View Full Version : The inscestuous marriage between Gertrude and Claudius

08-02-2009, 01:15 PM
Both Hamlet and the ghost condemn the relationship and marriage between Claudius and Gertrude as incestuous (1.2.157; 1.5.42). This was based on the Old Testament book of Leviticus 20:21:
”If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”
It was interpreted to prohibit relations between the wife and the brother of the husband. It applied even after the death of the husband. In effect, upon marriage, the husband’s brother became the brother of the wife, and this relationship survived the death of the husband. As Claudius says:
“Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, … have we …taken to wife.”
Claudius was in effect marrying his sister when he married Gertrude.
To Elizabethans, this doctrine of incest was not obscure canon law. It affected their lives, the throne and religion of England, and changed the course of history.
When Henry VIII was young, he had an older brother, Arthur, who was to become the next king. At age 14, Arthur married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain. She was 17 at the time. Four months after the marriage, Arthur died. Catherine remained in England. Eight years later, when Henry became king, he decided to marry Catherine, who was 6 years older than he. There was concern about incest, since Catherine had been the wife of Henry’s brother. However, it was asserted that the marriage with Arthur had never been consummated, since Arthur had been sick, and there was no problem. As a further precaution, a Papal dispensation was obtained, and Henry married Catherine in 1509. Although Catherine became pregnant several times, all the children, except one, Mary, died in infancy or were stillborn. After 24 years of marriage, in 1533, Catherine was no longer able to have children. Henry was desperate to have a male heir, fearing another civil war over the succession to the throne. (See Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts I, II and III, and Richard III). He decided to divorce Catherine and to marry a younger woman, Ann Boleyn, whom he believed could produce a male heir. As grounds for the divorce, Henry claimed that his marriage to Catherine was incestuous and void, since she had been married to his brother Arthur. Henry convened a court to try the matter, but Catherine refused to appear and appealed directly to the pope. (See Shakespeare’s Henry VIII). Henry realized that he could not prevail. Although a devout Catholic, Henry broke with the Roman Church and created the Church of England, which became Protestant. He obtained his divorce and married Anne Boleyn. She gave birth to a daughter, who later became Queen Elizabeth. Thus, the history of England, Europe and the world were affected by this concept of incest.

Ray Eston Smith
08-02-2009, 04:07 PM
Good summary. And there's no doubt that the original audience of Hamlet would have been reminded of all that by Claudius's marriage to his brother's widow.

I think incest-avoidance was more of an excuse than a motivation. Techinically, by the rules at that time, Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was incest, because Henry had previously had sexual relations with her sister. But nobody in England at that time (or later during the reign of Elizabeth I, the fruit of that "incestuous" union) would dare to say so. When Henry wanted an excuse to behead Anne Boleyn, he falsely accused her of incest with her brother.

The Pope probably would have routinely granted Henry's request to annul his marriage to Katherine except that the armies of Katherine's nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, were occupying the Vatican States.

I agree with you that Henry's main motivation was probably to get a male heir to prevent civil war over the succession, as had happened with Queen Matilda. It turned out Henry was partly wrong about that. Katherine's daughter Mary did indeed turn out to be a bad ruler, marrying the Prince of Spain, which almost led to the conquest of England (30 years after Mary's death) by the Spanish Armada. (The Spanish Armada attack is some ways is paralleled by Fortinbras "to recover of us by strong hand and terms compulsatory those forsaid lands so by his father lost.") But another female heir, Anne Boleyn's daughter Elizabeth, became the best ruler England ever had.

One of the things that made Elizabeth I a great ruler was that she never married. Maybe that was because of the trauma of knowing that her father had murdered her mother, but whatever the cause it was a good policy for England. It avoided foreign entanglements.

The greatest thing about Elizabeth was that she avoided most of the wars that her advisors were urging. I think Hamlet is partly modeled after Elizabeth - both were scholars and theater lovers. Neither wanted to be a "breeder of sinners." Both wanted not to be "so like the king that was and is the question of these wars."

08-03-2009, 01:13 AM
Both Hamlet and the ghost condemn the relationship and marriage between Claudius and Gertrude as incestuous (1.2.157; 1.5.42). This was based on the Old Testament book of Leviticus 20:21:

”If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing; he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.”

In Leviticus, doesn't the prohibition only apply where the first husband, the brother, is still living? If Leviticus merely addresses incest, explaining an earlier scripture (quoted by Jesus himself) seems difficult:

Genesis 38:6___And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar.

7___And Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD slew him.

8___And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother's wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

9___And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10___And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

Ray Eston Smith
08-03-2009, 07:38 PM
I haven't been so confused since the last time I watched Jerry Springer.

07-26-2018, 08:49 AM
In Bede is a letter from Gregory condemning the practice of Saxon leaders marrying their brother's wives/widows as I recall. This could have also been consulted. Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, had been murdered "unshriven'. Does this suggest a Catholic sympathy on the part of the author though?

Pompey Bum
07-26-2018, 11:43 AM
Welcome to the site, Housekeys, and thanks for resuscitating this interesting old conversation. I know there is some circumstantial evidence that Shakespeare was crypto-Catholic. I'm not sure King Hamlet dying without confession advances the idea too much. Prince Hamlet later says: "Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?", which could arguably seen as a Reformation view. An intellectual in Shakespeare's day would have found himself in a swirling vortex of religious perspective (even Elizabeth's church was a compromise), so it is not surprising that Shakespeare's plays reflect a certain cautious mix. There is some evidence, I know, that some members of Shakespeare's family were crypto-Catholics (including his father), but it's awfully hard to know what Shakespeare's actual beliefs were. But perhaps there is more personal information in the Sonnets, which I do not know well.

Welcome again to the site. :)