I can’t recall when the fever first struck me, but I have long wanted to play Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a mystery why the role should have attracted me, since she’s usually portrayed as a ninny, but I feel like there’s a version of the character that I haven’t seen done yet and I want to bring her to life. The Monroe County Civic Theater is doing Hamlet for its 25th anniversary “Shakespeare in the Park” production this summer, so this is my one and possibly only chance to get the role.
I have been prepping for the last several months. I’ve watched every film and television version of Hamlet I could get my hands on, listened to the commentaries and extras, studied critical analyses of the play, read the incredible Hamlet: A User’s Guide by Michael Pennington (written for actors and directors), and, of course, read Shakespeare’s text.
What follows is an examination of Gertrude as I’ve seen her relayed through all these media, ending with my personal view of the character and how I hope to play her. Interspersed are some general comments on the play, but for the most part I’m focused on Gertrude.
For the three people who have never experienced Hamlet, here’s basically what happens: A ghost of Old King Hamlet appears to guards at Castle Elsinore in Denmark at midnight. Frightened, they reach out to Horatio, a friend of Prince [Young] Hamlet’s, to keep watch with them. After also seeing the ghost, Horatio goes to Hamlet with the news.
In the meantime, Hamlet is in deep depression, mourning his dead father but, to a larger extent, obsessing over the fact that his mother has married his father’s brother not two month’s after Old Hamlet’s death. Upon hearing Horatio’s tale, he keeps watch and is at last able to interrogate the ghost. The ghost claims to be that of his father. In his brief encounter with his son, he tells Young Hamlet that, contrary to the public story of his death, he was in fact murdered by his brother, who then usurped the throne and married his wife. The ghost calls for vengeance and Hamlet takes up the cry.
Were Hamlet as resolute as Lady Macbeth, that would be the end of the play. He’d just go kill Claudius (his uncle) and be done with it. But he is constantly questioning whether what he’s been told is true. So he goes to great lengths to determine what reality is, all the while questioning the nature of human existence as he puts on an “antic disposition” (madness) and gets freakishly neurotic over his mother and his ex-lover’s sexuality.
After many twists and turns, Claudius plays on the anger of young Laertes (the son of the prime minister who was accidentally murdered by Hamlet) to engineer the death of Hamlet. Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel but tips his sharp blade with poison. For insurance, Claudius poisons a cup of wine to give to Hamlet between bouts. By the end of the swordplay, Claudius, Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself are dead. The rest, as Hamlet says, is silence.
Shakespeare doesn’t give Gertrude many lines, so the part is left up for interpretation. The ghost tells Hamlet from the get-go to go after Claudius but to spare the queen: “…leave her to heaven, / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, / To prick and sting her.” Does Gertrude have an affair with Claudius before the murder? Is she party to the murder? Why oh why does she marry him so soon after Old Hamlet’s death? And we’re only on Act I, Scene 5.
Talk about bad casting. Gibson makes for a Braveheart Hamlet—not entirely believable. And he and Glenn Close, who plays Gertrude, look about the same age, which makes the Oedipal themes of the play that much more unnerving.
This was one of my least favorite renditions. Close plays Gertrude as a ninny. I couldn’t figure out what her motivations were. It seemed like a very light read of the text—not very thoughtful. She seems to career from man to man (Claudius to Hamlet to Polonius, the prime minister). She takes their words at their literal meaning. When she tells Claudius that Hamlet is mad after The Closet Scene (more on that later), the words seem to tumble out of her mouth without thought, even though she just promised Hamlet she wouldn’t breathe a word of what went on between them. During the duel, when she takes the chalice, she doesn’t realize it’s poisoned until after she’s taken a drink. In other words, she does exactly what’s on the page, no more. Snooze.
This 1964 version stars Christopher Plummer and is generally wretched. Like Close, June Tobin gives a light reading of the text. Like all Gertrudes, she descends into histrionics in the Closet Scene. Immediately after, she has a heavy make-out session with Claudius, which puts her firmly in his camp. In my view, this contradicts the many references to her close relationship with Hamlet in the text, but I was not consulted. Like Close, she drinks the chalice in total innocence.
