was an adulteress.
  • In the final 5.2 scene, the prince’s farewell taunt to the king—“thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane”—makes no mention of adultery.
  • Gertrude’s shocked reaction to Hamlet’s accusation (“As kill a king, and marry with his brother”, 3.4) suggests she had no part in her first husband’s murder.
  • Would Claudius have turned his soul “black as death” (3.3) by disposing of Gertrude’s first husband were he not confident that the “all tears” (1.2) widow would accept him afterward as her second—and with “most wicked speed” (1.2) at that?

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The marriage of Claudius and Gertrude: “I could not but by her”

Although the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude is tainted by calculated self-interest—he to obtain the throne, she to retain it—there is nonetheless a genuine affection in their relationship.

In The Murder of Gonzago, the Player King ponders: “a question left us yet to prove” of whether “love lead fortune, or else fortune love” (3.2). In the example of Hamlet’s uncle and mother, I believe their love followed the shared good fortune that the mutually beneficial marriage brought to each spouse.

Despite Hamlet’s accusation towards his mother of fickle disloyalty (“Frailty thy name is woman”, 1.2), Gertrude remains steadfastly at the side of her second husband.

Claudius’ dark secrets mean he can never fully open his heart to her, but his comments about Gertrude—“I could not but by her” (4.7)—reveal another side of an otherwise cold and calculating man.

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"Frailty"? Queen Gertrude is in fact the most loyal character in #Hamlet.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • The on-stage royal relationship is far removed from the unrestrained sensuality which King Hamlet’s Ghost luridly imagines. It more resembles that of a middle-aged, married couple which, of course, Claudius and Gertrude actually are.
  • In their royal marriage, Claudius is respectful towards Gertrude in public; and in their private scenes, they are comfortably at ease in each other’s company.
  • When Claudius wishes to speak alone with Polonius and Ophelia in 3.1, he does not order his wife away; instead, he requests politely: “Sweet Gertrude, leave us too.” She responds with equal consideration: “I shall obey you.”
  • In 4.5, Gertrude defiantly confronts the sword-wielding, mob-leading Laertes and absolves her husband from responsibility for Polonius’ death (“But not by him”).

Key Supporting Quotes

10
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Prince Hamlet: “My uncle-father and aunt-mother”

According to the inheritance laws of Shakespeare’s era, children were entitled to two-thirds of their late father’s estate. However, if their widowed mother remarried within forty days of her husband’s death, the entire inheritance passed to the control of her new husband.

Gertrude’s within “A little month” (1.2) remarriage not only helped to block Hamlet’s succession to the throne, it also left him financially ruined too. Until such time as King Claudius dies, the prince was condemned to subsist on whatever allowance his uncle thought appropriate; confined in the “prison” (2.2) of Elsinore, he would remain the “peasant slave” son of a king “Upon whose property and most dear life / A damned defeat was made” (2.2).

And if his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2) produced an heir, Hamlet’s exclusion from both his father’s throne and wealth could well be permanent.

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#Hamlet: "Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh."

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Both Claudius and Hamlet are deterred from striking openly against each other by the relationship they share with Queen Gertrude.
  • As Claudius says to Laertes of Hamlet: “The queen his mother / Lives almost by his looks” (4.7).
  • From the prince’s perspective, he can see in the First Player’s enactment of Hecuba’s grief in 2.2 the heartbreak his mother would experience should he kill Claudius and make her a widow a second time in four months.
  • As The Murder of Gonzago demonstrates (“The Poisoner woos the Queen with gifts”, 3.2), Hamlet views the marriage of his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2) as a “hire and salary” (3.3) arrangement between two self-interested individuals: “You cannot call it love” (3.4).

Key Supporting Quotes

16
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The descent: “When sorrows
come ...”

In 1.2 we saw the queen as a woman quick to move on from the past—“All that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity”; now in 5.1 Gertrude finds her future slipping away from her. Ophelia’s passing allied with her son’s absence in England represents the death of her future grandchildren who otherwise would have carried on the Hamlet dynasty at Elsinore.

As for Claudius, he sinks into a depression (“When sorrows come, they come not single spies / But in battalions”, 4.5) on reflecting how his winning of the crown has brought only the threat of a foreign invasion, a popular rebellion and a haunted conscience (“O heavy burden”, 3.1).

When his exile of one revenge-seeking son to England is followed only by the return of another from France, Claudius devises a fatal duel between Hamlet and Laertes.

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Gertrude's double greeting - "#Hamlet, Hamlet!" - suggests both joy in her heart and guilt in her soul.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Ophelia’s descent into madness, her songs of mourning and lost love, and her accusatory offering of rue—a bitter-tasting plant associated with sadness, regret and adultery—clearly trouble Gertrude. She speaks, in her first and only aside, of her “sick soul” where “sin’s true nature is” (4.5).
  • To Gertrude, it must seem she has gained a second husband and retained her throne at the cost of losing her son to insanity and to exile from Denmark.
  • Hamlet’s unexpected return to Denmark creates for Claudius the need to dispose of his troublesome nephew a second time, while again appearing blameless for his death.
  • Claudius channels Laertes’ rage (“I a noble father lost, / A sister driven into desperate terms”, 4.7) into a fatal duel with Hamlet disguised as a mere “brother’s wager” (5.2).

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion: “Is thy union there?”

The royal marriage crumbles in the violent and truth-revealing bloodbath of 5.2. As he forces the goblet of poisoned wine down Claudius’ throat, Hamlet bids farewell to his villainous uncle with a triple-pun: “Is thy union here?” For the term ‘union’ has three meanings.

Firstly, it refers to the pearl with its secret poison that Claudius added to the wine goblet (“And in the cup a union shall be”). Secondly, to the earthly marriage of Claudius and Gertrude (“Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh”, 4.3). And thirdly, to the prospect of Denmark’s royal couple remaining eternally united in an afterlife of punishment to which old King Hamlet was condemned for only “a certain term” (1.5).

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#Hamlet - Queen Gertrude she sees the truth about her husband when it is too late.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • In response to the queen’s reaching for the goblet, Claudius can utter only a half-hearted: “Gertrude, do not drink.”
  • Claudius’ response indicates he would rather lose his queen to death than risk losing his crown through exposure of his prince-murdering plot.
  • Gertrude’ final words (“O my dear Hamlet—The drink, the drink! I am poisoned”) are more than a cry for help or a warning to her son. They are a damning exposure of her husband who attempted to pass off her fainting as a response to the fencing duel: “She swoons to see them bleed.”
  • Hamlet’s parting words to her (“Wretched Queen, adieu”) reveal that the prince is unwilling to grant to his mother the forgiveness a repentant Laertes extended to him: “Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee.”

Key Supporting Quotes

8
quotations from the play to support your statements.