An exploration into the way Shakespeare presents Gertrude and Ophelia in Hamlet
It seems at first that Gertrude and Ophelia are quite similar to each other in relation to their position in the play – certainly in the eyes of Hamlet. He feels betrayed by both of them; Gertrude for her hasty remarriage and Ophelia for her possible complicity in her father’s plot to spy on him and the returning of his love tokens (his questions ‘Are you honest?’ and ‘Where’s your father?’ (III,1) although rather ambiguous, reveal his suspicion of her).
Both women are stronger than they appear, but become the victims of who they choose to fall in love with. The poison Claudius sets out for Hamlet kills Gertrude. Ophelia is driven mad by Hamlet’s cruel treatment and murder of her father, and kills herself. Both are innocent victims, too; Ophelia is forced to compromise Hamlet and hand back Hamlet’s love letters thus provoking his anger, and Gertrude had no idea that Claudius had murdered old Hamlet (‘As kill a king?’ she repeats in evident amazement when confronted by Hamlet in her closet in Act III, Scene 4).
Ophelia’s significance in the play is defined by the way she is used to throw light on Hamlet’s situation, and her own character is therefore not easy to elicit. When we are first introduced to her, we are instantly aware of her dutiful and submissive role. Laertes advises her not to be too free with her affections for Hamlet:
‘Weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open,’ (I,3) - advice she would have done well to heed had it not perhaps come too late. Her subservience to both her father and brother are merely one aspect of her portrayal by Shakespeare. A completely different interpretation of Ophelia’s character can be construed from the sexual innuendo in her dialogue with Hamlet at the play. Later too, in Act IV Scene 5, conflicting interpretations of her character can be made – the songs and sexual references are not the words of an innocent young girl. Her madness may have broken down her inhibitions but her language cannot be simply explained. It seems Shakespeare created Ophelia to be a pawn in the power struggle between her father, Claudius and Hamlet.
Ophelia is by no means a weak person, however. She is forced by her father and the times in which she lives, into a position whereby she can do nothing to affect what is going on around her. Laertes gives her similar advice to Polonius, which makes us question her ability to make the right decisions for herself, yet she is not so repressed as to be incapable of responding vigorously to his pompous advice, reminding him not to behave like a ‘puff’d and reckless libertine,’ who ‘the primrose path of dalliance treads/And recks not his own rede’ (I,3). She also speaks up for Hamlet to her father when questioned, declaring that he has behaved ‘In honourable fashion.’ She listens carefully and dutifully to Polonius and Laertes’ advice but this does not mean she is going to live by it. This advice is motivated by self-interest, and perhaps Ophelia can see this.
Gertrude appears to be even more obedient and dutiful than Ophelia. She accepted Claudius’ ascension to the throne above Hamlet; she trusts him when he declares Hamlet mad, and generally does whatever Claudius asks of her. Although Claudius loves her, he uses her, just as Polonius uses Ophelia. The difference is, however, that Ophelia may have some awareness of when she is being manipulated. (She is present when Claudius and Polonius plot to act as ‘lawful espials’ (III,1) to judge Hamlet’s reaction to her and her complicity in this plot is suggested by her lying to Hamlet when he demands ‘Where is your father?’).
It is only during the closet scene, when Hamlet actually accuses Gertrude of murder (‘A bloody deed! – almost as bad, good mother/As kill la king and marry with his brother’) that her genuine confusion leaves the audience in no doubt of her innocence in that crime. The timely appearance of the ghost of old Hamlet could also reinforce this belief and direct the audience’s sympathy. The question that must be asked is why the ghost chose to appear at the moment when Hamlet seems almost capable of anything in his passion, if not for concern for Gertrude. Should she have been an accomplice in the murder, the ghost might be less likely to show concern for her.
Gertrude’s function in the play, therefore, is similar to Ophelia’s, in that she is also a pawn in Claudius’ power struggle. But as Hamlet’s mother, of course, her role is more complex and like Ophelia, it is fraught with ambiguity.
When we first see Gertrude in Act I, Scene 2, it is as Claudius’ wife, standing by his side and apparently on his side. While Claudius, in his opening speech, exhorts the court to celebrate his marriage to his ‘sometime sister’ Hamlet’s dislike of him is absolutely clear. Gertrude instantly sides with her husband in criticising Hamlet’s excessive grief, telling him to ‘cast thy knighted colour off’. She urges him to ‘look like a friend on Denmark’ (meaning Claudius) and to stop mourning his real father because ‘all that lives must die’. Considering that her first husband has been dead only two months, this seems insensitive to say the least. One way of perceiving her is therefore as a shallow woman with no real depth of feeling, as at this stage in the play, this is how she is being presented to the audience.
