Shakespeare's Gertrude: Character Analysis & Traits

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  • 0:03 Gertrude: Woman, Queen, Enigma
  • 1:16 Ophelia
  • 1:50 Gertrude's Husbands
  • 2:32 Claudius & Hamlet
  • 4:39 Gertrude's Death
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Although Gertrude is a central character in Shakespeare's Hamlet, she is enigmatic. As queen of Denmark and Hamlet's mother, she plays a pivotal role. Much of what we are told about her character is filtered through the biases of others.

Gertrude: Woman, Queen, Enigma

Queen Gertrude, mother to Hamlet, is one of Shakespeare's most mysterious main characters. She can be seen as a foil to her son, since her character contrasts with his. Unlike Hamlet, Gertrude has no soliloquies reflecting on herself and her actions. She's driven by emotions rather than reflection. She's affectionate, impulsive, and strong-willed. Although Gertrude has many good qualities, she's not conspicuously intelligent. Moreover - fatally - she is a poor judge of character.

Misogyny, or a prejudice against women, influences how others perceive Gertrude in the play and has influenced interpretations of Hamlet. The anger of Hamlet, the dismissive indulgence of Claudius, and the sad disappointment of the ghost are often considered accurate reflections of Gertrude's character.

The relationships that Gertrude has with other characters in the play reveal her capability for deep emotional attachments. She is sincere and free from hypocrisy. Despite all of these positive attributes, she does not appear as a particularly strong character. Gertrude takes 'living in the moment' to its extreme. Rarely does she contemplate the future or the past.

Ophelia

Gertrude's affectionate interactions with Ophelia suggest that the queen cultivated a close relationship with the motherless girl whom she hoped her son would marry. It is Gertrude for whom Ophelia asks in her madness in Act 4, Scene 5. It is Gertrude who, grieving, brings the news of Ophelia's death to the court. At Ophelia's grave, Gertrude speaks poignantly of how she imagined she might one day decorate Hamlet and Ophelia's marriage bed with flowers, rather than scattering blossoms on the young woman's grave. Gertrude's relationship with Ophelia reveals the queen's capacity for unselfish love.

Gertrude's Husbands

Gertrude's most controversial relationships are with her two husbands. Less than two months after her first husband's death, she marries his brother. When Hamlet infamously says 'Frailty, thy name is woman' (1.2.150), he's referring to Gertrude's remarriage. We can't take his judgment at face value. His vehemence suggests that, before her remarriage, he regards his mother as a paragon of feminine virtue. The ghost of the old king, Hamlet's father, laments Gertrude's being won to a new love by smooth talk and fancy presents. In the same speech, he compares Gertrude to an angel and tells their son not to punish her. She will, he says, suffer enough from her own conscience.

Claudius & Hamlet

Claudius, Gertrude's second husband, infantilizes her, speaking for her as an adult would speak for a child, and attempting to control her behavior. As is made clear from his conversation with Laertes in Act 4, Scene 7, he depends on her but doesn't take her emotions or judgment seriously. We can infer that Gertrude is powerfully attracted to Claudius, since she makes the politically weighty decision to marry him. That Gertrude is physically demonstrative with both her husbands probably says more about her own sensuality than her relationships.

In Act 3, Scene 2, Hamlet stages a play in which a queen claims that her love for her first husband means she could never marry a second. Gertrude's famous reaction is: 'The lady doth protest too much, methinks' (3.2.254). Traditionally, this line has been interpreted as evidence that she's feeling guilty. An alternate interpretation is that she is attempting to tell her son that it's unwise to make promises about future feelings.

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