Frailty, Thy Name is Woman: A Scrutiny of the Shakespearean Matron

Eugène Delacroix — Hamlet and His Mother

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the royal women of Denmark, chiefly Queen Gertrude, are wrongly painted as glacial yet impuissant and libidinous. However, due to the Dharma-driven nature of Shakespeare’s cosmos, and therefore Gertrude’s, her actions in the play are not only warranted, but required — lest she succumb completely to the will of her unregenerate male counterparts.

For the majority of the play, Gertrude can be interpreted as apathetic, demonstrating an inhibited relationship with her son and valuing sex over love. However, with every action, Gertrude serves as a peacemaker, carefully defusing tension by both satiating megalomaniacal Claudius and protecting her impassioned yet impotent son. During Hamlet’s virgin mourning of the death of his father, Gertrude seems indifferent and almost dull to the passing of her beloved, marrying his brother and urging Hamlet to retire from his grief. However, in her marriage to Claudius she is safeguarding Hamlet and herself by preserving their place on the chain of being [Claudius, accepting of Gertrude’s compassion, cedes to Hamlet that he is sovereign heir: “For let the world take note, you are the most immediate to our throne.” (1.2, 112–113)]. Therefore, when she compels, “Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, and let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not forever with thy vailed lids seek for thy father in the dust. Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.” (1.2, 70–75), Gertrude is reminding her son that in spite of what he merits, Claudius is now the ruler of Denmark and can decide their fate; thus, Gertrude asks her son to not consider Claudius an enemy, but a friend, gently reminding him that all death, including his, is imminent.

Despite this vein of matronly clemency, Gertrude remains visibly enraptured with Claudius, often depicted draped over him with the naivety and inconsequence of a lamb skin. This hedonic air, however, is merely an act. With the death of her husband, Gertrude is compelled to either give herself to Claudius or court a fate not unlike that of Ophelia, iniquitous in society’s mind following her premarital affair with young Hamlet. Gertrude’s own son says of the unchaste: “If thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too.” (3.1, 149–152). Hamlet abrades this theory himself, when with contempt for Gertrude’s marriage he spat, “You cannot call it love, for at your age the heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble and waits upon the judgement.” (3.4, 78–80). Shortly following this confrontation, Hamlet urges his mother to refrain from laying with Claudius: “Go not to my uncle’s bed. Assume a virtue if you have it not… Refrain tonight, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence.” (3.4, 180- 188). Gertrude, however, does not respond with a firm concurrence, but rather leaves Hamlet’s pleas largely unsatisfied. Again, Gertrude plays pacifist between the two onerous men in her life, largely tolerant and amenable while never making a promise she will be unable to keep.

It is not until moments before her death that Gertrude concludes her allegiance lies with Hamlet, not Claudius. During the duel, Gertrude wipes Hamlet’s perspirant brow and cheers for him with incontestable maternal love. When Claudius implores Gertrude not to drink the poisoned cup intended for Hamlet, for the first time she is seen defying him — perhaps this being the abstinence made easier. “‘Gertrude, do not drink.’ ‘I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.’” (5.2, 317–318) Once she begins experiencing the adverse effects of the poison, Gertrude uses her last words to warn Hamlet of Claudius’ diabolism, countering his claims that she had fallen faint at the sight of blood. Whether at the point she decided to drink the Queen was finally aware of Claudius’ corrupt dealings, to which she had been oblivious to the majority of the play, or she merely felt parched, Gertrude’s final moments in the tragedy are not only that of a resolute insurgent, but of the devout mother she had always been.

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Student interested in psychology, politics, alternative medicine, and the human condition. I have a lot of thoughts, here are the filtered ones.

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