HALLOWEEN 2015: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
There tend to be two approaches to portraying Gertrude, mother of Prince Hamlet, recent widow of King Hamlet, new wife of King Claudius. One is that she’s completely innocent, unaware that her second husband murdered her first, though perhaps she may suspect something is rotten somewhere. The other is that she is deeply involved in Claudius’s schemes. I favor the first option, as I think it makes her a much more tragic figure and works better with my own personal interpretations of the play. However, this issue of Femnista is about villainesses, so in this article I’m going to explore the implications and consequences of portraying Gertrude as a femme fatale.
The darker version of Gertrude has not been seduced by her husband’s brother, as her son Hamlet assumes. Rather, she seduces him, or perhaps they mutually entice each other— Claudius seeking power, and Gertrude seeking… what? Release from her marriage to King Hamlet? Is he old, repulsive, inattentive, boring? Or does he simply relegate her to being a figurehead, not sharing power and political influence? Or perhaps he is off at wars too often, leaving her bored and lonely, with his brother attentively filling the gaps in her life when the king is absent?
Whatever her reasoning, Gertrude and Claudius pair up. Clearly, he is seeking the power and position that a “spare heir” perpetually lacks. But in the play, he seems also to be genuinely fond of Gertrude. He asks for her input, seeks her counsel, works to protect her. Claudius values Gertrude, and perhaps that’s what drew her to him—who does not enjoy being valued?
And then the plotting begins. Claudius has a penchant for poisoning, but surely our darker version of Gertrude provided not only the motive, but the means for King Hamlet’s murder. Who but a wife would know the perfect time to find him napping alone in his private orchard? She leaves the dirty work to her paramour, however, as all good femmes fatales do.
Once King Hamlet has been dispatched, she marries Claudius with undue haste. Is this from worry that she needs to keep him close and firmly under the spell of her charms, lest he lose his nerve and admit their sins to the world? Is it out of desire, a need to be with Claudius without the sneaking and skulking an extramarital affair requires? Is it to block her son from assuming the throne and gaining the power she herself craves? Any one of these presents a more than adequate reason for remarrying long before it is deemed “proper.”
When she and Claudius have wed, however, Gertrude’s troubles do not end. Her son finds her remarriage disturbing. He suspects something very wrong is going on. And then he begins to act crazy. He constantly draws attention to the remarriage, to himself, to everything that Gertrude would rather sweep neatly under a rug and forget about.
Hamlet must be stopped. When he gets a troupe of traveling actors to perform a murder mystery that echoes the very way King Hamlet died, surely our dark Gertrude notices the similarities as well as Claudius. Hamlet suspects, maybe even knows what has happened. But does he know she’s involved? Gertrude plays innocent. Hamlet is deceived, convinced she had no knowledge of her husband’s death. He blames the new king, and Gertrude works hard to keep the blame firmly on Claudius’ shoulders.
Hamlet kills Polonius, and is sent to England, theoretically to keep him from having to forfeit his life for his crime. But actually, he’ll be killed once he reaches there, a devious plan devised by Claudius to rid himself of his annoyingly suspicious nephew-son. Is Gertrude involved in this plot too? If she is, then is she also somehow involved in Ophelia’s death? Could she be worried that Hamlet had told Ophelia his suspicions, and so removes yet another potential obstacle by “helping” Ophelia drown? If so, then surely Horatio was next on her list of people to murder, for she must suspect Hamlet has confided in his friend.
But before Gertrude can strike again, Hamlet returns. He’s a changed man, more direct, quiet, resolved. They can’t have such a dangerous enemy loose in Elsinore. If, then, she does nothing to warn Hamlet that his life is in danger, she is basically complicit in her own son’s death, even if she has left the actual plotting to Claudius.
If you read Gertrude as a cold, conniving femme fatale, then it is she who ultimately bears the guilt for eight deaths, who is justly served with her own death by the poison her second husband intended for her son. Do I personally like this reading? No. I prefer to believe Gertrude is innocent. But is it a valid interpretation? I think it is.
Long before Gilda Mundson, Phyllis Dietrichson, or Brigid O’Schaughnessy, there may have been Gertrude, the deadly queen. ♥
When she’s not writing, Rachel Kovaciny passes the time by reading, baking, watching movies, crocheting, blogging, and homeschooling her three children. Her least favorite activities are house-cleaning and wearing shoes, and she’s been known to go to great lengths to avoid both. She blogs about books, and also has a personal blog that talks about movies and other important things.