Hamlet's Mother

I just re-read Hamlet. (Last time I read it was over ten years ago, back in High School.)

I can’t find a charitable way to understand the character of Gertrude. But then, on the other hand, I confess I skimmed through probably about a third of the play so I might have missed something.

But as it stands, the way I see it, she is at best clueless and self-absorbed, at worst a co-conspirator with Claudius.

But what other interpretations have been given to her role, if any? And why?


The are obviously many answers to your question, but I can only give my own opinions. Were I a scholar or Shakespeare enthusiast I could point you to dozens of different critics’ works about Gertrude.

But here are my two cents. Essentially I think you about right in that she is somewhat clueless and self-absorbed. I don’t however believe that she is a co-conspirator with Claudius. Why? Because the King’s ghost doesn’t seem to blame her for his murder and even warns Hamlet not to kill her when they are in the bedroom together. She isn’t a target of the dead king’s revenge. Nor does Hamlet, when he is listing out her many crimes, include her as a conspirator in his father’s death. Her sin is “hasty remarriage,” which Hamlet in his manic state inflates to be “incestuous and filthy”. My interpretation here is that Hamlet is being too hard on his mother. She after all doesn’t know that Claudius is guilty of fratricide, doesn’t know that Hamlet has been charged to avenge the murder. I can forgive Hamlet for this though, since Gertrude seems kinda thick about the whole situation and needs to be bluntly called out to understand why Hamlet is so upset. In other words I think the Queen is insensitive and shallow, and she can be blamed for that, but I think Hamlet unfairly puts too much blame on her. She doesn’t have anything to do with the murder, but she does remarry too quickly, allowing herself to be a pawn in Claudius’s power play, giving that much more validation to Claudius’s new status.

A lot of directors and critics see an oedipal undertone to Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship, so much so that it has become somewhat standard to up-play this in productions these days. Personally I think it’s a stupid and unnecessary addition to the play that was never intended by Shakespeare, an interpretation driven by a silly modern obsession with Freudian motivations or by a misunderstanding of the use of the word incest in the play. To me it muddies the core meaning of the play by adding an unintended and contradictory element to Hamlet’s motivations and dilemmas. The play is about Hamlet, a scholar, a thinking man, a theologian, a gentleman, an intellectual, a contemplator who is suddenly charged to become a completely different person, to take on role antithetical to everything he is. He is asked to become a man of action, a killer, a man willing to commit murder. He is asked to set aside his contemplations, his theological considerations, his gentle nature, his intellect and become the great avenger. He handles this charge rather poorly, as most of us would handle being charged with taking on a role completely opposite to how we currently live. Adding in this bit about his wanting to shag his mum turns Hamlet from a good man doing a bad job in trying to take on a new role in life, into a plain basket case being swept around by competing emotions in his head. Knowing how Shakespeare sets up his dramas I can say confidently that the former is far more likely to have been his intention than the latter.

Yes, that’s not really in the text at all. However, Hamlet does have issues with his mother and sex – as he does with Ophelia, when he tells her, “Get thee to a nunnery!” So not only doesn’t he like Gertrude’s over-hasty re-marriage, but he clearly is extremely uncomfortable about his mother having sex with Claudius. It’s not surprising, since children often have trouble imagining their parents having sex, and this particular sexual union is born out of fratricide and treason.

My take on it is that Claudius, as well as being ruthless, is an excellent politician: witness how he turns Laertes’ rage at Polonius’s death around. Doubtless he was a very convincing suitor to Gertrude, though we don’t see it on stage. A stronger woman would have told Claudius to wait, or rejected him outright, but Gertrude was not a strong woman.

Gertrude always seemed like an unrewarding role to me, even though a lot of fine actresses have played it. The play has perhaps Shakespeare’s meatiest male character, but the ladies don’t come off so well. It’s really a male-dominated story.

Clueless gold digger who’s too close with her son. So timeless. Saw a great production that her in furs and a scraggly bleached wig, wide-eyed and drugged out. She even spilled her pills and got on her knees to gather them all at one point. And Hamlet straddled her. Great little theatre.

Yeah, I agree. Hamlet does have a problem with mom’s sexual activity, but not because he wishes he was milfing mommy, as the oedipal/freudian interpretation would have us believe.

That’s true, and I agree that Hamlet is excessively hard on Gertrude - but who can say if the ghost would know if she was involved? Or how he would react if she were?

By the standards of the time, I think that relationship would be considered incestuous. I don’t like the way current productions overplay this angle either, however, it should be noted that Hamlet’s anger at her remarriage is intense. He says some harsh things about women throughout the play and expresses a lot of disappointment and disgust - sometimes in graphic language.

The most positive interpretation you could put on Gertrude’s actions, I guess, is that she’s won over by a very clever and conniving man and can’t be blamed for it. But that’s still rather chauvinistic.

Charitable interp (not that I really buy it):

Gertrude knows her son–he’s an emotionally unstable dilettante who can’t make decisions and is basically unfit to rule. If he challenges his strong Uncle for the throne, he dies, and Gertrude maybe dies with him if she throws him her support. Instead, she acquiesces to Caludius who also sees Hamlet as a weak, ineffectual, apolitical schoolboy (not much of a threat) and therefore lets him live. So, her actions are for the good of Denmark and Hamlet too.

That would be an interesting way to play it. You could add that a strong leader like Claudius is all that’s keeping Fortinbras from invading Denmark (as he does at the end of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.

