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Gertrude Solely Responsible for the Tragic Outcomes of the Play?

By Athenawbu1 Apr 27, 2013 1509 Words
To what extent could you argue that Shakespeare presents Gertrude as being solely responsible for the tragic outcomes of the play? Gertrude’s egocentricity assists the tragic outcomes of the play largely. Tragedy can be defined as a disastrous event, especially one involving distressing loss or injury to life. Tragedy is the main theme recurring throughout ‘Hamlet’, where controversially women who are known to be subjective and objectified through history take control and may be seen to be blamed for the blood shed in the play. Gertrude rebels against the typical woman of the late medieval period, she is very dominant and authoritative which contrasts against the typical women of her day and subsequently largely contributes to the tragic outcomes in Hamlet. Additionally she is the queen, therefore is given plenty of power and is more superior compared to average women.

Shakespeare’s play is based on the vengeance of Old Hamlet. It may be taken from the view that if Gertrude did not accept Claudius’ hand in marriage at such a “wicked speed” Old Hamlet would not desire the high level of revenge that he did. “I say we will have no more marriages” the use of an imperative here portrays Hamlet’s anger and disgust towards Gertrude. Hamlet declares “But two months dead – nay not so much, not two”, the use of a hyphen in the middle of the sentence resembles Hamlet is reflecting on the short amount of time it had been, and the hesitation shows that it is a hard subject for him to discuss. Furthermore, Claudius “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage” Shakespeare uses an oxymoron here can show the controversy of Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius. Shakespeare uses religious imagery to represent Gertrudes betrayal to Hamlet and Old Hamlet when Barnardo says “It was about to speak when the cock crew”. In the bible the cock crew when St. Peter betrayed Jesus.

Gertrude is portrayed as solely responsible for Hamlet’s tirade and urge for vengeance, as she inconsiderately married Old Hamlet’s brother, which triggered Hamlet’s jealousy and incestuous desire for his mother. Shakespeare employs the ‘Oedipus complex’ to support this argument, a Freudian concept which states that males have the desire to kill their father and marry their mother. Shakespeare presents this to his audience in many different ways throughout the play. In Act one Scene two it is clear to the audience that Hamlet is sad, frustrated and bitter with jealousy. 'Nay, but to live In the rank sweat of a inseaméd bed, Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love, Over the nasty sty', the caesura and the breaking up of the complex sentence, symbolises the breaking of his heart, when he talks of his mother and uncle having sex. He speaks as if he is grieving and mourning for his father’s recent death, however it could be seen, that Hamlet is in fact only ‘sad and frustrated’ due to the fact that he is angry with Claudius as he has done what Hamlet had intended do all along, which is to kill his father and then marry his mother.

The next tragic outcome of the play, Ophelia’s death, could be seen as Gertrude’s fault due to the fact that she created stress for Hamlet firstly by immorally marrying Claudius; this is supported by the Renaissance dramatic theory which states that “some writers attempted to link the medieval tradition of morality” with their plays. Secondly the fact that she seemed so unaffected by Old Hamlet’s death and thirdly by the nonchalance towards her grieving son, who is understandably frustrated which causes him to lash out, especially at the fragile and delicate Ophelia. Consequently his attitude towards Ophelia completely changes, from his “words of sweet breath” to his harsh “I loved you not”” and Ophelia, who cannot handle the hostile behaviour from Hamlet who she is irrevocably in love with, then concedes to commit suicide. On the other hand, suspicions surround Gertrude in concerns to Ophelia’s death, as she was the only known witness of the suicide. Gertrude gives a narrative of Ophelia’ death, the detail in her narrative suggests that someone, perhaps even Gertrude herself, was present when Ophelia died and either caused or did nothing to prevent it. In Act 4, Scene 7 Gertrude says “to muddy death”. Shakespeare uses the word ‘muddy’ here as mud covers the solid ground which is metaphorical of Gertrude’s excuses, covering up the solid truth; which is that Gertrude watched Ophelia die and subsequently murdered her. The word “muddy” also presents childish discourse and shows how Ophelia is childlike in the sense that she cannot protect herself from Gertrude. Even the doctor at Ophelia’s funeral admits “her death was doubtful”, the alliteration in this quote is used here to echo and emphasise the detail which is being used to describe the death and may raise suspicions to the audience of Gertrude’s involvement in Ophelia’s death.

There is a large amount of evidence supporting the argument that Gertrude is solely responsible for the tragic outcomes of the play. However there is also the argument that the ghost of Old Hamlet is simply a figment of Hamlet’s imagination and a manifestation of his crueller persona. Many suspicions are raised throughout the play which insinuate Hamlet’s insanity. For example Gertrude says “mad as the sea and wind” to describe Hamlet; this simile emphasises the wildness of Hamlet’s mind and shows us how his mind alone can create a storm around him and the people he loves, destroying all in its path. Hamlet and the ghost talk very similarly (mostly about Gertrude's "unnatural" and "incestuous" relationship with Claudius) Ophelia also described Hamlet’s appearance as ghostly when she said he looked “pale” almost “as if he had been loosed out of hell”. Furthermore Hamlet is the only character who ever has any dialogue with the ghost of Old Hamlet. Shakespeare also uses a rhetorical question when he says “O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?” it represents the disorientation of his mind, and how he is confused about the events which are happening around him.

In terms of cultural literary context, it can be said that the tragedy of ‘Hamlet’ was influenced more by the conventions of classical tragedy developed from Aristotles’ ‘poetics’ and the genre of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, rather than by Gertrude’s bad decisions and mistakes. In this particular case, the revenge tragedy involved the tragic hero (Hamlet) becoming an avenger because of a murder within the family and the moral duty of the hero to revenge his loved ones. In most cases of revenge tragedies, it is said that the tragic hero would normally procrastinate, suffer from madness, and that in seeking vengeance many people die directly, or indirectly through his actions. Hamlet certainly does that – Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes (he single – handedly wipes out a whole family), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and of course Gertrude, his own mother, who takes the poisoned chalice, all die through Hamlet’s long, delayed out path to killing his uncle Claudius. In this context we see Gertrude not so much as a villain that brings about disaster to the other characters – she is instead like all the others, a victim! Additionally, given the cultural and literary context, the avenger becomes an anti-hero, just slightly above the rest including his mother Gertrude.

It must also be said that the court of Elizabeth 1st was full of political intrigue, in particular involving the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Church of England, the break-away church from the Vatican. Shakespeare captured this idea of political intrigue in his play ‘Hamlet’. Whereas subsequent plays of the Jacobean period were less about political intrigue and more about the coming together of Catholics and Protestants, reconciliation (for example Romeo and Juliet). It is clear that this theme of reconciliation is not as obvious in the tragedy of Hamlet. When Gertrude dies, there is the question as to whether she understood whether Claudius, her husband was a murderer and not the man whom she thought he was, or whether she died in ignorance not knowing that the chalice had been poisoned. The audience can only wonder. I would like to believe that she finally did understand who Claudius was, the true noble nature of her son Hamlet and above all the hurt and pain she caused through her immoral marriage to Claudius. In this case, she rises in our estimation, she redeems herself for having been so vein and inconsiderate in taking the actions that she did.

Ultimately, throughout this Renaissance play Shakespeare provides a vast amount of evidence supporting the argument that Gertrude is solely responsible for the tragic outcomes of the play. Gertrude is constantly found at the root of every problem in the play and this then adds to suspicion surrounding Ophelia’s death. Whether Gertrude intended the harm she caused or not is uncertain, however, she undoubtedly participated in the downfall of hamlet and Ophelia’s death.


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