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No two figures in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are further apart in character and outlook than Prince Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude. He is an anguished seeker of truth and meaning; she a contented, status-loving throne occupant.
Hamlet torments himself that his continual “Looking before and after” (4.4) is but an excuse for cowardice. The live-in-the-moment Gertrude (“all that is I see … / Nothing but ourselves”, 3.4) is puzzled why her son struggles to do the same.
What Gertrude admits is her “o’erhasty marriage” (2.2) to her brother-in-law Claudius overshadows the relationship between mother and son. Ultimately, it dooms both their lives and brings to an end the royal dynasty of the Hamlet family.
Prince #Hamlet and Queen Gertrude: truth-seeker and live-in-the-moment materialist.
Old King Hamlet allowed his son to follow his chosen path in life as he awaited his time to occupy the throne. The Renaissance prince which Wittenberg University produced certainly impressed Ophelia as “the expectancy and rose of the fair state” (3.1).
Yet Gertrude colludes with her second husband in denying him what her first one granted. The woman who insists “Go not to Wittenberg” (1.2) seems in no need of emotional support from her only son. Only once does she seek him out. But even their encounter in her closet is not her initiative but another of Polonius’ spying operations (“Let queen mother all alone entreat him / To show his grief”, 3.1).
Gertrude colludes with Claudius’s watchful captivity of #Hamlet in the "prison" (2.2) of Denmark.
“Madam, how like you this play?” Hamlet’s pointed question of his mother follows the scene from The Murder of Gonzago in 3.2 when an about-to-be bereaved queen vows never to remarry: “pursue me lasting strife / If, once a widow, ever I be wife!”
But the self-absorbed Gertrude fails to recognise Hamlet’s public shaming her in his hope that, like Claudius, she might “proclaim” her “malefactions” (2.2).
Her response (“The lady protests too much”) reveals that she regards the play as mere entertainment. Her later complaint to the prince is not that she has been humiliated in front of the court but only that Claudius has been “much offended” (3.4).
'The Mousetrap': "hoodman-blind" (3.4) Gertrude is oblivious to #Hamlet's theatrical shaming of her.
Hamlet’s delay in pursuing the Ghost’s first demand (“Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder”) stems from his refusal to follow the second (“let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven”, 1.5).
In the chapel and closet scenes, we see that Hamlet’s purpose has evolved from mere revenge to another, more poignant one: to reunite in the afterlife his fractured-by-Claudius family of mother and father.
Hence the prince’s desire to rescue first his mother’s soul (“Confess yourself to heaven. / Repent what’s past. Avoid what is to come”, 3.4) before he can condemn his uncle’s to hell (“as damned and black / As hell, whereto it goes”, 3.3). He sees himself as “scourge and minister” respectively to his “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2).
#Hamlet seeks to reunite in the afterlife his fractured-by-Claudius family of mother and father.
With Hamlet dispatched to England, Gertrude shows no sign of wavering in her relationship with Claudius. But however fearlessly she defends her role as the “beauteous majesty of Denmark” (4.5) against a sword-wielding, castle-storming Laertes, her crown provides no defense against the “guilt” she now feels in her “sick soul” (4.5).
Such is Gertrude’s joy on seeing her son again that she shouts out his name twice: “Hamlet, Hamlet!” (5.1). In his graveyard reflections, the prince recognizes the truth of his mother’s observation that “All that lives must die” (1.2). As he tells Horatio, “If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all” (5.2).
Gertrude's retaining of her queenly role blocked Ophelia's "advancement" as much as Hamlet's.
In 5.2, Gertrude’s defiant drinking from the poisoned wine goblet (“I will, my lord. I pray you, pardon me”) and her damning contradiction of Claudius’ excuse for her fainting (“She swoons to see them bleed”) prompts Laertes’ confession (“The King’s to blame”) and Hamlet’s killing of the man who killed his father.
Not knowing about Laertes’ poison-tipped sword, Gertrude dies believing her last act on earth was to save the life of her son, with her cry: “Hamlet … the drink! I am poison’d.”
However, her son’s parting words to Claudius (“Follow my mother”) suggest it will be in the company of the prince’s villainous uncle rather than his murdered father that the “wretched queen” will be eternally united.
"Follow my mother" (5.2): #Hamlet unites forever in hell his "uncle-father and aunt-mother" (2.2).
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. If at the cost of his life, Hamlet does in the end “win at the odds.”
His “ambition” for Denmark’s crown 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.