Gertrude is a mouse of a woman. King Hamlet’s mouse. She is so sensitive, in body and in mind, that she must be defended from the lightest breeze, lest she float away, like a dandelion seed. Gertrude doesn’t try to think her own thoughts — that would be too presumptuous. She is so soft and fragile and permeable that even thinking the word ‘ruddy’ in her company would turn her hair red. She loves King Hamlet — as she would dearly love anything back that loved her first — but when that Hyperion died she was left unsheltered, afraid and alone, her little pink hands shaking. She couldn’t ‘be,’ if she wasn’t fixed firmly to another. The lightest breeze carried her swiftly to the arms of a waiting satyr.
This new King Claudius says, “it is unnatural and immoral to mourn excessively,” and she meekly nods, her funeral garb changing before their eyes to a wedding white. He says, “you look better with your hair up” and Gertrude says “oh, of course, s-so sorry” and it twists itself into a tall, elaborate bun before she finishes her sentence. He says, “I don’t like the play” and Gertrude says “oh yes, yes it is quite poor, you’re right of course.” He says, “your son is a becoming a problem” and Gertrude says “oh, quite right, I suppose he is, how silly of me to give birth to him.” He tells her to have a word with the young prince, but she can’t act independently — she can’t, she can’t!
Prince Hamlet believes he knows his mother’s soul, and shows it to her, and she says “oh yes, quite right, I suppose that is my soul after all.” He says her marriage is incestuous and wrong and Gertrude’s upper lip trembles. He says the ghost of his father reprimands her and bids her leave off Claudius altogether and she says “of course, oh, naturally, yes I suppose I ought to.” But what about when Hamlet leaves the room? Or Claudius enters it? She can’t sustain being blown about. Her lightness is abused. Five minutes with Ophelia and she feels herself going mad. Gertrude takes a cup, and is told not to drink. Gertrude the mouse makes the first solid choice of her entire life, and decides not to ‘be.’
Gertrude’s had Denmark. Both Denmarks, and everyone in Denmark, plus one man from Wittenberg (when he thinks his friend’s in England). Every man Hamlet’s ever known has been between her sodden sheets. Polonius, that old fishmonger, has spent many nights hiding behind the curtains in her chamber when a husband, son, or maid enters unexpectedly — he begins to think of it as a second home, and almost finds it fitting that he should die as he lived. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned to comfort poor mad Hamlet, yes, but their first destination on arrival is the bedchamber of the queen. She has them both at once.
Gertrude actually likes the idea of an incestuous marriage, months after her first husband’s death. The taboo of it thrills her. She likes it when Claudius calls her his sister, and finds it exciting that he might have killed his predecessor. But even that isn’t enough to satisfy her.
Marcellus and Bernardo first drunkenly hallucinate the old King Hamlet’s ghost in their guilt, with the smell of Gertrude’s skin still in their beards. Claudius is forced to send Voltimand and Cornelius away, and is all too happy to rid himself of pretty boy Laertes — they’ve all had more than their fair share of Denmark’s queen. When Gertrude has Osric, she can’t decide if she likes him better hat on, or off. Gertrude is a Messalina, a Catherine the Great — a queen with needs a whole country can’t hope to meet! In public spaces she makes her wantonness her ignorance.
Gertrude’s such a free-loving queen consort that it should come as no surprise young Hamlet isn’t Hamlet’s son — that morbid drama queen was sired by Yorick, whose lips she had kissed she knew not how oft.
Gertrude is a lover and a co-conspirator. She wants to be with Claudius in public, to hold his hand firmly before all of Denmark. Together they arrange it so she’s separated forever from a man she married only to please her father, and become a queen. A man she feels never loved her or understood her at all. To King Hamlet, Gertrude was a beautiful princess, a kind of a doll, a possession to be protected and presented. He never spoke to her, but down to her, yet raised her up on a pedestal so high he couldn’t hear her humanity.
To Claudius, darling Claudius, Gertrude is a flesh and blood woman. He asks her opinion, he discusses things with her, he values her thoughts as an equal. He appreciates her sharp wit, and encourages her to exercise it — giving her the courage to call out her son’s insolence by saying “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Gertrude doesn’t need a garland of rue. Gertrude loves, and Gertrude knows her own mind better than young Hamlet does.
Gertrude didn’t pause and ponder the nature of death before pouring the poison in her husband’s ear. But neither Hamlet can accept her as a plotter and a schemer — they both slander dear sweet Claudius, and call him murderer. Claudius begins to feel guilt himself, for a brother’s death, as if Gertrude’s hand were his own. It’s in his nature to be contrite and nervous, and perhaps that’s why she loves him. She never could love a great brute of a man.
Likewise, she would never confide her real feelings in a son who would rush around stabbing her upholstery because he thinks it may have been involved in his father’s death. She encourages Claudius to keep Prince Hamlet near, and watch him. She worries Hamlet may do something rash, and warns Polonius to guard him closely. She whispers in Laerte’s ear to have a word with his sister, for she believes that like his father before him, Hamlet does not really love.
Gertrude loves her son — some might say a bit too much. If not too much, then certainly in the wrong way. He’s such a pretty son, her Hamlet. Reminds her of her first husband and his father, when he was young, and still had his looks. She’d like to talk country matters with her son. She only remarries Claudius because she can’t wed Hamlet. But what if Hamlet decides to wed? What if a mother’s love isn’t enough for him, and he wants a wife? She can’t have that, after finally getting her beautiful boy home again (cloistered in Denmark to keep him near).
Polonius reveals love letters to Gertrude and the King, sent by Hamlet to his daughter. And Ophelia herself has some mad story about him entering her bed chamber half-dressed and filled with desire. Gertrude’s thin lips blanche with anger. This is a situation that must be handled. Does her son not love his mother?
