William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a story embroiled with family drama. Indeed, it is difficult to separate each character from the conflicts they create. In the middle of this drama is Gertrude, the queen and Hamlet’s mother, to whom the titular character attributes many problems. This viewpoint, however, invites a feminist analysis of Gertrude’s relationships with her son. Both the way Gertrude’s son controls her and how she gradually submits to that control reveal how Gertrude simultaneously reinforces and defies patriarchal culture, a culture which places men superior to women and feminine traits as inferior to masculine ones.
The play starts off with a tense relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet. After the recent death of the former king, Hamlet was still grieving but Gertrude was not. Gertrude even goes so far as to ask Hamlet, “why seems it grief so particular with thee?” (Shakespeare 1.2.74). The word “seems” and the phrase “so particular” contribute to Gertrude’s insensitive tone towards her grieving son. The word “seems” in this context sets up an accusation that Hamlet is either insincere or making a big deal out of something insignificant. The phrase “so particular” makes the second meaning, that Hamlet is overreacting, more likely. The use of the word “so” as an adverb especially serves to amplify Gertrude’s belittling of Hamlet’s grief by further emphasizing his reaction as “particular”, which means individual or personal in this context. While Gertrude may have been trying to comfort Hamlet by encouraging him to move on after two months, this phrase reinforces the notion that men cannot express feminine emotions like sadness. Hamlet is justifiably grief-stricken after the death of his father, but Gertrude trivializes this emotion and insists Hamlet be more masculine by moving on. However, Gertrude also challenges the concept that women are too emotional. This reversal in typical roles, with an emotional Hamlet and emotionless Gertrude instead of the other way around, challenges the society Hamlet takes place in. By encouraging Hamlet to move on as she has, Gertrude shows herself to have taken this stoic path since both need to “look like a friend on Denmark” and present a unified front with the next rung down the line of succession: Claudius (Shakespeare 1.2.69). Since stoicism is a stereotypically masculine trait, Gertrude breaks out of the expectations forced onto her.
Unfortunately, this relationship does not metamorphize into a more loving one, and Gertrude begins to submit to Hamlet. A few scenes later, Hamlet succeeds in asserting control over Gertrude with multiple insults and accusations of incest such as that Gertrude is making love “over the nasty sty” (Shakespeare 3.4.93). These accusations of incest demonstrate Hamlet commanding Gertrude by defining her within the confines of the social roles “mother, virgin, and prostitute” since she is supposedly sleeping with a man other than his late father, which makes her a prostitute as opposed to a mother (Rubin 770-791). This approach works, since Gertrude begs him to “speak to me no more!” in the next line (Shakespeare 3.4.94). Her initial response to Hamlet that demands, “What have I done that thou dar’st wag thy tongue in such rude noise against me?” accuses Hamlet of speaking out of line, is decidedly more assertive than the pleading it precedes (Shakespeare 3.4.38). An explanation for this shift in tone can be found in Luce Irigaray’s essay “Women on the Market”, wherein Irigaray points out that, “the production of women, signs, and commodities is always…passed from one man to another”, meaning, women are always bought and sold by men (Irigary 799-811). In this situation, Gertrude perceives that Hamlet “owns” her since he is the only man present at this time in her room. This reasoning conforms to her ultimate submission to Hamlet. Gertrude perceives Hamlet as her superior, even though she is his mother and queen, so she reinforces the norm of men dominating women. The only way Gertrude defies this norm is with her initial indignant response, but even then, Gertrude clearly tolerates much given this exclamation’s timing: it comes directly after Hamlet kills Polonius and then declares his intention to “wring her heart” (Shakespeare 3.4.35). This is an emotionally trying situation for anyone, and the fact that this outburst occurs when it does indicates that Gertrude conforms to the feminine standard of patience and tolerance. Only at her breaking point does she dare to step beyond these social standards forced upon her by society and her son.
Despite the trials and tribulations that she has gone through, Gertrude showcases her devotion to Hamlet in her dying breath with the words, “No, no, the drink, the drink – O my dear Hamlet – the drink, the drink! I am pois’ned” (Shakespeare 5.2.291). Gertrude only mentions Hamlet as she dies, which solidifies her alliance to her son with her choice to warn him of imminent danger. However, as much as Gertrude breaks free of her bonds to her husband, she also conforms to societal expectations of selflessness and is “completely satisfied by serving her family” (Tyson 80). In drinking poison, she drinks in the societal expectations placed upon her as a mother by using her last words to protect her son, even though her son has not been too kind to her. Gertrude fully submitted to Hamlet’s control and in doing so, ends the family drama between them that had been brewing throughout the play.