Gertrude’s Guilt

In Hamlet, Claudius is one bad, bad man (there may be some doubt through the first half of the play, but with his confessional soliloquy in Act Three, Scene Three, that doubt is removed). But what about Gertrude?

Is Gertrude guilty? And if so, of what crime?

The first inkling (which sounds like a cute little name for a baby blot of ink… sort of like hatchling or duckling… anyways) that Gertrude might not be purely good comes from the Ghost. When it attempts to discuss its murderer, Claudius, it cannot help but include Gertrude:

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wits, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
  • I.v.42-46

It outlines Claudius’ sins: incest and adultery. Neither, however, is a solo act; one can commit neither incest nor adultery by one’s self. Though the Ghost calls her “seeming-virtuous,” it soft-sells her culpability by focusing on Claudius’ ability to “seduce” the Queen.

When did this seduction take place?

From our modern perspective a widow cannot commit adultery since her husband is dead; however, while “Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and another who is not his or her spouse, regarded as a violation of the marriage vows and hence as a sin or crime” (“adultery, n.; 1.a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 7 May 2015.) was the primary meaning of “adultery,” it also meant “In extended use: any illicit sexual intercourse or activity; lust, debauchery, fornication” (“adultery, n.; 1.b.” OED Online). This, most certainly could describe Gertrude’s act (even post-re-marriage), at least from Hamlet’s perspective. So neither incest nor adultery are “before widowhood-only” acts. The Ghost’s description of the adultery and incest occurs before the depiction of the murder, however. One has to wonder if that order is not merely rhetorical but historical as well.

If the seduction occurred before the murder, one has to ponder Gertrude’s knowledge of, or even involvement in, her lover’s plot to kill her husband. It’s possible, though unlikely. The Ghost clearly doesn’t provide any evidence or even any argument of her involvement in his death. If the Ghost wants Hamlet to revenge its murder, then it’s telling that the Ghost also wants Hamlet to

Leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her.
  • I.v.86-88

If it wants heaven and her own conscience to punish her, her involvement probably stops short of murder. On the other hand, the Ghost might not want to have Hamlet kill his own mother.

Regardless, Hamlet certainly feels that his mother has done something wrong. He calls her “pernicious woman” (I.v.86) before he can even turn his attention and invective toward Claudius. Again, the word choice is interesting: beyond the modern meaning of “villainous, wicked” (“pernicious, adj.; 2.b.” OED Online), it also had the meaning of “Of a disease: extremely severe or harmful, life-threatening, fatal” (“pernicious, adj.; 1.” OED Online). Though the latter meaning is usually associated with disease, I’m not sure that takes away from its usage here–the play is filled with disease imagery (especially venereal disease). Regardless, it’s interesting that this is a conclusion to which Hamlet subconsciously (or maybe not so subconsciously) jumps.

In “The Mousetrap,” for which Hamlet writes some text but more importantly directs, the wife of Gonzago makes a point of saying she will be true until after the death of her husband. It’s funny, then, to have Gertrude criticize, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III.ii.226). Is this Gertrude tipping her hand to a pre-murder seduction? Possible, but definitely not assured: Claudius, in his soliloquized confession to the audience, refers to his “queen” (III.iii.55) as “th’offense” (III.iii.56) or result of the murder, neither the motive nor agent of it.

Hamlet, however, is still emotionally prone to involving her in the murder itself. In the closet scene, when Gertrude describes Hamlet’s killing of Polonius as a “bloody deed” (III.iv.27), Hamlet responds, “A bloody deed — almost as bad, good mother, // As kill a king, and marry with his brother” (III.iv.28-9). Not “kill a king, and marry with his wife” which is what Claudius did. Gertrude admits to having “black and grained spots”–an inkling! or at least a dye-ling–“in (her) very soul” (III.iv.90, 89), but she confesses nothing even after Hamlet urges her to “confess (her)self to heaven” (III.iv.149), to “repent” “(her) trespass” (III.iv.150, 146). She may have nothing to confess, or she may fear confessing it to her clearly homicidal son.

There’s nothing in the rest of the play, nor in that “letter scene” with Horatio from the First (“Bad”) Quarto, that provides any other clue as to her guilt or innocence. Unless it’s this: her defiant “I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me” (V.ii.274) after Claudius implores her not to drink from the poisoned cup he’s given to Hamlet. It can be played such that Gertrude has suspicions or even deduced that the drink is poisoned. It could be a way for her to attempt to save her son, or she might very well be taking the different way out of the plot, following Ophelia into suicide. Her request for pardon is for Claudius, her lover, her husband, and possibly even her accomplice, knowing full well that no such pardon will be waiting for her in heaven.

But that’s all subtext. The text itself? So many inconsistencies.