She is almost satisfied that he abuses Ophelia, dismisses the love letters, and tells her to get to a nunnery. Almost satisfied. But in the end, can she trust the girl? She starts to drug Ophelia. The lucky accident of Polonius’ murder creates a cover for her sudden madness. Polonius is killed by Hamlet in her bed chamber, and for the first time since his infancy they are alone together — he manhandles her roughly, but he doesn’t drive the evening to the conclusion she desires. Gertrude blames Ophelia for this filial inhibition. She’s happy for Hamlet to be sent away while the girl is dealt with. There shall be no more marriages.
She leads the pretty lady, drugged out of her wits, to a half-frozen river. She plunges her head under and holds it there, her veiny white knuckles clenched like a vice around that slender, girlish neck. Back in the castle, Gertrude calmly recounts a romanticized story of the girl’s suicide, though none of the flowers she insists were a part of Ophelia’s watery grave are in season. She makes sure to suggest, through metaphor, that Ophelia killed herself on a bed of dicks.
But even after all that effort, her Hamlet, who she loves more than any mother ever loved a son, climbs into the dead girl’s grave and embraces her revolting corpse!
Gertrude is a painted face, a wig, a dress, and a set of practiced mannerisms. Most beautified Gertrude, in jewels, in long gloves, with roses on her cheeks (not in), and curls forced into her hair. God gave her one face, and she made herself another. It’s a fine creation, the best false face in all of Denmark. A whole inch thick, a cosmetic painting that belongs in a gallery. She jigs, she ambles, and she lisps, like a boy actor on a stage playing a queen to perfection. With her red eye shadow and green mascara, she’s too much.
Gertrude is a royal ornament, passed on down the line of succession like any crown or sceptre might be passed. The older she gets, the more ornament she becomes, and the less woman. When and if the preserved, refurbished and colourfully daubed queen dies, a decaying skull will not be found beneath the paint.
Gertrude sits at her dressing table and dissembles the whole image in preparation for bed. She unpins her hair extensions, her clips and diamond ornaments, and lays them out just so. She brushes the thick curls and volume from her hair until she has no hair. She takes off her long silk gloves and has no arms. She washes the rouge from her cheek, pulls the lashes off her lids, and wipes away the coat of crimson on her lips. Once the shell is washed away, it seems there wasn’t anything inside after all.
When Hamlet enters the room to speak with her, he encounters nothing but a collapsed pile of embroidered violet velvet, emerald green satin, some pink-gold jewellery encrusted with pear-cut gems, and some discarded cosmetic wipes. His mother is nowhere. Polonius peers out from behind the curtain, equally confused. They look at each other and shrug.
Who is Gertrude? I have a lot of Gertrudes, but cannot fit one of them completely into the text. I am like a toddler on the carpet playing with a wooden puzzle, putting a little circle block into a large square hole and thinking ‘aha, I have been clever.’ Is Gertrude a character? Does Gertrude have thoughts? Does she shift to suit the plot, and not herself? Is Gertrude a woman? What is a Gertrude? She seems so many things.
Gertrude is a loving, practical mother, who quickly perceives evil in Denmark but is in no way daunted by it. Her son — the true heir of his father — will no doubt be King if the cards are played right. He is an intelligent man, and being a man, capable of action. Claudius will be dealt with. She marries him to ensure that Hamlet will be seen as the son of the last King, no matter what. She no longer bleeds monthly, and Claudius had no children or wife of his own before murdering her husband and usurping her son. By marrying him, she ends his line. A thoroughly practical woman, grounded in the present and completely unconcerned with theology, philosophy, or ethics in light of power and politics. And why should her son see it differently? It does not occur to her for a moment that Hamlet might return and not instantly think ‘that throne is mine!,’ for why should he think ‘that queen is my father’s!’? Why should that trouble him, in the grand scheme of things? She really did operate under the assumption that her boy was intelligent.
She’s a wily fox of a queen and a mother. She keeps all in such a shroud of deep secrecy that no one can see her intentions. In an atmosphere of spying and distrust, she cannot risk speaking to her son. A helpful illusion is created of a prince unconcerned with his father’s death or his own position in Denmark, but instead preoccupied with the daughter of some civil servant. Obviously not a great match, but better for Hamlet to get a bastard than Claudius. She waits and waits in absolute secrecy, for the moment when Hamlet will think it right to strike, and take back Denmark. She gathers his old school friends for him, hoping to help by providing political support. Some nights she lies awake, bending over a sleeping Claudius with a pillow hovering over his face — always she is just on the verge of it, but then throws herself back to her side of the bed in frustration, muttering ‘unsex me now!’ For if the mother did the deed for her son, his reign might be tainted by some femininity, and he would be seen as under the thumb of his mother. She would not rule for him. She would not avenge his father for him.
Her patience is hardly rewarded. After months of careful, cunning silence her son presents a play to the court in which knowledge and harsh judgement of Claudius’ deed is laid out too, too plainly. All advantage gained by Gertrude’s carefulness — lost. He is not a clever son. When she gave him strong brothers in arms, he valued them not, and toyed with actors who divulged all. Claudius now knows Hamlet is a threat, and will get rid of him — and Gertrude will preside over a dying branch of monarchy, with no strong sons to be proud of. Curse and spite the lot of them.
How could Gertrude’s narrow gaze ever fall on a ghost? How could a woman who has only ever dreamt of power, fear dreams? How could a woman who has always seen her own body as part of an economic and political exchange, worry about sullying it in the bed of a King, of all places? And how could a depressed university student preoccupied with philosophy, art, and other people’s sex lives, ever understand a Gertrude? Poor woman.
Would that she had lived to witness brave Fortinbras enter, invade, and take possession of the stage. Would that she had had such a son.