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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 mental breakdown 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.
#Hamlet: Gertrude dies by the same means her second husband used to murder her first: poison.
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.
Claudius & Gertrude in #Hamlet - the villainous king and self-deluding queen.
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.
"Frailty"? Queen Gertrude is in fact the most loyal character in #Hamlet.
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.
#Hamlet: "Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh."
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 death 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.
Gertrude's double greeting - "#Hamlet, Hamlet!" - suggests both joy in her heart and guilt in her soul.
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).
#Hamlet - Queen Gertrude she sees the truth about her husband when it is too late.
The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Born a prince, parented by a jester, haunted by a ghost, destined to kill a king rather than become one, and remembered as the title character of a play he did not want to be in.
His “ambition” for Denmark’s throne leads him to commit one murder only to find that he must plot a second to cover up the first. When this plan fails, his next scheme leads to the death of the woman he loves.
“Have you eyes?”, Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Gertrude‘s “o’erhasty marriage” dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her when her wished-for, happy-ever-after fairytale ends in a bloodbath.
As she struggles to respond to the self-serving purposes of others, Ophelia’s sanity collapses in Elsinore’s “unweeded garden” of falsity and betrayal. Her “self-slaughter” is her revenge for her silencing and humiliation.
By surrendering Denmark to his rival’s son, Hamlet grants to the angry Ghost of his “dear father murdered” the forgiveness his suffering soul needed more than the revenge he demanded.
Uncle and nephew are two men at war with each other—and themselves. Claudius is haunted by the murder he has committed (“O heavy burden!”); Hamlet by the one he hasn’t yet (“Am I a coward?”).
Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius and her collusion with the prince’s confinement at Elsinore creates a barrier between mother and son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
Begins in uncertainty, descends into mutual deceit and rejection, and ends with their double surrender to death: she, to the water; he, to Claudius’ rigged fencing duel.
“Those friends thou hast … Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” Horatio is Hamlet’s trusted confidant in life and vows to remain the keeper of his memory after the prince’s death.
A marriage of mutual self-interest. Claudius wanted something (the kingship) he did not have; Gertrude had something (the status of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
A king murdered, an inheritance stolen, a family divided: Elsinore’s older generation destroys its younger when two brothers—one living, one undead—battle in a “cursed spite” over a crown and a queen.
Hamlet and Laertes journey from revenge, through obsession and anger, to forgiveness. And the revenge sought by the Ghost on King Claudius becomes the revenge of Old King Fortinbras on Old King Hamlet.
“Who’s there?” The characters struggle to distinguish between truth and falsehood in a play-long triple pun on the verb ‘to act’: to take action, to behave deceitfully, and to perform in theater.