Shakespeare’s play Hamlet depicts the strategic role women play in society. At the beginning of the play, Gertrude, the deceased king’s wife, is married to Claudius, her brother-in-law. Hamlet is the son of Gertrude and the late king. Hamlet receives a vision from the ghost of his late father explaining how Claudius murdered him to take over the throne. The ghost requests him to avenge his father’s death and claim the throne, which was supposedly his birthright. Hamlet’s change in behavior as he seeks to avenge his father’s death offers the audience a special opportunity to analyze Gertrude’s character and how it is developed. Hamlet is initially bitter with his mother, terming her as a traitor who cannot confront Claudius for murdering the king. He expected her mother to leave the position of a queen and join him in avenging his father’s death. Gertrude appears to be a disloyal woman at the beginning, but towards the end of the play, her motives become clear, and her character is developed to depict an intelligent and loyal woman.
Gertrude’s character is developed in the play as she acts the role of a mother and wife to the late king. One of a mother’s responsibilities is to ensure that her son is safe at all times. When Hamlet confronts his mother about the cause of his father’s death, she knows that his allegations are true and that Claudius is indeed the culprit, but she rebukes Hamlet for the sake of protecting him. Gertrude knew that Hamlet was right in avenging his father’s death, but she had to make a political decision because she lacked the power to confront and fight her husband’s murder. Although she appears evil by supporting the murder of her husband, she knows that if they showed Claudius, they knew of his crimes, their lives could be in danger (Heilbrun, 1957). A person who dares to hide their emotions and feelings for the sake of protecting others is not only brave but also courageous. Gertrude is courageous enough to accept her son’s hatred for the allegations of betrayal as long as the motive of protecting him was clear.
Evidence of Character Development in Act 1
Love and attention are the main features that define relationships. Although Gertrude is married to the new king of Denmark, she pays more attention to her son and pays less attention to her husband. Gertrude stated, “Seek for thy noble father in the dust, thou knows ’tis common, all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity” (Shakespeare, 1887). Her character is depicted further in the first act, the second scene from lines seventy-one to seventy-four, where she pays more attention to the well-being of her late husband’s reputation. She encourages her son to seek the noble traits of his father. Gertrude is depicted as a person who appreciated her husband and was compelled to marry Claudius, not because of love and affection but because she wanted to remain the queen of Denmark for the sake of the people and ensure that they are served as the late king intended. The idea of revolting Claudius to join Hamlet in the mission of avenging the late king was not feasible, and she chooses to pretend to be in love with the king to protect the people’s interests.
The play is set in a patriarchal society where women have limited power and cannot make direct decisions. The setting of the play and the role of women in society proves that Gertrude is a courageous and selfless woman who wishes to go against her late husband’s love for the sake of society and her son. Although different characters perceive Gertrude as a person who behaves inconsistently in the play as she pretends, her motives and behaviors are consistent (Heilbrun, 1957). Her behavior is consistent as she does all her actions to protect her son and ensure that the people are served as per the late king’s dreams and principles. She knew that Claudius had an evil intention and murdered his brother for the throne but opted to pretend to be in love with him. The bitterness she feels for losing her husband and the pain she bears pretending to be in love develop her character as a cunning woman who is ready to do anything to serve the people. Shakespeare depicts her as a selfless and patriotic woman ready to defend her kingdom disguised as the new king’s wife.
Evidence of Character Development in Act 3
Hamlet is convinced that his mother is guilty because she never took the time to mourn her husband after his demise. As a result, he decided to test her to determine whether Gertrude had a hand in the murder of the king. Hamlet is angry about her mother’s marriage to Claudius and scolds her that “the counterfeit presentment of two brothers” has blinded her from seeing the truth (Shakespeare, 1887). The confrontations express the perceived betrayal and anger that Gertrude chose to celebrate with the oppressors who were hypocrites and pretenders. In the third act, Hamlet’s words express Gertrude’s character as daft, clueless, sly, and hypocritical. However, her response is further used to develop the character of loyalty and self-sacrifice. Although her motives are not clear at the moment, she responds, “There I see such black and grained spots, as will not leave their tinct” (Shakespeare, 1887). Her character is developed to show that she is a person who is reliable and never changes her beliefs regardless of the situation at hand. Despite the challenges facing the kingdom, she never changes her belief in a better country.