Well, if it’s Olivier, it must be stellar, right? As much as I love Olivier as an actor, he was very much a product of his time. In his voiceover at the start of the film, he very famously calls the play the story of “a man who could not make up his mind.” Branagh (we’ll get to him in a minute) disagreed with that interpretation, and I have to agree. It’s the very thinnest read of the text. But anyway, Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude is played more lovingly and tenderly than the ninny version, though she does relish the screaming of the Closet Scene. The most compelling read of her character is during the duel, where her eyes are dragged unwillingly to the poisoned chalice. She knows something is wrong, even if she’s not exactly sure why. In this version, she drinks the poison to spare her beloved son. The feeling of dread is palpable and it’s a very nice interpretation.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the Royal Shakespeare Company filmed the entire Shakespeare canon. I’ve seen most of them and agree with a critic who said the minor plays are carried off most successfully. The RSC Hamlet is dead dull, treated so preciously that it carries you off to boboland. Derek Jacobi is ridiculous as Hamlet, over-acting all over the place. It’s very much a product of its time. Very dated.
Claire Bloom has a few nice turns as Gertrude, though. In the first scene with Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude, Patrick Stewart’s Claudius is all over Hamlet for being depressed. Gertrude gently places a hand on Claudius’ arm to restrain him. A subtle but effective tip that she loves her son. I happen to like the read of Gertrude’s loving her son more than she loves Claudius, so I like anything that brings that out.
I’ll spare you the reference to the Closet Scene (I will get there, I promise) and move on to the action after it, where she discloses Hamlet’s murder of Polonius to Claudius. Unlike Ninny Gertrudes, she does not go with Claudius at the end of the scene—another tip that she’s throwing in her lot with her son.
When it’s time for her to drink from the poisoned cup, however, she does what all the other Gertrudes have done and drinks in innocence, shocked as everyone else to discover it’s poisoned. Ho hum.
Allow me a brief digression to say that Derek Jacobi’s performance as Claudius is some of the best acting EVER, not just of Claudius, but of any role. It’s a tour-de-force. Branagh, who is perfectly cast as Hamlet, just barely keeps up. The roiling energy between the two of them is completely compelling—for FOUR HOURS. The RSC version is also four hours, but it was so deadly that I had to fast-forward through most of it. I’ve seen Branagh’s version several times and each time am caught up in the story. The commentary by Branagh and a Shakespeare scholar is fascinating. Can’t recommend this version enough.
However! Once again, Gertrude is played (by Julie Christie) as a pretty bland character. She floats along, smiling and acquiescent at the start of the play. After the Closet Scene she holds up Claudius while he goes to pieces. But there’s a slight shift after that where she refuses to go with Claudius after she tells Laertes that Ophelia (his sister and Hamlet’s ex-lover) is dead. It’s a strange place for her to assert some independence, but maybe she feels at that point that so many dreadful things have happened since she married him that it’s time to get some distance. She drinks the poisoned cup in ignorance, but the read is that she’s not going to follow Claudius’ orders anymore (he tells her not to drink). So it’s not so much a self-sacrifice for Hamlet as it is a defiance of Claudius. A legitimate read, but I’m not as interested in it. I think it could be incorporated into a more textured interpretation.
While Hawke’s Hamlet is not compelling, Diane Venora’s Gertrude is singular. She is ALL OVER Claudius until the Closet Scene. Can’t keep her hands off him. Then, after the Closet Scene (in a minute, people!), she looks at him suspiciously and keeps her distance. It’s such a dramatic difference that you can see clearly she’s sided with Hamlet. In the final scene, she actually shoves in to grab the chalice, guessing it’s poisoned, and drinks it down staring Claudius in the eye. Very strong choices for this character. She is probably my favorite Gertrude. Very well thought-out and a contributor to the story rather than just decoration.
Like Hawke’s, Tennant’s Hamlet is set in modern times but it has this awkward conceit of using security cameras part of the time. It gets in the way of the storytelling. The whole thing takes a while to get off the ground. Patrick Stewart, in another RSC role as Claudius, is much more compelling twenty years on. But his very last character choice, which I won’t reveal, made no sense to me and marred this otherwise good rendition.
One of the key character choices that Tennant and Penny Downie (as Gertrude) made was to portray their relationship as that between a loving mother and son. I love this approach because it’s all there in the text but is usually glossed over. It makes for a much more interesting film.
In the opening scene between Claudius, Hamlet, and Gertrude, Downie keeps tracking her eyes between Stewart and Tennant as Claudius berates Hamlet. Right from the start she is solicitous of her son. She loves Claudius but she loves Hamlet more.
One of the nice touches in this version is that, during the long sequences where Claudius and Hamlet are going at it and Gertrude doesn’t have any lines, they move her to the background where she signs papers brought by courtiers. This echoes what Pennington lays out in the User’s Guide: Gertrude is a very capable queen. This feeds into my own interpretation of the character, which I will eventually get to.
Early on Gertrude has a line of “I will obey you” delivered to Claudius. In all other versions, it’s read straight. But in this version, she’s slightly peeved, as if she’s saying, “Give me a minute!” Again, she’s demonstrating her independence from Claudius—a nice touch.
