My Gertrude Story

My Gertrude story

Hamlet’s Hereditary Queen and Gertrude’s Hamlet began when I tried to play the part for some students in some short films. She was a challenge to act, and the play was a challenge to make sense of from her point of view.

To begin with, she doesn’t speak a lot. To construct the character, the actor mostly has to study the other characters’ lines and react to them.

Secondly, directors are very free with cuts – in Hamlet they have to be, as the play is 4 hours long. Gertrude’s part always gets adjusted a good deal. Not only are her lines often cut, but so are her cues, and her silent presence.

For example, a line that is nearly always cut is when she says that Hamlet is fat and scant of breath during the duel with Laertes.  What’s more, if it is left in, people bend over backwards to invalidate it.  Hamlet is usually played by a good-looking actor, but for him to be an overweight, out-of-condition nerd (perhaps with glasses and an asthma puffer) fits the character as written very well. I have yet to see a production of the play done that way. At the very least, Hamlet is not thin and fit. He says himself that for the last two months he has foregone all custom of exercises.

One of my student directors left the line in the script. I had never heard it before. When I realised what Shakespeare had written, and that I would get to say it, I was delighted with this woman, Hamlet’s mother, and wanted to know her better.

Lines can of course be altered, depending on circumstances. The David Tennant production changed the line to he’s hot and scant of breath. A decent substitute, worth making for the beautiful, borderline-mad job the very thin Tennant did of the character. But Hamlet’s mother’s original observation is useful when constructing his character. It is a beautiful line, full of character for both mother and son.

Studying the part and the play for me was all about articulating questions. There are many, many points of confusion. Many of them I just ended up articulating within the action of Gertrude’s Hamlet without trying to find answers. It worked very well.

Among the critical questions was this: what is Gertrude ashamed of in the closet scene? Hamlet tells her she should be ashamed. After resisting for a while, suddenly she says she is. Hamlet has not mentioned any new fault to make sense of this. What he actually says is that if she has no self-control (re lust) at her age, why should he be expected to control himself in his flaming youth? Does she suddenly realise that she’s providing her son with a bad role model? Does the scene go on to develop that thought? No. Does she change her mind for a different reason? Maybe. What might that reason be?

The closet scene is the critical scene in both Hamlet and Gertrude’s Hamlet. It is the scene where Hamlet commits his first murder. His tedious lecturing of Gertrude for having had the temerity to marry Claudius takes place over the freshly-killed and still bleeding corpse of the old counsellor Polonius, whose only offence was to listen concealed behind the curtain. This undercuts the moral high ground Hamlet thinks he is entitled to. Gertrude, whatever she says, spends the entire scene with a murderer, who might kill her as well. He also talks to a ghost she cannot see. Neither his dialogue nor hers can be taken at the surface level.

The relationship is clearly fraught. Another of the questions that needed work was this one: why doesn’t Gertrude tell Hamlet the truth? Whatever her reason for marrying Claudius, why not tell Hamlet? She could confide in him at last, or fling it at him in a rage. In fact, why hasn’t she explained things to him before this point? Communication between this mother and son is non-existent, which is especially confusing given Hamlet’s status as heir to the throne. The relationship needed some study. She doesn’t trust him. Why? Something is going on. Why is Hamlet not a part of it?

I looked at other points of view on the issue. Other actors, other writers, other productions.  I read the myths, and noted the points of difference between the myths and Shakespeare’s choices. However, I missed the most important information in the myths until I read Harold Bloom’s comments on them in his 1998 book, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. In the middle of the essay on Hamlet, Bloom says, “The heroic Horwendil, having slain the King of Norway in single combat, wins Gerutha, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who bears him Amleth.” (p 398-399)

Denmark is Gertrude’s.  Her father was Rorik of Denmark. Hamlet senior and Claudius were her consorts, the Viking equivalent of country squires, from provincial Jutland.

Things started to fall into place.

