08 July 2014

The Great Hamlet Gertrude Conundrum

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.



In Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist desperately wants vengeance to be his, but is unable to take matters into his own hands. The question ‘Why does Hamlet delay?’ has been asked several times by several critics. No answer is yet entirely satisfactory. The machinations of Gertrude, who is aware of Hamlet’s attachment to her and her influence on him, manipulate him into delaying the action as much as possible. She does so to protect herself from being found out and to protect her son from the discovery that would shatter all his illusions about her. It is not just her sexual infidelity, if it is that at all, that horrifies Hamlet: it is the idea of her committing murder.

Hamlet, who is often seen as an intellectual protagonist, takes us through a series of soliloquies in which he questions the meanings of his actions, toys with the idea of death and contemplates the morality of revenge. Readers may come to the conclusion that Hamlet delays because he ponders the idea of revenge so much and is uncertain of the morality of his actions. But surely the almost perfunctory show of remorse that Hamlet makes after killing Polonius makes it clear that Hamlet has no qualms about committing murder. Rather than questioning the morality of vengeance itself, Hamlet is preoccupied with the idea of doling justice out equally, i.e., if Claudius must die, then must Gertrude die too? Hamlet delays in order to either exonerate his mother and therefore kill his uncle without guilt or to suspend the killing of his mother as much as possible.

In this regard, the question of Gertrude’s guilt becomes important. She is accused of three crimes: adultery, murder and incest. The third we know she is guilty of. The former two are more doubtful and Hamlet is just as confused as the reader about Gertrude’s involvement in the murder of King Hamlet and her relationship with Claudius before the murder. Gertrude, to protect Hamlet, manipulates him in the bedroom scene; until then, Hamlet’s intentions were to confront his mother, ascertain the truth and proceed with the revenge. After the scene, Hamlet goes through a series of doubts that are cleverly planted in him by Gertrude.

There are, in fact, quite a few versions of Hamlet in existence. In the first quarto (known among academics as the ‘bad quarto’), Gertrude vehemently denies any affiliation with the murder of the King: ‘But as I have a soul, I swear by heaven, / I never knew of this most horrid murder.’ This declaration, however, does not exist in the second quarto or the folio, leaving Gertrude’s role in the murder an ambiguous possibility. Hamlet, eager to believe Gertrude’s innocence in at least the former two sins, hurls accusations at her when he meets her in her bedroom, hoping to find evidence of her blamelessness. For him, the revenge must be delayed until he knows that his mother was not complicit in his uncle’s crimes. Without this evidence, condemning his uncle involves condemning his mother as well and Hamlet cannot bring himself to do that just yet. This is why also that Hamlet finds a reason to delay the murder of Claudius in the prayer scene.

This is not because he possesses a glorified image of her virtue; rather, it is because, given his own ‘virtue’, he will have to kill his mother for her sins if he is to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet puts off, as much as possible, having to be the Orestes to Gertrude’s Clytemnestra. This is not to suggest, as several critics have, that he would rather be the Oedipus to her Jocasta. Rather, this is an ordinary relationship between mother and son: Hamlet must struggle to forget that Gertrude is his mother and think of her, at the very least, as the wife of a murderer, even if not a murderer herself.

Others too see this relationship for what it is: Polonius even goes to the extent of hiding in the closet during the conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude. He seems to do this to ensure that Gertrude uses her powers to manipulate Hamlet and persuade him to abandon his plans of revenge. Hamlet arrives on the scene with specific objectives: to determine his mother’s role in the injustices done to his father and to persuade her to leave Claudius. Indeed, Hamlet seems to make allowance for his mother’s complicity and gives her one last chance to redeem herself by switching sides. But when he gets involved in the conversation, it takes on a more ominous note and Hamlet embarks on a tirade against her sins and condemns her for the incest she has committed.


The Gertrude-Hamlet problem is an old one: Freudian theorists wax eloquent about the complex and possibly sexual relationship between mother and son; but like in the Electra of Sophocles, there is much humanity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – these delays are the struggles of a human heart that cannot extract revenge without self-doubt, that cannot even be desirous of it without heartache. 

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