After the Closet Scene she seems a little conflicted, shrinking from Claudius’ touch but then throwing herself on him to plead Hamlet’s case. Perhaps she feels it’s the only power she has over him—her sexual attractions.
Her delivery of Ophelia’s death to Laertes is standard “numb,” though when she gets to “dead men’s fingers called” she pauses as if she’s just realized how distressing that might sound to Laertes.
As for the final scene, she doesn’t suspect the chalice until Claudius begs her not to drink. Her eyes go wide, she clutches the cup, and declares she will drink. Nice choice.
The Closet Scene
Finally! This scene is the big throwdown between Hamlet and Gertrude, where everything that should have been said when Hamlet first heard his mother was going to marry Claudius comes boiling out. The fact that it doesn’t take place until Act III, Scene 4 means it’s had plenty of time to build up steam. This scene is probably the number one reason why women choose to play Gertrude. There’s the potential for a lot of range in it but the fun is that you get to scream and get thrown around a lot. It’s very intense.
What’s happened is that Hamlet has put on a play for the king and queen that shows a king being poisoned by his brother and then that brother marrying the king’s wife. Hamlet has set it up in the hopes that he will get definitive evidence that Claudius really did kill his father. In the script, the play is done as a dumb show first, and then as spoken word. In the midst of the spoken word version, Claudius is overcome and leaves abruptly, calling for lights. The court follows, with a giddy Hamlet left behind. Polonius summons Hamlet to the queen’s chambers, saying she wants a word with him. After some more “antic dispositioning,” Hamlet goes off.
What he doesn’t know is that Polonius has contrived to hide behind an arras in the queen’s room so he can observe what goes down. This will have fatal consequences for him.
John Gielgud was the first to make the Freudian connection obvious by placing this scene in the queen’s bedroom. Subsequent performances of the play have almost uniformly done so. But Shakespeare’s script calls the room a “closet,” which is a room adjoining a bedroom. It is a place where the queen can receive visitors. While I don’t deny there are heavy Oedipal themes in Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, I don’t think it’s the One True Way to read it. I’m more attracted to readings with texture.
The Closet Scene starts with Gertrude’s assertively taking Hamlet to task for offending Claudius. That’s as far as she gets—Hamlet runs roughshod from there. Once again Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s incredible ability to outthink everyone around him and make them dance to his tune.
Early on he threatens the queen and she cries for help. When Hamlet hears Polonius behind the arras, presumably coming to help, he thrusts his sword through the tapestry. He is on a high, thinking he’s finally killed Claudius, only to realize that he’s killed Polonius by mistake. He’s not too contrite but Gertrude is horrified—whether because this proves how dangerous he is or how mad he is, how vulnerable she is alone with him, or (what I like) the political impact of the heir to the throne murdering the prime minister, it’s not spelled out. There isn’t a definitive interpretation. I don’t see why they can’t all be going at once.
Hamlet shortly spits out that the deadlier deed is to kill a king, a comment which seems to leave Gertrude bewildered. After this point, Hamlet makes no more mention of the murder in relation to Gertrude. This makes an argument for Gertrude’s being innocent in the matter of the murder. Hamlet instead focuses on her “o’erhasty marriage” to Claudius and dwells uncomfortably on her sexual relationship with the king.
He forces her to look at portraits of the two brothers, comparing them to each other. He rails and rails at her until she breaks down, begging him to stop, when suddenly—the ghost appears. Cue scary music! Now comes another character choice—does Gertrude see the ghost? According to the text, she does not. But is she only saying that to distance herself from the nightmarish situation? After all, everyone at the beginning of the play saw the ghost. I don’t know, it seems a bit of a stretch to me, but you could definitely play it that way. My preference is that she does not see the ghost but instead watches in horror as her son’s eyes fix on vacant air and he babbles to an unseen spirit. Gertrude adores her son. To see him go to pieces immediately after he’s been throwing her around the room is High Drama at its finest. Whiplash circumstances that require the shift of mood on a dime.
The ghost says he’s come to stiffen Hamlet’s spine, so to speak, but in a touching gesture, he bids Hamlet look to his mother, who is quietly freaking out. Hamlet comes out of his trance to check in with Gertrude, who tries to understand what in the hell is going on. Hamlet tries to get her to see the ghost but she does not. The ghost exits while Hamlet cries out, leaving Gertrude to bemoan the loss of her son’s wits.
