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The Character of Gertrude in Hamlet: Sample Essays

After old King Hamlet’s death, Gertrude quickly remarries in the hope her queenly life will continue as before and her son will accept his uncle as a substitute father. But her choice of husband dooms her life and the lives of everyone around her.

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Introduction

Gertrude’s storyline can be summarized as follows: the remarried widow and decorous monarch (“Enter Claudius, King of Denmark; Gertrude the Queen; and others”, 1.2); the affectionate mother (“Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me”, 3.2); the briefly self-aware spouse to a magnetic but dangerous man (“O Hamlet … Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul”, 3.4); the woman who sees too late the true character of the man she married (“O my dear Hamlet—The drink, the drink! I am poison’d”, 5.2); and, finally, the wife betrayed by a husband who loved ambition more than her (“She swoons to see them bleed”, 5.2). In this essay, I will give my opinions on Gertrude: queen, wife, mother and, ultimately, tragic heroine.

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#Hamlet's Queen Gertrude - Her 'happily ever after' descends into a nightmare.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • “Have you eyes?” (3.4), Prince Hamlet demands of his mother. Like him, we wonder: ‘For how long can a good woman blind herself to the evil around her?’
  • Claudius fools everyone— except Prince Hamlet. Gertrude fools only one person— herself.
  • Queen Gertrude’s character flaw is her self-delusion. She only sees the truth about her husband when it is too late.
  • The relationship between old King Hamlet’s widow and the villainous Claudius is a tragic tale of ambition exploiting naivety.

Key Supporting Quotes

13
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The wedding:
“Taken to wife”

Although she later admits what Prince Hamlet calls her “within a month” (1.2) remarriage was “o’erhasty” (2.2)—and also insensitive to her son’s grief and political ambitions—I can understand why the practically-minded Gertrude made the decision she did at the time she did.

With an invasion threatened from Norway, it must have seemed that accepting the hand in marriage of her charismatic and commanding brother-in-law solved all her problems at once. Towards his nephew and stepson, Claudius shows only consideration and warmth, urging Prince Hamlet in 1.2 to “think of us / As of a father”, to remain at Elsinore “in the cheer and comfort of our eye” and with the assurance that he is “most immediate to our throne”.

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#Hamlet - a marriage of evil (Claudius) and self-deluding naivety (Gertrude).

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Was their marriage the culmination of an illicit love affair that began before King Hamlet’s murder?
  • In dangerous times, Gertrude is a woman alone, and Denmark a country without a monarch.
  • Claudius wanted something (the role of king) he did not have.
  • Gertrude had something (the role of queen) she wanted to hold onto.
  • Prince Hamlet is requested by Gertrude to join in the court’s show of unity for their country’s sake.
  • A marriage that should never have happened means another never can: the dark shadow of Claudius’ crime creates a climate of duplicity and distrust that dooms the love affair of Hamlet and Ophelia.

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

The royal couple:
“I shall obey you”

One of the play’s great ironies is that the person most continually accused by Prince Hamlet of fickle disloyalty—“Frailty thy name is woman” (1.2)—is, in fact, the most loyal character of all. Up until the very last scene, she remains steadfastly at the side of the man she married.

When in 4.5 an angry, castle-storming mob shouts out “Laertes shall be king!”, she responds unhesitatingly with: “O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs!” She confronts the sword-wielding Laertes when she fears for the king’s safety and defends him from any part in Polonius’ death (“But not by him”). These are not the actions of a merely decorous trophy wife but of a woman who fulfills Claudius’ description of her as the “imperial jointress to this warlike state” (1.2).

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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 royal couple: stately decorum, mutual affection and respect, and always comfortably at ease in each other’s company.
  • The relationship we see on stage is far removed from the unrestrained sensuality which King Hamlet’s Ghost luridly imagines.
  • Gertrude defends her husband from an enraged, sword-wielding Laertes.
  • Claudius shares his burdens with her and expresses his love in uncharacteristically sentimental language.
  • External events trouble but do not destroy the royal marriage: it survives Hamlet’s resentment, Polonius’ murder, his daughter’s drowning and his son’s open revolt.

