Hamlet’s Hereditary Queen
Performing Shakespeare's Silent Female Power
Contents (with chapter abstracts)
This story began through an acting project I did in 2007, portraying Gertrude for some film students. This was very difficult – there were many confusing moments, which I have described as sticky bits.
Gertrude in Shakespeare’s sources turned out to be the daughter of the King of Denmark. Her status in Shakespeare’s play is not made clear. If she is the hereditary queen this can change the power dynamics of the play, and help with many of these sticky bits. However this interpretation of the play and the character appears to be almost unprecedented.
This project has been about finding and filling gaps: a feminist strategy, a description of the theatrical process and of academic research. The sticky bits can be clues to locating such a gap in a play.
The enormous and varied scholarship on Gertrude and Hamlet is about how scholars, commentators and the other characters perceive her, not about the character herself. Broader scholarship has helped flesh her out, especially feminist and historical scholarship, and performance practice. The result is the story of a powerful woman, an earth goddess with a commitment to her land.
Read the Introduction here
Chapter 1 draws out themes from the commentary on Gertrude. Hamlet dominates both the play and the commentary and is accorded an enormous amount of sympathy. Gertrude is minimised or sexualised. The concepts of ‘the male glance’ and ‘the male gaze’ help to analyse how this works.
The work on Hamlet of three high profile twentieth century scholars is considered in some detail: Yale professor Harold Bloom, and second wave feminists Germaine Greer and Elaine Showalter. The first two show how sympathy for Hamlet can affect one’s perception of the text. The last two, despite being career academics and thus informed by the patriarchy as it manifests in the academy, successfully challenged that patriarchy in significant ways. Both provide useful material for my project: Greer emphasises that Shakespeare wrote for the theatre, and Showalter’s model of tracing the history of a female character’s representation informed my approach. However their work still shows the influence of the academic patriarchy, especially as regards the older woman. The personal-is-political approach of second wave feminism meant that the life experience of the women who were active in this movement informed their challenge to the dominant culture. Most of these women were relatively young in the 1970s and 1980s, and this structured their own discourse. Many naturally reconsidered the position of the old as they aged themselves.
Chapter 2 analyses how the male glance and the male gaze dominate the perception of the character of Gertrude. Examples are given of distortions of the text made to facilitate these perspectives. The glance depends on simplistic understanding of the roles of women relative to men, such as mother and wife, and some space is dedicated to demonstrating that Gertrude’s experience of these roles in the text is far from simple enough to be perceived as token. Gertrude’s sexuality is absent from the text other than via Hamlet and the ghost, so that reading necessitates additions through the use of the non-verbal side of theatre.
There is a short excursion into early modern history to elaborate on the concept of incest of affinity, which is often used as an excuse to sexualise Gertrude, up to and including encouraging a reading of Hamlet as relating to his mother sexually.
Gertrude occasionally perceived as being stupid. An issue common to both this perception and the tendency to minimise her is that Hamlet would have no adequate motivation for his obsession with his mother and her marriage
Resistant reading is a long-standing strategy for finding a feminist interpretation of a text. In chapter 3 this is achieved through a number of approaches: through the actress’s exploration of a character’s subjectivity; through the feminist performance approach of ‘paying attention to women’; and through an understanding of ‘retextualisation’ – the use of the non-verbal side of theatre to re-write the text. This is always already present – the text does not stand alone but includes the performance history and the history of the commentary as absorbed by the participants. Every performance is an opportunity to re-write for oneself the ‘text’ one has access to in that moment. My own experience of the ‘sticky bits’ while trying to portray Gertrude becomes a tool. Reading this as my own resistance to gaps in understanding, it can be used to locate such gaps, where re-consideration might be useful.
Finally, the subjectivity of female characters in early modern plays has long been a device for feminist resistance. The commentary on Gertrude’s subjectivity is reconsidered in the light of my own acting process.
In Chapter 9 specific sticky bits are examined in detail using the material covered so far, and they are ‘unstuck’ using the reading of Gertrude as the hereditary queen. In 1.2 these include Gertrude’s background and connection with the throne of Denmark, the stickiness of reading her sexually, the haste of the marriage, and the dispossessing of Hamlet. In later scenes Gertrude’s confusing display of non-sexual power is clarified, and the issue of a regnant queen obeying her husband is acknowledged. Her reaction to the murder of Polonius in the closet scene is re-examined and new, more powerful responses for her are considered. Her guilty speeches are re-analysed. Her behaviour during Laertes’ rebellion in 4.5, defending Claudius and effectively accusing Hamlet of the murder of Polonius is reconsidered in the light of royal responsibilities, as is behaviour inconsistent with the the simplistic notions of wife and mother.
Gertrude as the hereditary queen retells the story of Hamlet in terms of the inadequacy of her (possibly mad) heir and the also inadequate subordinate stewards of her land. The section called The Castrated Queen traces the history of her disempowerment by the male characters and by a commentary which insists on reading her as a sexually motivated consort.
My own engagement with Gertrude highlights the role of the female actor’s and audience’s life experience in interpreting a female character. Gertrude’s experience of the roles of mother and wife, like that of many women, is far more complex than simplistic loyalty. Gertrude’s response to
misogyny is nuanced through my own experience.
The lives of many older women incorporate experience of the chaos of a patriarchal system which deludes itself that it is orderly and in control. Incompetent men like Gertrude’s husbands often acquire power. Her own status is not an alternative; it is defined and acquired through the same
system. Mediocrity and incompetence inevitably emerge sooner or later. The play can be read as chaos – the comprehensive collapse of stereotypes of nationhood, of gender and of drama, frightening especially through an absence of words to describe it other than chaos itself and perhaps resistance.