I’ve felt for a long time that people ignore the politics of Hamlet, and think it’s all about Hamlet’s indecision and/or madness. A lot of the story is about:
(1) How Claudius got onto the throne and keeps himself firmly in control of things, until the end.
(2) What Hamlet should do about a usurper when only he knows that Claudius is a usurper: he needs to find the right time to deal with Claudius, without further corrupting the kingdom, e.g., by being a usurper himself in the eyes of others.

Part of the background is that Denmark is clearly an elective monarchy, as was England to some extent. Normally the throne would go from father to son, but in extraordinary circumstances the Privy Council would need to make choices – as it did in England when dealing withe the problem of the succession after Henry VIII, and again with the succession on the death of Elizabeth I without issue.

I just wanted to pop in and say that this is perhaps the most elegant and apt description of Hamlet (the play and the character) that I have ever heard.

I don’t think she’s a co-conspirator. (Well, you could play it that way on stage, but it does run against the grain of the text.) She strikes me as genuinely shocked in the closet scene (“As kill a king!”) and repentant. More to the point, she keeps her promise to Hamlet not to say anything about what he has just told her – she goes off to Claudius and says he’s out of his mind, when, by the end of the closet scene, she thinks he’s sane and knows more or less what he plans to do next. A co-conspirator would have warned him that Hamlet knew the truth.

My take on Gertrude is that she is in love with Claudius, probably wasn’t in love with Hamlet, Senior, and is blind to Claudius’ faults until Hamlet lays them bare before her. After that point, she’s torn between her love for her son and her husband, unwilling to betray the confidences of either of them, and genuinely miserable about the situation (“To my sick soul, as sin’s true nature is, / Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss, / So full of artless jealousy is guilt / It spills itself in fearing to be spilt”). Clueless and a bit shallow? Yeah, probably. I don’t think she’s stupid, per se, because she’s got a few pithy and penetrating lines (“More matter with less art” and “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”), but she definitely sees what she wants to see.

For anyone interested in Hamlet, I found Isaac Asimov’s explanation/interpretation of the play (in Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare)very interesting and well worth reading.

I think poor Gertrude had never gotten laid properly until Claudius seduced her after Hamlet, Sr.'s death, and she was a little strung out on the dick.

It’s still better than poor Ophelia who says and does nothing useful and then expires by passively drowning herself in a stream because Hamlet has become such an insufferable meany. She’s more useless than Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. I agree with Humble Servant’s interpretation; Gertrude hooks up with Cladius because he’s a strong, capable schemer who can keep Denmark independent and the throne strong. She may love Hamlet, but realizes that he’d not make a good king in the face of conflict and subterfuge; he certainly isn’t the man King Hamlet (who killed King Fortinbras in combat) was.


It’s considered a great role, though.

Gertude has more guts and brains, even if Ophelia is the looker. In my version of Hamlet, Ophelia tells the crass, vacillating Hamlet to go blow during the whole “Do you think I meant country matters?” dialogue and take up with Fortinbras while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern storm the castle and dispatch everyone in sight in a balletic bloodbath of double fisted battle-axe swinging. And, as homage to Martin Scorsese, the whole scene (told in flashback) is set to the Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, followed by a slow pan over the aftermath with Duane Allman’s extended coda to “Layla” playing in the background while the narrating Fortinbras describes how they had to wait three days for the bodies to thaw.

Gimee my friggen Oscar now, you Academy wonks!


First off, I heartily agree that neorxnawange’s analysis of Hamlet is exceptional. Bravo!

Gertrude is a bit of a cypher. The explanation that I’ve always preferred (and I can’t remember if I read this somewhere or made it up myself) is that she’s fairly young. Hamlet himself is – what? about 20? And an only child. So it’s reasonable to assume that at the time of the play, Gertrude is only about 35 or so. Hamlet Sr. was probably much older. So we have a child bride, probably in an arranged marriage (it’s royalty – that’s par for the course) with an old man. Now, a few years down the road, she’s smitten by her husband’s younger brother. Being shallow, clueless, and in love, she just can’t see any reason to mourn the old man with too much devotion when he kicks over unexpectedly. And being young enough still to have her looks and to bear more children, she’s got much to look forward to with Claudius. That foul play was involved does not cross her mind in the least.

That’s my $0.02USD worth. I now pass the torch to people who know what the hell they’re talking about.

When Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates he proves his mettle. Granted, this doesn’t actually take place where the audience can see it, but they talk about his actions in the play. So if that was Gertrude’s interpretation I think she, and everyone else, got it all wrong.


We don’t hear about siblings, so presumably there are none still around, if there ever were any. But Hamlet’s age is problematical. He’s a university student, so you’d expect him to be around 18-20, but there’s a specific scene (the grave-digger’s scene) in which (to be consistent), either Hamlet is about 30 years old, or the grave-digger is seriously mis-remembering things, and isn’t corrected by Hamlet or Horatio. If Hamlet is 30, then Gertrude must be at least in her mid 40s, and probably past child-bearing. She does seem a lot older than Juliet’s mother in Romeo and Juliet, who is only 26! (Juliet is 13, and her mother bore her at the same age).

Claudius was the king with all of the king’s resources at his hand. What was one individual, such as Hamlet, to do?

As to Gertrude, she was a woman and at that time women were regarded pretty much as property. She really wasn’t in a position to do much about Claudius’ act.