Another sudden turn—Hamlet (again, on a dime) says his pulse is as steady as hers and his madness is only feigned. He then turns the conversation back to her and begs her not to go to Claudius’ bed. Refuse his advances. Rise above “incest” (Hamlet loves that word). When Gertrude asks what she should do, Hamlet says she should hide the fact that his madness is all show. And she should stop sleeping with his uncle. Really. Gertrude promises not to tell his secret, but makes no promises about her relationship with Claudius. The scene ends with Hamlet dragging Polonius away after telling his mother good night four separate times.
This scene is the pivot point for Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship. Every version includes screaming and being thrown around, but different actors add little touches here and there that bring dimension to the otherwise non-stop histrionics.
Close’s closet scene is pretty standard, though she has this groping make-out session with Hamlet that is profoundly disturbing. I believe Olivier was the first to introduce a mouth-to-mouth kiss in the scene, which has informed every subsequent interpretation. There is no kiss written in the stage directions, so it’s a conscious choice to bring out the Oedipal theme.
In Hamlet at Elsinore, Gertrude engages in the typical histrionics during the scene with Hamlet and then immediately makes out with Claudius afterwords. So after all that drama, she hasn’t changed how she views her husband.
In Olivier’s legendary version, Gertrude begins lovingly rather than reproachfully but is soon all down with the screaming. Pretty standard stuff.
The RSC version is a little more amped up. Gertrude smacks Hamlet after he calls her “your husband’s brother’s wife.” Nice! Show a little backbone. Then she’s on to the usual crying and screaming as Hamlet tosses her about. She collapses in sobs when Hamlet says, “My father” when he sees the ghost—clearly she realizes he’s mad and she’s devastated. She pulls away from him when he tells her to stay away from Claudius. This version of Hamlet has her torn between Hamlet and Claudius, so her actions aren’t all on one side or the other.
In Branagh’s version, Gertrude starts out berating Hamlet, so the temperature is up right from the start. In this version, when Hamlet forces her to compare the two portraits of her husbands, she stares wide-eyed at Old Hamlet but stares off into space rather than look at Claudius.
Right after this she says “O Hamlet, speak no more: / Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; / And there I see such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct.” There are a lot of ways to interpret this passage, but in this version, it appears that Gertrude is agonizing over the fact that married Claudius. Why she’s agonizing is left up to us—there’s nothing in the text to explain it.
She clearly believes Hamlet is mad. Rather than kiss, they hug and hold hands at the end of the scene. There’s some of the mother/son love there but, as we will see, that theme can be taken further.
In Hawke’s version, they follow the RSC lead and Gertrude smacks Hamlet. But everything changes when Hamlet utters the fatal words, “as kill a king.” “As kill a king!” Gertrude responds. In this version, the scales fall away from Gertrude’s eyes to her horror as she sees all the pieces fall together. From there on out she’s suspicious of Claudius.
Tennant’s Gertrude starts the scene low but is screaming soon enough. Unlike the other versions, when she begs not to have to look into her soul she delivers the line low. It’s a nice shift from the full-on screamfest. When she looks at Old Hamlet’s portrait you can see her mourning her dead husband but when she looks at Claudius it’s only because she has to. She does not love him.
There’s some nice physical stuff she does, like covering her ears at one point or trying to cover Hamlet’s mouth while he’s railing at her or reaching out to him as he cowers from the ghost. Most Gertrudes just curl up on the bed and cry. She stays engaged in the scene as an active participant. When Hamlet tells her to throw away the “worser” part of her heart, she laughs bitterly—”like that’ll happen.”
Unlike the other versions of Hamlet, the actors take a pause before Hamlet tells her he’s off to England. And in that pause they have a beat of such tenderness I can still see it “in my mind’s eye” (to quote Hamlet). Gertrude is setting down and Hamlet is on the floor at her feet. He throws his arms around her waist and lays his weight on her lap. She bends over him and gently strokes his back. It’s a moment where you see not queen and prince but mother and son, and their love for each other, and their shared past, is evident. I love this bit. It’s not in the stage directions but it demonstrates how you can read Shakespeare in many different ways.
We shall now move on to some miscellaneous notes about the play.
Hamlet and “Incest”
I haven’t done a formal count of the number of times the word “incest” is used in the play, but I would estimate about forty thousand. It’s so curious that Shakespeare would repeat himself this way—he’s more inclined to make up a word than repeat one.
Hamlet was written around 1600, which was during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. Shakespeare wrote many plays to flatter his royal and noble patrons. His use of “incest” in this light is interesting.
Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, married his brother’s wife after that brother, Arthur, died suddenly. Arthur and Catherine of Aragon were young. Arthur made a joke after his wedding night to some courtiers that suggested the marriage was consummated, but Catherine later resolutely insisted it never was. This is a critical point. Henry got a papal dispensation to marry Catherine just in case.
