THE RELATIONSHIP OF CLAUDIUS AND GERTRUDE: SAMPLE ESSAYS

A marriage of mutual self-interest: Claudius wanted to become king; Gertrude wanted to remain queen. In the end, both die by the same poison her second husband used to murder her first.

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

Claudius and Gertrude: Introduction

“It cannot come to good”

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.

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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.

1

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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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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.

2

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Essays for Students

325 pages
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42 sample essays

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The royal couple of Denmark

“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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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.

3

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Hamlet: Model
Essays for Students

325 pages
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42 sample essays

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Claudius, Gertrude and 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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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.

4

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325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

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The descent of Claudius and Getrude

“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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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.

5

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Hamlet: Model
Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

Claudius and Gertrude: 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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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.

6

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Hamlet: Model
Essays for Students

325 pages
90,000 words
42 sample essays

$19.99 Paperback
$9.99 Ebook

The most helpful book ever for students and teachers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

42 x 1,500-word model essays

Hamlet: Model Essays for Students Get it from Amazon  >

 

Chapter-by-chapter guide to Hamlet Model Essays

Inside you will find three 1,500-word essays on each of the following 14 characters, relationships and themes.

#1: The Character of 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.

#2: The Character of Claudius

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.

#3: The Character of Gertrude

“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.

#4: The Character of Ophelia

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.

#5: Relationship of Hamlet and the Ghost

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.

#6: Relationship of Hamlet and Claudius

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?”).

#7: Relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude

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.

#8: Relationship of Hamlet and Ophelia

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.

#9: Relationship of Hamlet and Horatio

“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.

#10: Relationship of Claudius and Gertrude

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.

#11: Main Themes of Hamlet

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.

#12: The Theme of Revenge

Two young men 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.

#13: Deception and Appearance versus Reality

“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.

#14: The Theme of Madness

“Your noble son is mad”, Polonius tells Denmark’s king and queen. But is Hamlet ever really insane? If not, why is he pretending to be? And is the prince’s behavior the cause of Ophelia’s traumatic breakdown?