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Gertrude and the Ghost: Matters of Parental Mind Play in Shakespeare's Hamlet

About the Author: Gwen Kelbly

Gwen Kelbly is a senior English Language and Literature major at the University of Maryland, College Park and a member of the University's Jimenéz-Porter Writers’ House. Her critical interests include 19th Century American literature, with a particular focus on Hawthorne and Melville, medieval literature, and Shakespeare studies.

By Gwen Kelbly | General Essays

Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides a close look at a son’s relationship with his parents, particularly the way a man’s bond with his mother changes after his father dies. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, is haunted by the violence of his father’s death and the unthinking way in which his mother chooses to wed her dead husband’s brother, the new King Claudius. From his first conversation with the ghost of his father, Hamlet learns that Claudius murdered his father and he grapples with the consequences of this knowledge for the rest of the play. It is clear that Hamlet wants to distance himself from his mother and Claudius even before his conversation with his father’s ghost. However, Hamlet’s distress, particularly towards his mother, becomes palpably more intense after King Hamlet’s ghost riddles Hamlet’s mind with questions about Gertrude’s lack of loyalty to her husband.

Mirroring the ghost’s initial preoccupation with Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius, Hamlet confronts his mother during their Act 3 meeting in her private room, and in the second quarto version of the play, laments that she lives “In the ranck sweat of an inseemed bed/ Stewed in corruption, honying, and making loue/ Ouer the nasty stie” (3.4.2469-2471). This vivid depiction of his mother’s sexuality reveals Hamlet’s passionate disgust for Gertrude’s actions. Additionally, it demonstrates the strong impact of the ghost’s initial statements on his son. However, in the first quarto, these lines are omitted from Hamlet’s conversation with his mother and the audience sees a less sexually nauseated Hamlet. Furthermore, the differences between the ghost’s and Gertrude’s lines in the Q1 and Q2 versions of the play demonstrate how Hamlet’s personal distress and anxiety are manipulated by his parents’ contrasting desires. On the one hand, Hamlet strives to avenge his father’s death and kill Claudius, whom he sees as the perpetrator of all the wrongs committed against his family. On the other hand, Hamlet is overpowered by his conflicting emotions regarding his mother and he seeks an explanation for her lack of loyalty to his father. This struggle between parental forces can be seen in his attitude towards sexual behavior throughout the play. A close examination of the differences between the Q1 and Q2 versions of the ghost and Gertrude reveal that Hamlet’s distress, particularly regarding matters of sexuality and loyalty, directly correlates with the actions and beliefs of his parents. In Q2, the ghost’s poignant descriptions of Gertrude and Claudius’ adultery, and the opacity of Gertrude’s character create a more sexually distressed Hamlet, whereas in Q1, Hamlet demonstrates less sexual frustration due to a less hostile ghost and a more sympathetic mother in Gertrude.

From the beginning of the play, in both Q1 and Q2, Hamlet’s loyalty to his father is very clear. During Claudius’ audience with the court, in which he denies Hamlet’s plea to study again at Wittenberg, Hamlet wears a black mourning garment and speaks about his love for his father and the sorrow he still feels regarding his death. In Q1, Hamlet states that neither his tears nor his wardrobe “Is equall to the sorrow of my heart,/ Him haue I lost I must of force forgoe,/ These but the ornaments and sutes of woe” (1.2.183-185). Hamlet’s emotional respect for his father isolates him from both Claudius and Gertrude and, by choosing to stay loyal to his late father, “Hamlet accepts a course of action and a set of values related to that state” (Hayton 53). In a sense, by choosing to honor his father, Hamlet distances himself from Claudius, both as a father figure and as a king. Furthermore, it can be argued that “to be the legitimate son of the dead king puts him out of joint with the present world of corruption in the Danish court” and Hamlet’s allegiance to his father becomes a highly political gesture (53).