Fast-forward twenty years and Henry is a despotic jerk. Catherine has only borne one female heir, which isn’t good enough for Henry. He falls in love with Anne Boleyn and begins looking for ways to divorce Catherine. His reason? Incest. He is sleeping with his brother’s wife, that’s against God’s law, and he has therefore been cursed with no male heirs.
So you could say that Shakespeare keeps calling the Claudius/Gertrude marriage incestuous because he’s flattering Elizabeth. He’s saying her birth is legitimate (a sore spot with her) because she came from a legitimate union.
The thing that’s interesting though is that Elizabeth’s mother was beheaded on trumped-up charges of adultery and—you guessed it—incest, this time with her brother. So why does Shakespeare use the term so much? My guess is, since he is scrupulous about attaching it to the marriage itself, he’s trying to ingratiate himself. There may have been church teachings to back him up, but I honestly can’t remember if they went by the Old Testament idea that it was the duty of a man to marry his brother’s wife after his brother died. Wiser minds than I will have to comment on that.
When Claudius killed Old Hamlet, the obvious heir was Young Hamlet. But Danish kings were elected. Since this election happens before the play begins, it’s unclear why the people chose Claudius. It’s made clear in the play that the people are much enamored of Hamlet. Claudius may have married Gertrude to try to strengthen his bid. But just to muddy the waters, in his first scene, Claudius calls Hamlet his heir. Can he do that? I am not entirely clear. Since the royal family is killed by the end of the play, the young Prince Fortinbras of Norway is tipped to become king of Denmark, but this is through force of arms rather than election. So there are three ways to become king in Denmark: election, primogeniture, and war. Shakespeare needs to get his story straight.
I know, I know, you’re on tenterhooks—how would Cairril play Gertrude? Well, I would start by making her a strong character. And I would start before the play begins.
First off, I don’t think she was in on the murder of Old Hamlet, nor do I believe she engaged in adultery. I think she was a loving and loyal wife to Old Hamlet. But after his death, Young Hamlet went to pieces. The throne would in all likelihood go to him. But Denmark was threatened by warlike Norway and she could see it all going south without a strong hand at the tiller.
So there’s Claudius, a capable enough leader and certainly more functional than her son. I believe she marries Claudius to hold the throne for Hamlet. She is most likely old enough that she won’t bear any children to Claudius, and Hamlet is generally beloved by the populace, so she will just wait for him to work through his grief and come back to himself. As Branagh’s commentary points out, Hamlet has many facets and is a capable prince. Gertrude believes her promising son will find his way back to sanity in time. She is determined that the throne will be ready for him, and that he will find his country in good hands. She doesn’t love Claudius, but they do have a physical relationship.
Once the play begins, she goes back and forth as to whether Hamlet is actually mad rather than just depressed. She doesn’t want to believe it. But she is perceptive enough from the get-go to tell Claudius that Hamlet is depressed because of their “o’erhasty” marriage. Later she is open to the possibility that Hamlet’s depression is caused by Ophelia’s rejection of him. But during the Closet Scene she sees that Hamlet is both mad and sane—he is mad when he sees the ghost but he is sane when he explains that his madness is an act. (I should say that I believe Hamlet starts out by thinking his madness is just put on, a show, but over time it chips away at his reason and he does have psychotic episodes. He certainly has severe depression, if not bipolar disorder.)
After the Closet Scene she has some serious choices to make. What does she tell Claudius? How should see behave towards him? I believe she pulls away from him, her allegiance solely to Hamlet, but she still plays a waiting game to keep the throne. So she can’t do anything too overt but she is unable to play the untroubled wife of before.
I believe she drinks the poisoned chalice to save Hamlet. In my rendition, she would drink from the cup, then when she offers it to Hamlet, she would give a tiny shake of her head. Warn him not to drink. Then when she’s in her death throes, she tells him flat-out the cup is poisoned. Her last words are to Hamlet, not Claudius.
In short, she is a strong, far-sighted, capable woman who deeply loves her son and is willing to do what she can to make his life better after disaster strikes. She plays a deadly game with Claudius but willingly undertakes it for the sake of her son. She never doubts her own ability to walk this difficult tightrope. She feels guilty that she “betrayed” Old Hamlet by marrying his brother, but she’s willing to bear that guilt for the sake of the country and the sake of her son. I think this interpretation is fully supported by the text. More to the point, I think it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than Mistress Ninny.
Auditions for Hamlet are this spring. Cross your fingers for me.