Gertrude is a fascinating character. While we have many specific facts about her, much of the information is ambiguous and incomplete. However, from wht we know, we can create a fairly accurate portrait.
In act 3, we learn from the player king and queen who represent King Hamlet and Gertrude that they were married for 30 years. (3.2.147-152). At first it was a loving marriage (1.2.140-145; 1.5.48-50). Hamlet who is 30 (5.1.133-39, 152-53) was born during first year of their marriage. She may have been a foreign princess. She says to the mob which breaks into the palace: “You false Danish dogs” (4.5.110), implying that she may not be Danish. Apparently she married King Hamlet when she was quite young and he was much older. If she were 18 when they married and King Hamlet was 35, then, at the time of the play, she would be 48 and he 65. He is old: he takes naps every afternoon and has a gray beard. (1.5.59-60; 1.2.237-239).
Gertrude, now bored with her old husband, is seduced by King Hamlet’s younger brother, Claudius, with whom she seeks diversion and sexual satisfaction, and with whom she has an adulterous and incestuous affair. (1.5.42-52)
Her love of Claudius is so great that she marries him right after King Hamlet’s funeral, without even waiting a reasonable time. (1.2.145-157) She herself admits to her “O’r hasty marriage”. (2.2.56). As Hamlet tells Horatio: “the funeral baked meats coldly brought forth the marriage table.” (1.2.180-181). Hamlet says: ” A beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer”. (1.2.150-151)
In choosing Claudius, Gertrude betrayed her son. While she loved Hamlet, she loves Claudius more. Hamlet wanted to become king after his father’s death, but was thwarted by Claudius, who “popped in between the election and my hopes.” (5.2.65). Instead of supporting her son’s claim to the throne, Gertrude supports her lover’s claim in the strongest possible way, by marrying him. She criticizes Hamlet for continuing to mourn for his father two months after his death and one month after his funeral. (1.2.68-73). Hamlet says it is genuine grief and implies that Gertrude is guilty of hypocrisy. (1.2.76-86; 1.2.145-151). Perhaps she is embarrassed by the contrast of Hamlet’s mourning and her hasty marriage.
What did Gertrude know of the murder of King Hamlet? The ghost hints at her guilt and says to Hamlet: “But howsoever thou pursuest this act, taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.” (1.5. 84-88) Hamlet believes she may have been involved in the murder. He says of her: “O most pernicious woman!” (1.5.105). During the play, the player queen accuses Gertrude:“In second husband let me be accurst: None wed the second, but who killed the first.” (3.2.172-173; 175-178). Gertrude observes: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (3.2.223) Before visiting her, Hamlet suggest she is guilty and says: “O heart, lost not thy nature: let not ever the soul of Nero enter this firm bosom; let me be cruel, not unnatural. I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” (3.2.378-382).
After the play Gertrude realizes that Hamlet knows that Claudius killed King Hamlet and how he did it. Guildernstern tells Hamlet: “The Queen, your mother, in most great affliction of spirit hath sent me to you.” (3.2.299-300).
At the meeting in her apartments, she criticizes him for revealing the murder to the court. She says to Hamlet,” you have your father much offended.” (3.4.9). Hamlet replies “you have my father much offended” (3.4.10). She says she will call others to speak to him. He then forces her to sit down. (3.4.17-20). She is frightened and fearful that Hamlet might take revenge against her. She believes that he wants to harm her and she cries out for help: “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho.”. (3.4.21-22) Her violent reaction seems to imply guilt on her part and her fear that Hamlet will take revenge against her. Her cries cause Polonius to cry out and Hamlet kills him in front of Gertrude believing him to be Claudius. Hamlet says: “Is it the King?” (3.4.27). Gertrude replies: “what a rash and bloody deed is this!”, to which Hamlet replies, directly accusing her: “A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother. (3.4.24-27). At this point Gertrude must have been petrified with fear, realizing that Hamlet wants to revenge the murder by killing Claudius and also believes that she was involved and he might also want to kill her. She shows extraordinary courage and self-control. She tries not to antagonize Hamlet, and says very little during the scene. When Hamlet severely chastises her for her relations with Claudius, she says: “O Hamlet speak no more. Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul, and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct” (3.4.86-89). He continues his tirade, calling Claudius a murderer and a villain. Gertrude replies: “O speak to me no more. These words like daggers enter in mine ear. . . no more” (3.4.94-96, 99). When Hamlet sees the ghost and she does not she is convinced that he is truly mad. (3.4.104) She promises not to reveal what Hamlet said to her. (3.4.195-197) At first she tells Claudius that Hamlet killed Polonius in madness, saying it was a rat. (4.1.8-12) Later, it appears that she told Claudius that Hamlet killed Polonius believing him to be Claudius. Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet wanted to kill him. (4.7.4-5) He must have learned this from Gertrude. We never know for sure the full extent of Gertrude’s guilt in connection with the murder. She never confesses as does Claudius.
When Laertes breaks in with the mob, she again shows her love for Claudius by stepping between them and physically restraining Laertes to keep him from harming Claudius. (4.5.122, 126)
Gertrude seems to have known of Claudius’ plan to have Hamlet murdered by the English. Since Hamlet was to have been executed without delay by beheading, presumably this would have been reported back to Claudius as it was when Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were killed (5.2.363-364). She again had to make a choice between Claudius and Hamlet, each wanting to kill the other, and chooses Claudius. During the planning of the conspiracy between Laertes and Claudius to kill Hamlet using the poisoned rapier, Claudius says: “And for his death no wind of blame shall breathe, but even his mother shall uncharged the practice and call it accident.” (4.7.65-67) She must have been aware of Claudius’ intention to kill Hamlet and would be more suspicious than others about his death, unless it were made to appear an accident.
There are many other ambiguities about Gertrude and her conduct.
At first, she refuses to see Ophilia. (4.5.1) Is she embarrassed by the fact the her son had killed Ophilia’s father? She talks of her guilt: “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.” (4.5.17-20).
Later, she reports the details of the death of Ophelia. (4.7.162-182). Did she witness it or was it reported to her?
What does she know or suspect about Claudius’ plan to kill Hamlet after his return? Does she know or suspect the wine to be drunk by Hamlet is poisoned? Does she want to die with Hamlet? She drinks despite Claudius’ attempt to stop her and she offers Hamlet the wine after she drinks it. He refuses. (5.2.281-286)
After collapsing she immediately says that the drink was poisoned. (5.2.304-305) Did she know it was poisoned?
Gerturde dies, leaving us uncertain about many aspects of her life, yet she remains a most fascinating and enigmatic figure.