In many of his plays, especially tragedies, William Shakespeare examines the relationships people have with one another. Of these relationships, he is particularly interested in those between family members, above all, those between parents and their children. In his play Hamlet, Shakespeare examines Prince Hamlet’s relationships with his dead father, mother and step-father. His relationship with Gertrude, one of the only two women in the play, provides Hamlet with a deep sense of anger and pain. Hamlet feels that Gertrude has betrayed his father by marrying with his brother. Throughout the play, he is consumed with avenging his father’s death and all the mistreatment the former King had suffered and still suffers after his life is over. Gertrude adds to the dead King’s tarnished memory by not mourning and instead rejoicing in her new marriage. Hamlet is thus extremely angry with Gertrude and expresses this anger towards her directly and indirectly through his words, both to himself and to other characters.
Gertrude’s actions of marrying her husband’s brother after this king was only “two months dead” (I.ii. 138) causes Hamlet’s view on love to change. He noted that when Gertrude was with his father “he was so loving to [her]” and “she would hang on him” (I.ii. 140, 143). This is how Hamlet believed true, stable love was to be. But his mother’s ability to marry so quickly after his father’s death made Hamlet conclude that a woman’s love is fickle and he states “frailty, thy name is woman” (I.ii. 146). By “frailty” Hamlet is not referring to a woman’s physical abilities, but rather her emotional frailty and her ability to change so quickly after having, assumingly, loved so deeply. Thus Hamlet feels that Gertrude, not only betrayed his father, but also has betrayed the sanctity of love and marriage.
This altered view of love has also undoubtedly changed Hamlet’s relationship with the women he loves and who claims to love him, Ophelia. He comments on the love of a woman in general when he is seated beside Ophelia, watching the play and he asks her about the prologue. She responds “’Tis brief, my lord” for which Hamlet answers “As woman’s love” (III.ii. 137-138). Hamlet distances himself from Ophelia and tells her that he had never loved her (III.i. 119-120). This is evidently not true when, after she dies, Hamlet declares to Laertes “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/Could not, with all their quantity of love,/Make up my sum” (V.i. 254-256). Although, Hamlet does not really believe that Ophelia’s love for him was untrue, he does believe that her love could be as fickle as his mother’s in the future.
Hamlet believes, at times, that his mother helped his uncle Claudius in killing his father. This enrages Hamlet as this is not only treason, but the greatest offence his mother could have committed. After he kills Polonius in his mother’s bedroom, mistaking him for Claudius, Gertrude comments on Hamlet’s actions saying “O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!” (III. iv. 26). Hamlet then accuses Gertrude of conspiring to kill his father and says “A bloody deed—almost as bad, good-mother,/As kill a king and marry with his brother” (III. iv. 27-28). But Gertrude’s bewilderment in her response “As Kill a king?” (III.iv. 28) leaves Hamlet to assume that she did not kill his father and this is when he shifts from accusing his mother to warning her of her incestuous actions. He still believes that Gertrude has betrayed his father, but now he does not believe that she murdered him.
This incestuous nature of Gertrude’s new marriage to her dead husband’s brother is another factor that antagonizes Hamlet. The king was only “two months dead—nay, not so much, not two,” according to Hamlet, and already Gertrude has “married with [his] uncle” (I.ii. 138, 151). Prince Hamlet, in deciding to “speak daggers to [Gertrude], but use none” (III.ii. 366), uses harsh words upon his entry into her bedchamber and tells his mother “You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife” (III.iv. 15). Gertrude is very defensive at this point and tells her son that he should not speak to her that way. But Hamlet is distraught and asks his mother “O shame, where is thy blush?” (III.iv, 72). He compares, for Gertrude the pictures of his father and his uncle and asks Gertrude how she could marry Claudius, who is “like a mildewed ear” (III.iv. 63) after having loved King Hamlet “A combination and a form indeed” (III.iv. 59). He warns his mother to “Repent what’s past, avoid what is to come” (III.iv. 141) and tells her “go not to mine uncle’s bed” (III.iv. 150). He tries to help Gertrude feel sorrow for her actions, by forsaking Claudius and realizing her offence to her first husband.
After Hamlet has compared the two men for Gertrude she cannot bear his words anymore and says “O Hamlet, speak no more!/ Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,/ And there I see such black and grained spots…” (III.iv. 78-80). This is the point in the play where Gertrude’s view shifts and she realizes what she has done in betraying her dead husband. She was not consciously aware that her new husband, Claudius, had killed her former, but she was always aware that her actions were incestuous, although she never admitted it. If she had not subconsciously known this, Hamlet’s words would not have caused her to look into her soul and be appalled by what she viewed. He reveals to his mother that his madness has been feigned the entire time and that she is not to disclose this information to anyone, but rather hide his secret and not return to her husband’s bed that night. This is the beginning of Hamlet and Gertrude’s restored relationship as she aides her son in seeking revenge for King Hamlet’s death.
Gertrude continues to cause Claudius to believe Hamlet’s artificial condition. Claudius asks Gertrude how Hamlet is and she responds “Mad as the sea and wind when both contend/Which is the mightier.” (IV.i. 6-7). Thus, Claudius is continually fooled into believing Hamlet’s madness and fears the Prince’s actions. Gertrude, evidently takes allegiance with her son, rather than her new husband as seen during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes when she says “Here, Hamlet, take my napkin. Rub thy brows./ The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” (V.ii. 231-232). She then drinks from the poisoned cup to Hamlet’s fortune, even though Claudius says “Gertrude, do not drink” (V.ii. 233). This is a mark that she now is on her son’s side and does not wish to listen to her husband Claudius anymore, believing that he killed her first husband. Thus, Gertrude and Hamlet’s relationship, although still full of intense feelings, has begun to be mended before Gertrude’s death.
Hamlet, throughout most of the play, believes that Gertrude has betrayed his father’s memory and that she does not feel any remorse for her actions, not considering them wrong at all. He wants to take vengeance against those who had mistreated his father, but does not wish to harm his mother. Although upset with his mother, he still loves her a great deal. Instead, he forces Gertrude to realize that her actions were a treachery to her former husband and they begin to work together in seeking punishment for King Hamlet’s death. Hamlet’s destroyed relationship with Gertrude, then is reflected in his feelings of bewilderment and anger at the beginning of the play and the restoration of this relationship is the extra push Hamlet required to carry out the final actions of killing his uncle in order to avenge his father’s death.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Compnay Inc., 1997. 1668-1759.