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Hamlet:
“Why seems it so particular with thee?”

Queen Gertrude is a person who seeks to smooth over everything without thinking too deeply; her son is an introspective scholar who cannot but think deeply about everything. Hamlet delights in wordplay. She is direct in her speech and is the only character to tell the bombastic Polonius to come to the point—“More matter, less art” (2.2).

Prince Hamlet’s ranting against “bloat king” in the closet scene of 3.4 produces a rare moment of self-awareness in Gertrude: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul.” But Hamlet’s conversation with the Ghost, who is visible only to him, diminishes her son’s credibility in Gertrude’s eyes—“Alas, he’s mad!” It must seem to her that she has gained a new husband at the cost of losing her son to insanity.

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Prince #Hamlet to his mother, Queen Gertrude: "Have you eyes?"

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • Gertrude’s decision to wed Claudius so quickly after old King Hamlet’s death creates a barrier between a mother and her son who are as different from one another as is humanly possible.
  • It is only in the closet scene that Gertrude fully recognizes how much her remarriage has devastated her son.
  • That she discloses one of Hamlet’s secrets (that he did stab Polonius) but guards another (that he displayed no remorse) reveals how Gertrude’s loyalties are torn between her second husband and her son.
  • Claudius tells Laertes he cannot openly strike against Hamlet because “The queen his mother / Lives almost by his looks” (4.7).

Key Supporting Quotes

16
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Ophelia:
“Your good beauties”

We do not know if Gertrude follows Hamlet’s direction to shun her husband’s bed: “Assume a virtue if you have it not” (3.4). But the changing nature of her relationship with Polonius’ daughter suggests that something inside her has changed. Gertrude’s words to Ophelia in 2.1 of her hopes that “That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet’s wildness” are those of someone with a romantic even simple-minded view of life.

But when confronted in 4.5 with Ophelia’s madness, Gertrude speaks of the “guilt” in her “sick soul.” I suspect that when the traumatized Ophelia offers her a symbolic gift of rue—a plant associated with sadness and regret—Gertrude was already reflecting ruefully on all the calamity and unhappiness has followed from her remarriage.

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#Hamlet - Over Ophelia's grave, Gertrude sees her future slipping away from her.

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • What is the meaning of Gertrude’s refusal to meet a distressed Ophelia?
  • Why does Ophelia offer the Queen a rue plant?
  • Gertrude’s outlook changes from cheerful optimism to dread and foreboding, when “Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss” (4.5).
  • When her son reappears Gertrude shouts his name twice—why?
  • How can Claudius dispose of a returned Hamlet while appearing blameless?

Key Supporting Quotes

12
quotations from the play to support your statements.

Conclusion:
“I am poison’d”

In a play where so many characters set out to deceive one another, Gertrude is a person who deceives only herself. Nowhere is her naivety more pathetically apparent than in the final scene. She thinks she is about to watch a non-lethal fencing match of honor between Laertes and Hamlet—a “brother’s wager” (5.2). In reality, she is soon to witness the murder of her beloved son.

Gertrude pays the ultimate price for her tragic self-delusion—but not before she finally confronts the reality of her husband’s true character. In the end, it is Gertrude’s rather than King Hamlet’s death from Claudius’ poison that moves Prince Hamlet to murder the usurping uncle who “killed my king and whored my mother” (5.2).

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

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Some Key Essay Topics

  • The first time in the play Gertrude that disobeys her husband—why?
  • Claudius is torn between saving Gertrude and concealing his poisoning plan.
  • When the queen reaches for the goblet of poisoned wine Claudius had prepared for her son, the king can only utter half-heartedly: “Gertrude, do not drink” (5.2).
  • Hamlet kills Claudius without making any reference to vengeance for old King Hamlet.

Key Supporting Quotes

8
quotations from the play to support your statements.

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