When situations change in life, people modify their way of life and respond as a survival mechanism. Shakespeare depicts Gertrude as a person who understands the changing times and alters her perspective while retaining the core objective. Although she appears lukewarm and supports evil, her statement that a black grain never leaves its tinct indicates her reliability and duty towards the people and her son. Her motives become clear, and her character of duty to people is expressed. The intelligent character is developed at this point because her intelligence makes her pretend to be loyal to the new king. However, her motive is to use her position as queen to jeopardize the new king’s efforts to deprive the people of their rights (Smith, 1936). It is imperative to note that only emotionally intelligent people can fake friendships and understand a person’s weakness before attacking. Gertrude is depicted as an emotionally intelligent woman who intends to avenge her husband’s death after getting Claudius’ trust. As the audience navigates from the first to the third act, her character develops from a traitor to a highly intelligent woman who intends to avenge her husband’s death.
Evidence of Character Development in Act 5
In the last act, where Gertrude dies, she successfully proves loyalty. When Claudius realizes that Hamlet is devising ways to avenge his father’s death, he is prepared to poison wine to kill him (Smith, 1936). Although Hamlet believes that his mother is a disloyal woman who betrayed both her husband and son and dined with the enemy, the notion is disapproved as Gertrude disobeys the king’s order and drinks the poison meant for her son. When Claudius hands Hamlet over a goblet of poisoned wine, she acts first to save her son’s life, as she knows it has been poisoned. She died screaming, “The drink! The drink! I am poisoned” (Shakespeare, 1887). Shakespeare successfully develops Gertrude’s character traits and presents her as a loyal, observant, and selfless woman, contrary to what Hamlet believes throughout the play. Gertrude would have stopped drinking the wine as per the command if she were loyal to her new husband. Instead, she chose to ignore the king to save her son.
The action proves that Gertrude is a loyal woman who does everything, including losing her life, to protect her children. Her intentions are clearer because ignoring the king’s order meant that she was not loyal to him and was lying to him as a husband only to achieve an objective. Gertrude is also depicted as a selfless person ready to lose her life to achieve a target. The last act, which claimed her life was proof that even the act of becoming a wife to the new king was a strategic move to continue her husband’s objective (Heilbrun, 1957). At the beginning of the play, the audience may believe that she is a betrayer and selfish woman who wants to remain the queen by betraying her husband. However, she proves that the marriage to her brother-in-law was a sham only designed to seek revenge. Shakespeare further depicts Gertrude as an observant woman keen on all the king’s actions as she notices that the wine is poisoned, and she opts to take it instead of letting her son die.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet develops Gertrude’s character while depicting the role of women in a patriarchal society. Although she appears to be a traitor by marrying the man who murdered her husband, she vindicates herself towards the end of the play when she proves that her marriage with Claudius is an act to avenge the death of her husband and save her son’s life. Her character traits begin as a naïve and weak woman who could not make the right decisions. However, Shakespeare proves that she is neither weak nor selfish. Instead, through the revelations of her motives, her behaviors may appear to fluctuate throughout the text, but her motive remains clear and is understood by the audience as they move from act one to act five in the play. Gertrude’s behavior is inconsistent throughout the play, but once her intentions, feelings, and emotions are revealed, the behavior change is viewed as fulfilling their motives. The author successfully develops the character from a weak and hypocritical to a courageous, selfless, and observant woman who sacrifices her happiness to protect her son’s life.
Heilbrun, C. (1957). The character of Hamlet’s mother. Shakespeare Quarterly, 8(2), 201–206.
Shakespeare, W. (1887). Hamlet, prince of Denmark (Vol. 5). White, Stokes& Allen. [PDF Document]. Web.
Smith, R. M. (1936). Hamlet and Gertrude, or the Conscience of the Queen. The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, pp. 84–92. Web.