In Q2, however, Hamlet’s allegiance to his father puts him at odds with his mother and it effectively leads Hamlet to choose one parent over the other. Gertrude states that Hamlet should “cast thy nighted colour off/ And let thine eye looke like a friend on Denmarke,/ Doe not for euer with thy vailed lids/ Seeke for thy noble father in the dust” (1.2.248-251). In essence, Gertrude asks her son to think of Claudius and his political future in the court of Denmark, rather than continually fixate upon his late father. Hamlet replies that “Tis not alone my incky cloake coold mother,” demonstrating his first attempt to distance himself from Gertrude (1.2.258). By calling her cold, Hamlet suggests a sense of disdain for the aloofness of his mother and her actions, particularly her dismissal of Hamlet’s sorrow and, arguably, her hasty remarriage.

In addition, Q2 Hamlet states, “I haue that within which passes showe/ These but the trappings and the suites of woe,” which demonstrates that Hamlet’s grief is not for show, but stems from genuine love for his father (1.2.266-67). Furthermore, the difference in word choice in line 267 -- ornaments (Q1) versus trappings (Q2) -- suggests a difference in the intensity of Hamlet’s emotions regarding his father’s death. The word ornaments denotes a degree of ceremonial order, whereas trappings suggests that Hamlet feels completely bound by his grief, a predicament that further separates him from Claudius and Gertrude. The intensity of Hamlet’s sorrow stems from his fervent sense of duty and loyalty to his father, both as a king and as his paternal blood. He “firmly believes in his filial bond to King Hamlet, and in the legitimate values of honour and duty which that paternity imposes upon him” (Hayton 54). It is with this sense of honor and duty that Hamlet separates himself from the dishonor and shame of his mother, Claudius, and the court of Denmark.

Act 1, Scene 5 of Hamlet provides the first interaction between Hamlet and his father’s ghost in the play. Through this exchange, the audience sees the start of Hamlet’s transformation from a loving and loyal son to a man with a mission to kill Claudius and so avenge his father’s death. Furthermore, the ghost of Hamlet’s father plants the seeds of suspicion toward Queen Gertrude in Hamlet’s mind. However, the ghost’s chief desire is for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Although the ghost clearly demonstrates his disappointment in Gertrude’s bad judgment, he does not explicitly condemn her as he does Claudius. This demand for revenge enacts a shift in Hamlet’s persona and causes him to become more like his father over the course of the play. Rather than simply stay a loyal son, “Hamlet feels that he must adapt his own personality to be sufficiently compatible with his father’s,” and the only way to do so is to take action and revenge (Wagner 76).

However, Hamlet is derailed from this course of action for a number of reasons, one of which is a growing obsession with his mother’s sexuality, an obsession which, from the audience’s perspective, is stimulated by the ghost in both Q1 and Q2. In Q1, the emphasis of the ghost’s anger regarding the adulterous nature of the new couple is placed primarily on Claudius, rather than on Gertrude. However, the Q1 ghost does hint at Gertrude’s misconduct in the line “So to seduce my most seeming vertuous Queene” (1.5.516). Though he places the blame for the relationship on Claudius by mentioning the topic of seduction, the ghost clearly questions the virtue of his wife, and this suspicion is passed along to Hamlet. In Q2, the ghost goes further, stating that Gertrude has “decline[d]/ Vppon a wretch whose naturall gifts were poore/ To those of mine” (1.5.737-39). By esteeming his own worth as more valuable than Gertrude’s, the ghost raises questions in the audience about Gertrude’s judgment in regard to both himself and Claudius. By stating that Gertrude was a wretch whose gifts were poor compared with his, the ghost implies, or at least raises the question, that Gertrude was an opportunist, rather than a loving wife. Furthermore, the Q2 ghost tells Hamlet not to “Let … the royall bed of Denmarke be/ A couch for luxury and damned incest,” a line which seems to direct Hamlet’s thoughts to his mother’s sexual relationship with Claudius in later passages (1.5.767-68). The late king stews over the fact that his brother has replaced him in every way. He passes this anger on to Hamlet and “Shakespeare has already made it clear that both father and son are obsessed with ‘that incestuous…adulterate beast’ Claudius and the lust he shares with Gertrude” (Wagner 79). However, while the ghost’s anger stays directed towards his brother, Hamlet becomes fixated on Gertrude’s sexual desires instead.

