When the play starts, she has already remarried to Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius within such a short amount of time. This is rather surprising and revolting to her son Hamlet, who is still grieving over the loss of his father, but it appears that his mother has already moved on. That could only suggest that perhaps Gertrude was cheating on the king with her brother and her husband’s death was all but convenient for her. The ghost of Hamlet’s father gives his son disturbing information about the queen, calling her “that incestuous, that adulterate beast,” (Act I, Scene I).
However, there is no definitive proof, nor Shakespeare ever addresses it in the play, leaving his audience with a sense of wonder about the queen’s devotion to her husband. The thing that might intrigue the reader the most about the character of Gertrude is why she married Claudius so suddenly after her husband’s death. Was it because she knew that she needed a man to help her rule? Or was the meaning behind the courtship less malevolent than it appears? There lies the most important question: was it true love or was it politics that brought Claudius and Gertrude together?
Hamlet paints the picture of Gertrude as an obedient and devoted woman to his father, but his opinion transforms during the queen’s second marriage. Hamlet doesn’t understand why Gertrude, who is labeled as the “th’imperial jointress” (Act I, Scene I) to the throne of Denmark, would need to marry someone so rapidly when she already wields power in the royal family. Possibly the most haunting question about Gertrude’s character is whether or not she knows Claudius killed her first husband. This also ties in with the question about Gertrude’s fidelity.
If she did cheat on the former king with Claudius than chances are she more than likely had a role in her first husband’s death. Claudius would consider her as an accomplice and confide in her, but he never does throughout Hamlet. Furthermore, Gertrude expresses strong emotions about Ophelia and Hamlet, but never for Claudius, which is strange because they are married. Claudius tells Gertrude that he loves her, but she doesn’t return the sentiment, which again is bizarre because they are husband and wife.
There are no definitive textual references about Gertrude’s involvement in her first husband’s poisoning. It just is another element of Gertrude’s character that is shrouded in mystery. One redeeming quality about the queen is her unwavering loyalty to Hamlet. She loves her son despite his obvious hostility towards her for marrying Claudius. Plus, Gertrude continues to stand behind him even when he lashes out at her, saying the worse possible things a son could say to his mother.
When Hamlet kills Polonius in a moment of madness, Gertrude realizes that she has to tell the king that her son was the one who committed the murder, but she lies to her husband to protect her son. She tells Claudius that Hamlet is contrite and “weeps for what he has done” (Act IV, Scene I), in order to lessen the punishment that is sure to be inflicted on Hamlet by Claudius. In the final scene of the play, Gertrude expresses her deep concern for Hamlet when he wants to duel Laertes who is grieving over the loss of his father and sister and blames Hamlet for their deaths.
At the end of the duel, Gertrude even drinks the wine for Hamlet, not knowing it is laden with poison. Or does she? It is still debated by scholars whether Gertrude knew the wine was toxic or not, but regardless, she didn’t have to drink it. She drank it for Hamlet because her maternal instincts triumphed over Claudius’ warning to leave the poisonous glass of wine alone. Another issue that comes up time in time again in Shakespeare’s play is Hamlet’s fascination, boarding on obsession, with Gertrude’s sex life. It’s trange for a son to be interested in what his mother does behind closed doors, but this piqued curiosity seemed to have started around the time of Gertrude’s second marriage to Claudius. Early on in the play, the reader learns that Hamlet is shaken by his mother’s hasty marriage to Claudius, leading Hamlet to believe that the world is contaminated, like an “unweeded garden” that’s “gross and rank in nature” (Act I, Scene 2). Hamlet’s opinion of his mother may color the reader’s view of Gertrude, seeing her as a vile woman who jumps from one man to the next.
There are more questions than answers surrounding Gertrude, the queen of Denmark. We don’t know if she was unfaithful or if she was complicit with Claudius in the murder of her first husband. However, the one attribute in Gertrude that nobody can dispute is the depth of love that she posses for her son. Gertrude is Shakespeare’s most mysterious character because she in intricately woven throughout the play, but her motives remain unclear to the readers.