All Shakespeare’s tragedies are primarily about leadership. It barely rates a mention in most productions of Hamlet. If Gertrude carries the royal line, suddenly the play talks about leadership with all Shakespeare’s favourite themes. Who has the right to the throne? What are the consequences of their displacement? What are the consequences of their lack of interest? Of their lack of skill? How does this relate to the royal family? What happens to the nation?

Claudius describes Gertrude as the imperial jointress of Denmark. These words are inevitably slid over as mere poetry, referring to royal status and partnership with her ruling husband. I looked them up.

In the Oxford English Dictionary I found that imperial is not poetry, but legal. Europe was full of petty kings who answered to an overlord. If the king was imperial he had no overlord. His status as king was independent and he answered to no-one. Denmark was an empire.

Jointress is also legal, and comes from the same source as jointure.  It means to inherit and hold in trust for the next generation.

These are Shakespeare’s own words. The myths tell us that she is the daughter of the king of Denmark, but the action takes place in provincial Jutland. Shakespeare disposes of a possible brother and places the action squarely in Elsinore, the imperial centre of the kingdom, a kingdom thus, now, with a sole female heir. Gertrude carries the royal bloodline of Denmark, and Shakespeare’s alterations emphasise the point. Whatever lust Claudius may or may not have felt for his sister-in-law, he had to marry her in order to rule the country.

Gertrude was a version of Elizabeth I. An Elizabeth who had been married off young to a hero, and not permitted to rule her hereditary kingdom.

In Shakespeare’s England the issues of ruling queens, and who and whether they married, had been lively for decades. Elizabeth’s elder sister, Mary Tudor, had grappled with the problem, marrying Philip of Spain in an attempt to get an heir for England. She had worked to limit his role in the kingdom, but the public had not been happy. It was all to no purpose anyway, as she did not produce an heir. Mary Stuart of Scotland married more than once. Her husbands were ambitious, and one may have been killed by the next. Did she know? Was she consumed by lust? This sounds very familiar to those who know their Hamlet. Elizabeth had not married, and the lack of an heir was a perennial problem for the country. It was an unresolvable situation.

Here was a different version of the tale.  What if the queen had married? And had married young enough to produce an heir? Would things have been any better?

Well, no, as it turns out in Hamlet. Hamlet senior – let’s call him by the name in the myth, Horwendil – might have been King Rorik’s best fighting man, but in Act 1 Scene 1 Shakespeare makes it clear he was not much of a king. No king interested in the welfare of his people bets the kingdom on the outcome of single combat with a foreign king. And even though he won Norway rather than losing Denmark, what sensible king disempowers his nearest neighbours, sets up resentment in the neighbouring country and displaces the hereditary heir, leaving him alive to tell the tale? Horwendil made very free with Gertrude’s patrimony.

Again, the significance of this situation is largely Shakespeare’s construction. In the myths the fight takes place early on. Horwendil is not king of Denmark, and the bet is for treasure, not for the country itself. Princess Gerutha’s hand in marriage is Horwendil’s reward for bravery. In Shakespeare’s play he is well married, has control of the kingdom to stake it on the outcome of the fight, and Gertrude is already expecting Hamlet.

The other point made in Act 1 Scene 1 is how run down the kingdom’s defences are. Horwendil has been passing his time conquering England and fighting Poland, it seems. Norway is finally working on its revenge, and Denmark is unprepared. But suddenly, since the death of Horwendil, the defences are being built up – as fast as the kingdom can manage it.

As for Gertrude’s son, he was born the night Horwendil bet the kingdom on single combat. This is again, Shakespeare’s invention. There are no other children. He has spent the past 15 years in Wittenberg ‘at university’ but we see little evidence of study, despite Hamlet’s reputation as a philosopher. He seems rather to have passed the time is as a theatre critic, learning the actors’ speeches well enough to recite back to them. He is not known for his fighting skills – it is a great surprise when he does actually score points in the final duel against Laertes.

What sort of king would he be? What interest does Hamlet have in his future responsibilities? What does his father think of his son, the theatre critic, this father whose chief interest is Viking battles?  What does his mother think of the fate of her kingdom under his father, and then under her son?

It was time this woman’s point of view was voiced.

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