This fixation can be most aptly seen in Hamlet’s Act 3 encounter with his mother, in which he crudely expresses his disgust for Gertrude’s sexuality. In Q2, which provides the more revolted Hamlet, the prince presents conflicting accounts of Gertrude’s sexuality, somewhat demonstrating his own discomfort in seeing his mother with his uncle. He argues that “…at your age/ The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble,” suggesting that Gertrude’s age should dictate that her sexual desires are minimal (3.4.2452-2453). Q1 Hamlet similarly exclaims “Why appetite with you is in the waine,/ Your blood runs backeward now from whence it came” (3.4.1544-1545). This statement contradicts Hamlet’s earlier accounts of Gertrude, and “in fact, the Hamlet of Q1 says that the same ‘appetite’ that waxed in his first soliloquy is now ‘in the waine’” (Levin 307). However, in Q2, and less intensely in Q1, Hamlet contradicts this idea of tame blood several times, stating that:

If thou canst mutine in a Matrons bones,

To flaming youth let virtue be as wax

And melt in her own fire, proclaime no shame

When the compulsive ardure giues the charge,

Since frost it selfe as aciuely doth burne,

And reason pardons will… (3.4.2458-2463) 

This emphasis on the compulsiveness of Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius depicts Gertrude’s sexuality as passionate, shameless, and out of control, qualities which Hamlet clearly rebukes in his line that “reason pardons will.”

Furthermore, Hamlet goes on to talk about the “ranck sweat of an inseemed bed” (3.4.2469) and directly refers to his mother and Claudius’ sexual relationship when he describes them “Stewed in corruption, honying, and making loue/ Ouer the nasty stie” (3.4.2470-2471). In Q2, the audience sees Gertrude’s sexuality through Hamlet’s eyes, and this view of Gertrude “measures the gap between [Hamlet’s] mother’s lust for Claudius and the innocent intensity of her sexual love for Hamlet’s father” (O’Meara 121). While Hamlet clings to the memory of his father’s love for his mother, and hopes that she shared a similar love for him, Hamlet sees the wild passion of Gertrude and Claudius’ relationship and repeatedly lashes out at the injustice of it all.

Gertrude does nothing to defend herself against these multiple attacks, but instead pleads that “Thou turnst my very eyes into my soule,/ And there I see such blacke and greeued spots/ As will leaue there their tin’ct” (3.4.2465-2467). Note that while Gertrude does not admit to any particular crime, she does acknowledges the stain of her actions on her soul. The audience never finds out whether these actions extend beyond what Hamlet sees as her adulterous relationship with Claudius to something as villainous as being Claudius’ accomplice to Hamlet’s murder, and neither does Hamlet.

This lack of knowledge greatly distresses Hamlet. Perhaps he channels his anxiety into his obsession with the one crime that he has full awareness of - adultery. Hence, his comments about the “ranck corruption mining all within/ Infect[ing] unseene, confesse your selfe to heauen,/ Repent what’s past, auoyed what is to come,/ And do not spread the compost on the weeds” (3.4.2531-2534). In addition to this advice to repent her sins and to confess, Hamlet tells Gertrude “Good night, but goe not to my Vncles bed,/ Assune a virtue if you haue it not” (3.4.2543-2544). Hamlet’s obsession with his mother’s sexuality seems to be the chief way that he relates to Gertrude, whose character is so opaque and difficult to judge that Hamlet and the audience are forced to come to their own conclusions about her.

In Q1, however, Gertrude is a much more transparent character, particularly in her Act 3, Scene 4 interaction with Hamlet. Q1 Gertrude expresses maternal feelings towards Hamlet and displays more innocence than the Gertrude the audience sees in Q2. For example, Gertrude admits that “But as I haue a soule, I sweare by heauen,/ I neuer knew of this horride murder” (3.4.1582-1583). This profession of innocence in regard to the murder of Hamlet’s father appears only in Q1 and it transforms Gertrude’s character from a mysterious queen to a sorrowful mother. “Earlier in the Q1 closet scene when Hamlet told his mother that Claudius had murdered her first husband, Gertrude had protested…then had pledged her support to Hamlet” and “this change, as some have noticed, makes the Queen a more sympathetic character, plotting with her son and his friend against the King” (Irace 104-105).

