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Hamlet is the melancholy Dane; Claudius, the smiling villain. Polonius is the oily courtier; Horatio, the loyal friend. Most of the characters in Hamlet are well defined and unambiguous; the character of Gertrude, however, presents us with many ambiguities and difficulties. Some critics see her as "well-meaning but shallow and feminine, in the pejorative sense of the word: incapable of any sustained rational process, superficial and flighty" (Heilbrun 10), while others see her as a stronger character, cool and calculating. The play presents many aspects of Gertrude's character ambiguously. Janet Adelman writes,
Given her centrality in the play, it is striking how little we know about Gertrude; even the extent of her involvement in the murder of her first husband is left unclear....The ghost accuses her at least indirectly of adultery and incest...but he never accuses her of nor exonerates her from the murder. For the ghost, as for Hamlet, her chief crime is her uncontrolled sexuality; that is the object of their moral revulsion, a revulsion as intense as anything directed toward the murderer Claudius. But the Gertrude we see is not quite the Gertrude they see. And when we see her in herself, apart from their characterizations of her, we tend to see a woman more muddled than actively wicked; even her famous sensuality is less apparent than her conflicted solicitude both for her new husband and for her son....Even her death is not quite her own to define. Is it a suicide designed to keep Hamlet from danger by dying in his place?...Muddled, fallible, fully human, she seems ultimately to make the choice that Hamlet would have her make. But even here she does not speak clearly; her character remains relatively closed to us (Adelman 15-16).
In spite of the many ambiguities of Gertrude's character, one of her chief characteristics is wantonness, and like Helen of Troy, Gertrude's wantonness led to tragedy. Wantonness-a word that is little in use nowadays-suggests three characteristics: luxuriously rank extravagance, lack of discipline, and lustfulness. The treatment of Gertrude's character in Hamlet supports the argument that her chief fault is wantonness, for these three characteristics can be seen in her character.
The first characteristic, luxuriousness or extravagance, is not directly stated in the play but can be inferred from the actions of Gertrude. One possible reason for her remarriage after King Hamlet's death is a desire to maintain her position as queen, with all its luxury and comfort.
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"Gertrude and Helen: Wantonness in the Trojan War and Shakespeare's Hamlet." 123HelpMe.com. 14 Dec 2018
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"Don't make the gods silly to cover up your own wickedness....My son was of surpassing beauty; at the sight of him your heart transformed itself into Cypris....So when you saw my son in the splendor of gold and barbaric raiment, mad desire took possession of your heart. In Argos you were used to a small retinue; having got rid of the Spartan city, you looked forward to a deluge of extravagance in Phrygia with its rivers of gold. The halls of Menelaus weren't large enough for your luxury to wanton in" (Euripides 279).
Likewise, Gertrude selfishly abandons the memory of her first husband for a less worthy second husband, and sets in motion the events that will spell doom for her family.
Many of Gertrude's actions in Hamlet show a wanton lack of discipline. Hamlet says of her hasty marriage, "a beast that wants discourse of reason / would have mourned longer" (I.ii.150-51). In not carrying out a reasonable time of mourning for King Hamlet, Gertrude makes a hasty decision that leads to tragedy: the choice to marry Claudius. Her lack of discipline is evident also in the way she did not consider the effect of her marriage on others until it was too late. By the time she mentions to Claudius that she suspects Hamlet's problems result from "his father's death and our o'erhasty marriage" (II.ii.57), Hamlet has already received his assignment from the Ghost and begun to look for a way to fulfill it. In the Ghost's speech to Hamlet there is a hint that Gertrude may have been adulterously involved with Claudius before King Hamlet's death-although this, like most details involving Gertrude, is ambiguous-and if she was so involved, it would certainly demonstrate a lack of discipline. Whatever sins had left their "black and grained spots" (III.iv.91) in her soul, Gertrude's lack of discipline leads her to avoid seeing or dealing with them until Hamlet forcefully points them out to her. Likewise, Helen refuses to accept the blame for her decision, assigning responsibility for her actions to Aphrodite, to Paris' parents, and even to her husband (Euripides 277-78). This delaying of repentance contributes to the tragedy in both the Trojan War and Hamlet.
The most obvious characteristic of wantonness, lustfulness, is evident in Gertrude's character. The Ghost, speaking of his wife, says, "lust, though to a radiant angel linked, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed / And prey on garbage" (I.v.55-57). Her lust is clearly a chief factor in her hasty remarriage. Carolyn Heilbrun writes:
Hamlet tells her: it is her lust, the need of sexual passion, which has driven her from the arms and memory of her husband to the incomparably cruder charms of his brother. He cries out that she has not even the excuse of youth for her lust:
O Shame! Where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardor gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will. (III.iv.82-87)
This is not only a lust, but a lust which throws out of joint all the structure of human morality and relationships. And the Queen admits it (Heilbrun 14-15).
This misplaced passion for Claudius upsets the structure of Gertrude's society and brings about tragedy among those she loves. Helen's lust for Paris was the same sort of misplaced passion, bringing about the downfall of Troy. Helen expresses her regret for her lustful actions in the Iliad: "I wish bitter death had been what I wanted, when I came hither following your son, forsaking my chamber, my kinsmen, my grown child, and the loveliness of girls my own age. It did not happen that way: and now I am worn with weeping" (Iliad III.173-76). Another aspect of Gertrude's lustfulness is what Lady Martin calls
the wonderful fascination which she exercises on all who come within her influence; not perhaps designedly, but, like the Helena of the second part of Goethe's Faust, by an untoward fate which drew on all insensibly to love her...What a picture is presented of the depth of her husband's love, in Hamlet's words that he would not "beteem the winds of heaven visit her cheek too roughly"! And this spell still exercises itself upon his spirit after his death. Observe how tenderly he calls Hamlet's attention to the queen in the closet scene...Claudius, his successor, perils his very soul for her....She is tenderness itself to her son. "The queen his mother," says Claudius, "lives almost by his looks" (Martin 11).
This fascination, the corollary of her lustful passion, moves those around her to tragedy. It moves King Hamlet to trust his "most seeming virtuous queen" (I.v.46) too much. It moves Claudius to commit murder and follow it with an incestuous marriage. It moves Hamlet to melancholy over her frailty and to a mistrust of women in general, which leads to Ophelia's madness after his rejection of her. It also moves Hamlet to delay his revenge, because his mother's falling off presents him with a dilemma, and he must set her straight before he can kill Claudius. The same fascination surrounds Helen, moving Paris to abduct her and Menelaus to fight for her. Hecuba warns Menelaus, "But flee the sight of her, lest she captivate you with longing. She captivates the eyes of men, she destroys cities, she sets homes aflame. Such are her witcheries" (Euripides 277). This fascination leads to tragedy in Helen's story and in Hamlet.
While Shakespeare may not have consciously designed Gertrude's character to resemble Helen of Troy, the similarities between the two queens are numerous, especially in the area of their wantonness. The wantonness of these two women led to tragedy by upsetting the order of their societies, and it set them forever among the most memorable characters in legend and literature. Among all the ambiguities of Gertrude's character, her wantonness is one definite trait, a flaw that leads to tragedy.
Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Euripides. Trojan Women. Trans. M. Hadas and J. McLean. Greek Drama. Ed. Moses Hadas. New York: Bantam, 1965. 256-287.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Hamlet's Mother and Other Women. New York: Columbia UP, 1990.
Homer. Iliad. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Martin, Helena Faucit. On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters. 5th ed. New York: AMS Press, 1970.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 2nd ed. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992.