Hamlet Gertrude is the beloved wife and mother in the play, Hamlet. Many say that she is responsible for Hamlet’s agony in not being able to proceed with his revenge, and Claudius’ hesitation to guard himself through the destruction of Hamlet. She is the woman who was “my virtue or my plague, be it either which,” for both of her loves, and is herself a very ordinary person. Seemingly beautiful and warm-hearted, she has no mind of her own, and is vulnerable because she tends to be pulled by whatever force is the most powerfully aimed at her at any moment. Because of her character and personality, she turns to the “sunny side of life” and hates facing pain or any type of conflict. Also, the fact that Claudius carefully hid his crime of killing her husband from her shows her lack of criminal daring and his concern for her peace of mind.
When things worked out so that she was able to marry her lover, however, she was happy and only wanted all the difficulties of the past to be forgotten. Hamlet’s refusal to forget the death of his father or to forgive her of incestuously remarrying Claudius are the only things that stop Gertrude from being perfectly happy; they remind her of the continuing difficulties of the position she is in, which, because of her incredible naivet, she had hoped would end by changing the ordinarily accepted form of marriage. If she could only get Hamlet to accept her new husband as his new father, she could completely put away the past and start thinking about the present comfortably. She therefore begs him to remain at Elsinore so that this reconciliation can take place (“I pray thee, stay with us. Go not to Wittenberg.” Act 1, scene 2, line 123).
But as she watches her wonderful son only become more and more mentally deranged as the months pass by, and sees his offending behaviour beginning to disturb even the patience of Claudius, her happiness starts to wither. She hopes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be able to bring him out of his depression (“..And I beseech you instantly to visit / My too much changed son.” Act 2, scene 2, lines 37-38). Then she wonders of the possibility that Hamlet’s “madness” might actually be a result of his love for Ophelia rather than her own behaviour and hopes that Ophelia will be able to cure him (“..And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish / That your good beauties be the happy cause / Of Hamlet’s wildness. So shall I hope your virtues / Will bring him to his wonted way again..” Act 3, scene 1, lines 42-45). Her spirits rise for a moment when she sees Hamlet’s excited involvement with the play and his attentions to Ophelia, but then they immediately drop as Claudius rises from the performance in anguish.
Finally she is pushed by Polonius to do the one thing that she has avoided for all these months: to meet Hamlet privately, discuss his behaviour, and try to understand its source. Probably the only reason that she gives in to this idea is because she sees it as the last resort to “curing” Hamlet. Hamlet’s immediate charge towards her, “Mother, you have my father much offended,” (Act 3, scene 4, line 13) confirms her worst fear the she is responsible for Hamlet’s state of mind, and she tries to put a quick end to their talk, rather than having to face Hamlet “condemning” her. But she is so shocked that she gives in to Hamlet’s violent rage and ends up releasing onto Polonius, who is hidden behind the arras, who Hamlet then kills. Hamlet’s continues to insult her, and she first answers as if her conscience is innocent: “What have I done that thou dar’st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?” (Act 3, scene 4, lines 47-48).
She avoids criticising herself so completely, that she actually believes she has nothing to answer for, except for the effect her hasty remarriage has had on her son. But as Hamlet continues to draw her attention to the antipathy of her remarriage, she gradually comes under his spell and begins to feel guilty for the way she has acted. Even though the appearance of the ghost, which she cannot see, convinces her that Hamlet is mad and that his verbal abuse towards her was the result of increased melancholy, she cannot forget the feeling of guilt he had given her. When Ophelia goes mad, Gertrude wants to avoid the painful sight of her as much as she had earlier wanted to avoid looking into her own soul. This is especially shown since Gertrude sees Ophelia’s mental breakdown as proof of the impending evil caused by her own insensible behaviour, and this sequence of evil effects seems to be, to her guilty conscience, foreboding a catastrophe (“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.” Act 4, scene 5, lines 22-25). Later on, even though she grieves Ophelia’s death, she tries to explain it to herself and to Laertes in the least harmful way. But her sadness at Ophelia’s funeral is emphasised by the madness Hamlet displays there in his unexpected return. When Hamlet shows up at the fencing match in such a sensible state of mind, she is delighted. Not only does Laertes appear to accept Hamlet’s offer of love (“..I do receive your offered love like love / and will not wrong it.” Act 5, scene 2, lines 266-267), but Hamlet’s own willingness to go as Claudius’ fighter seems to assure her that their relationship will work out for the better, too. In her opinion, if Laertes and Hamlet were at peace with each other, and if Hamlet and Claudius were also at peace with each other, then all the pain she was feeling because of her guilt and Ophelia’s death would be forgotten, and she might still be as happy as she would if Hamlet had married Ophelia.
As she is hopeful for future happiness, yet blind to what is happening in the present, her son’s good, gentlemanly behaviour and excellence in fencing make her so happy that she really gets into the event, so that she wipes her dear son’s brow and finally insists upon toasting his victory. Against Claudius’ objection, she drinks to her son to show him how happy he has made her. Because she has avoided the thought of all things painful in hope of finally becoming perfectly happy, the result is that this “flaw” lead to her downfall. Only as she feels the poison coming over her, and hears her husband lie about her condition to save himself, does she truly face reality. And only then does she begin to understand Hamlet’s objections to Claudius and recognise that, while Claudius has poisoned her body, he has in turn poisoned her whole life also.
Trying too late to protect her “dear Hamlet,” she dies as an unfortunate victim of an idealistic and deceived hope for happiness.