Furthermore, Q1 Gertrude is able to resist Hamlet’s accusations, and, thus, Hamlet and the audience believe Gertrude’s innocence with more conviction. Q1 Hamlet seems to begin his rebuke harshly, stating that “If you be made of penetrable stuffe,/I’le make your eyes looke downe into your heart,/ And see how horride there and blacke it shews,” lines which, in Q2, are attributed to Gertrude (3.4.1513-1515). This transfer is particularly interesting because it is presented as an accusation, rather than an admission, and Q1 Gertrude seems more innocent than her Q2 counterpart because she does not take ownership of any misconduct. Instead, after each of Hamlet’s attacks, Gertrude repeats a plea for Hamlet to stop berating her, saying a variation of the line, “O Hamlet, speake no more” (3.4.1536), or “Sweete Hamlet cease” (3.4.1539). These lines, paired with the direct statement that she had no previous knowledge that Claudius murdered the late King Hamlet, make Gertrude’s character less literarily deep but more theatrical, which is consistent with the theory that the Q1 text is a “memorial reconstruction of an abridgement of the play made for stating” and that, out of the three versions of Hamlet, Q1 is the most theatrically viable (Jones 104). Furthermore, Gertrude’s theatrical righteousness, particularly in regard to the profession of her innocence, allows some of Hamlet’s sexual anxiety regarding his mother to dissipate.

It has been argued “that Q2 is unquestionably superior, dramatically and poetically to Q1,” and that “Q1, on almost every page, in its incoherence, its ellipses, and its divagations, reveals its blundering attempt to render what we find in Q2” Thomas 255). But we have seen that both Q1 and Q2 Hamletprovide an interesting look at Gertrude and the ghost, particularly in relation to the parental conflict that Hamlet feels. Because the Q2 ghost expresses more hostility than the Q1 ghost, Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is visibly altered. Furthermore, Gertrude’s opacity in Q2 makes Hamlet question her innocence more readily than he does in Q1, where Gertrude actually states that she had no previous knowledge of Hamlet’s father’s death. As a result, Q2 Hamlet fixates on his mother’s sexuality and, though Q1 Hamlet also has problems accepting his mother’s relationship with Claudius, Q1 Hamlet seems less sexually distressed. Q1 and Q2 also bear differently on the question of loyalty. Because Hamlet is influenced both by the ghost’s reproof of the Queen and his mother’s own aloof personality, Hamlet’s state of mind becomes wrapped up in his mother’s lack of loyalty and his own attempt to stay loyal to the late king and avenge his father’s death. However, in the Q1 version of the play, Hamlet’s preoccupation with Gertrude’s disloyalty to her former husband abates when Gertrude proclaims her innocence and agrees to help Hamlet in his plot against Claudius. These differences between the two texts demonstrate how Hamlet’s state of mind and sense of distress over his mother’s sexuality correlate directly with the opacity or transparency and culpability or innocence of his mother. 

Works Cited

Hayton, Alison G. "'The king my father?': Paternity in Hamlet." Hamlet Studies. 10. (1988): 53-64. Print.

Irace, Kathleen. “Origins and Agents of Q1 Hamlet.” The Hamlet First Published (Q1, 1603): Origins, Form, and Intertextualities. Ed. by Thomas Clayton. London: Associated University Presses, 1992. 90-122. Print.

Kliman, Bernice W. and Paul Bertram, eds. HamletThe Three-Text Hamlet: Parallel Texts of the First and Second Quartos and First Folio. 2nd Ed. (2003) New York: AMS Press, Inc. Print.

Levin, Richard. “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido and Shakespeare’s Unreliable Narrators.” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 48(2). (2008): 305-326. Print.

O’Meara, John. “Hamlet and the Tragedy of Sexuality.” Hamlet Studies. 10(1-2). (1988):117-125. Print.

Thomas, Sidney. “First Version or Bad Quarto?” The Hamlet First Published (Q1, 1603): Origins, Form, and Intertextualities. Ed. by Thomas Clayton. London: Associated University Presses, 1992. 249-256. Print.

Wagner, Joseph B. "Hamlet Rewriting Hamlet." Hamlet Studies. 23. (2001): 75-92. Print.