Just as Ophelia is used and deceived by Polonius, Claudius uses and deceives Gertrude. Not only does he kill her husband, convince her that her son is mad and so on, but he plots to have Hamlet sent to England and executed without her knowledge. Until Hamlet leaves for England, Gertrude is exactly the kind of wife that Claudius wants. This is illustrated by her comment about the Queen in the dumb show, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’ (III,2). She seems to think that a wife should obey her husband blindly at all times – and in her case this seems true; in a tragic twist of irony the only time she disobeys Claudius (‘Gertrude, do not drink’ (V,2)) she is killed.
If Gertrude is to be accused of anything, it could be that she simply plays her part too cleverly. Her ‘o’er-hasty marriage’ following the sudden death of her husband could simply be a survival instinct. If all men must die, all women must get on as best they can! Being a queen and dutiful wife is a role she clearly knows well. The ghost refers to her lustful nature when describing his ‘most seeming virtuous queen’ and this could account for her simple need to be desired by a man. Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 seems to corroborate this view: ‘Why, she should hang on him/As if increase of appetite had grown/By what it fed on’.
If Gertrude plays her role as dutiful wife and Queen with ease, her role as Hamlet’s mother causes her more difficulties. Despite her first exchange with her son, there is no doubt she is a caring mother. As Claudius explains to Laertes when he demands justice for his father’s death, one reason he has not had Hamlet punished is that ‘The Queen his mother/Lives almost by his looks’ (IV,7). Her diagnosis of her son’s ‘distemper’ is also more astute than is Polonius’ who wants to put it down to unrequited love: ‘I doubt it is no other but the main,/His father’s death and our o’er-hasty marriage’ (II,2) Gertrude explains with the perception of an understanding mother.
It is in the closet scene that the real depths of Gertrude’s character are revealed. She is force to listen to her son’s cruel rantings and accusations of incest (‘Your husband’s brother’s wife’), witness the murder of Polonius, and is pushed to the point where she has to beg Hamlet’s silence: ‘Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul;/And there I see such black and grained spots/As will not leave their tinct’ (III,4) she cries pitifully, leaving the audience in no doubt that she has been deeply touched and filled with remorse. ‘O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain’ she tells him. Nevertheless she still feels pity for her son and readily agrees to support his pretence at madness; ‘Be thou assur’d, if words be made of breath,/and breath of life, I have no life to breathe/what thou hast said to me.’ And it seems once she has given her word, she remains faithful to it as there is indication that she fails to keep this promise.
However this newly revealed compassion is not at first evident in her subsequent scene with Ophelia.
Previously Gertrude has shown her approval of Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet, yet following his exile to England, her first instinct seems to be to avoid the fatherless girl. ‘I will not speak with her’ are her opening words in Act IV Scene 5. When she sees Ophelia’s plight, however, she softens. In her aside just prior to Ophelia’s entrance it seems that Gertrude’s unhappiness (her ‘sick soul’) has brought new insights to her character. ‘Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss’, Gertrude says, suggesting a new ability to see how things are progressing. It seems Shakespeare intended to allow Gertrude’s character to develop more fully from this point. Her poignant description of Ophelia’s death and her final farewell:
‘sweets to the sweet; farewell!
I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave’ (V,1)
reinforces the compassionate, maternal side to her nature and leaves us in no doubt of her sorrow at the death of the girl she had looked on as her future daughter.
In the midst of her unhappiness, however, she has not dropped her role as dutiful wife. When Laertes hears that his father is dead, the queen hastens to make sure the wrong man, i.e. Claudius, is not accused. But it is the role of mother, not wife, that predominates in Gertrude’s final scene. She defies Claudius’ command not to drink from the poisoned cup with a degree of dignity, and then effectively denounces her husband with her dying breath. When he suggests she has merely fainted at the sight of the blood:
‘No, no, the drink, the drink! O, My dear Hamlet!
The drink, the drink! I am poisoned!’ (V,2)
In Gertrude and Ophelia therefore, Shakespeare has created two interesting and complex characters, both victims of their own love. On stage they can be interpreted and played in many different ways. However whereas Gertrude must be a very satisfying role for an actor because her character is more fully developed and her different facets easier to explain, Ophelia’s poses problems. Her character is more ephemeral; her fragile mind symbolised by delicate flowers, such as the violets which ‘wither’d all when my father died’ (IV,5) make her a more difficult character to know or analyse with certainty.
The full text of Hamlet is available free online at: