mlets DeathUsually in a playwright, one of the author’s objectives is to keep the viewer or reader confused or disconcerted about certain events in the plot. Certain characters in a play or story that have concocted covert schemes to perhaps murder or frame somebody, may have confusing effects on the viewer. Depending on the way the plan was developed in the plot the viewer may have to stop and ask themselves; who was involved; who was killed or framed; what events actually transpired; and what events happened after the murder. The viewer/reader is always trying to understand the events that have just recently taken place, or events that will take place in the play. Being careful not to miss anything the viewer/reader may overlook a fact that has slipped by them and unknowingly they relegate the major facts that will help them solve the mystery below those that are irrelevant to the topic. Sometimes in cases like this, the characters that are not guilty of the crime are mistaken for those who actually committed the crime, and vice versa. In some cases, a possible character is suspected of the crime and nothing more. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet King Hamlet is murdered and the perpetrator is clearly defined, whereas one is not. Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s wife is in question of being a plotter.
It is definite that King Hamlet’s death was a premeditated plot, however it is not certain whether or not Queen Gertrude is an accomplice or not. The assumption that Gertrude does not know about her husband’s murder can be heavily supported by factual details and just as well, the other side of the fence can be supported too. Although Gertrude does not actually say in words that she knew about Hamlet’s murder, several events that take place will lead the reader/viewer to believe that the Queen is just as guilty as Claudius (Hamlet’s murderer).
King Hamlet’s death was a prearranged plot against Hamlet by Hamlet’s own brother Claudius. Claudius contrives a way to kill Hamlet while he is in torpor in his own garden. Claudius would then clandestinely pour poison in the King’s ear, killing him instantly. Claudius now aggrandizing his greatness rises to power as the new king. The people of Denmark oblivious to the treason of the estate now blindly follow the new king, Claudius. However one night in Denmark, the ghost of Hamlet appears to talk to his son, prince Hamlet to warn him of the treason that is at hand. However, in the ghost’s description of his murder was there no mention that the Queen had any part of it. The ghost had only instructed that Hamlet avenges his father’s murder by killing Claudius, and he leaves Gertrude to heaven.Now furious and aware of what he is dealing with, Hamlet is determined to get revenge for his father.
Queen Gertrude does not claim to be unaware of the murder she is just assumed to be unaware to the murder. The reader/viewer’s first inclination the she is not a part of the plot is when the ghost appears at night and speaks to Hamlet. The apparition discusses with Hamlet the distress he is in and how his own brother murdered him. “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murderbut howsomever thou pursues this act, taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against they mother aught. Leave her to heaven” (I.v.84-85). But in this quote does the ghost not talk about revenge on the wife, Gertrude. In addition, when recalling the fact that Gertrude remarried after two months of her husband’s death, she is thought to be an accomplice. However, even Hamlet himself says “as if an increase of appetite had grown frailty, thy name is woman” (I.ii.145-146). In this soliloquy, Hamlet is referring to his mother’s sex life. As if her appetite for sex had grown and that women need men to survive. Moreover, this is the reason that Gertrude remarried so quickly, not that she plotted against her husband so she could marry another. Another point is that during Hamlet’s time of madness (to determine the truth of the ghost) Claudius and Polonius plot against Hamlet. First, to eavesdrop on his conversations and then to rid of Hamlet in England, where two assassins are sent to aid in the death of Hamlet. During both times of the plotting the Queen was not present to confirm such treacherous acts. So once again the queen is not seen as danger to anybody, not even her late husband. Still unsure of the apparition’s truthfulness, Hamlet devises a plan to observe Claudius’s reaction to a group of actors who come into the castle to perform an act called ‘The Mousetrap’. The play was a reenactment of the actual murder of a nobleman, in the same way Claudius committed his crime. Hamlet tells Horatio (Hamlet’s loyal friend) to watch Claudius’s reaction to the play as the murder took place. And indeed did Hamlet get a reaction. According to J. Dover Wilson:
Hamlet never wanted to prove to the world that Claudius was his father’s murderer. Such a view would always leave at least a stain of suspicion that Queen Gertrude was implicated, and, indeed, until after the play scene, in the interview in his mother’s closet, Hamlet himself is by no means certain that she has not been privy to his father’s death. But the ghost has bade Hamlet leave her to heaven, and therefore Hamlet has with great ingenuity devised the play to show Claudius that his guilt is known, but at the same time to make it appear to the scandalized court that it embodies his own threat to murder the present king. (Shakespeare for Students 75)
Queen Gertrude is obviously not an accomplice, she merely was caught in the crossfire.
Some may also believe that Gertrude had known about the murder initially. The speech of the ghost can have many different meanings. Another, which may be that the ghost leaves Gertrude to heaven because he is still in love with her, and he would not want to be the one who has to punish her for her sins. Of course, this far fetch idea may seem a bit too simple. But as Kenneth Muir states about the ghosts speech “taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against they mother aught. Leave her to heaven”:
Gertrude is to be left to the prickings of conscience; but the meaning of the first four words of this sentence is ambiguous. They could refer to Hamlet’s attitude towards his mother, or they could have a more general application: he is to execute justice on Claudius, without allowing his own mind to become tainted with evil. (Shakespeare for Students 88)
Mr. Muir indirectly applies the fact that maybe Gertrude’s conscience is enough punishment for her, and that anything else would be too much. As for Gertrude’s marriage status, remarriage after two months may be a short time. Not only was king Hamlet freshly buried when Gertrude remarried, but Gertrude married king Hamlet’s brother. “but in Shakespeare’s time, it was considered a form of incest for a widow to marry her brother-in-law” (Shakespeare’s Characters for Students 90). Another aspect to look at is the play that Hamlet devised to catch Claudius. When the queen in the play professes her love for the king, Gertrude states “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III.ii.230). This now allows the reader to begin to believe that maybe her love for the late king was a false love and not true. That perhaps some perversity may have persuaded the queen to plot against the king. Furthermore, after the play in the Queen’s closet, Hamlet goes to see Gertrude to talk to her and Gertrude decides to have Polonius hide in the curtains to eavesdrop, implicating the queen even further. Making it worse, “Critics generally regard Gertrude as weakwilled, highly dependent on Claudius and easily manipulated by him.” (Shakespeare’s Characters for Students 90). If Gertrude can be easily manipulated by Claudius, then she is just as guilty as he is.
Although Gertrude’s being guilty or not guilty is still a question that is debated today between critics, there is enough evidence in the reading for the reader to determine the proper punishment. But the reader will often find perplexing and perhaps even questions without answers.
Shakespeare’s Characters for Students. Ed. Catherine C. Dominic. Maryland: Washington D.C. 1997
Shakespeare for Students. “Critical Interpretations”. Ed. Mark W. Scott. Michigan: Detroit 1992
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1957. New York: Penquin, 1970