How Hamlet’s Mother Has Been Under-Read

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

The character of Hamlet’s mother is a fairly silent one in the play. Many have inferred from her few lines that she had a soft animal nature, was very dull and very shallow, and all she cared about was being happy. The reality, on the other hand, is that Gertrude is badly misinterpreted and under-read.

Picture shows a hand holding a tiara.
Gertrude was Hamlet’s mother and Queen of Denmark. She has been interpreted as a shallow woman who does not understand the reality around her, but that is a very wrong reading. (Image: tomertu/Shutterstock)

Hamlet is not necessarily known as Shakespeare’s best play, but it is the closest to Shakespeare’s inner workings and consciousness. It is full of remarkable soliloquies and speeches from different characters that survive to date. As Stephen Greenblatt puts it, it is “a remarkable presentation of human inwardness.”

The play was written in a special time in Shakespeare’s life and had some personal connections to his life. He had a son called Hamnet, who died in 1596 when Shakespeare entered his mature phase of life. Romeo and JulietThe Merchant of Venice, and Henry IV, Part 1, all resulted from his maturity. Many have wondered if writing Hamlet was Shakespeare’s way of coping with the loss of his only son, whose name was almost the same as the play.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Death of His Father

Another important event was the death of Shakespeare’s father in the year following this play’s production. Perhaps, he had his dying father in mind. Many believe that Shakespeare himself played the part of the ghost when this play was staged, which gives him the father-figure of the play. Hamlet is his most dramatic play and shows Shakespeare’s love of the theatre.

Now in such an important play so close to Shakespeare’s soul, all characters are crafted carefully. There cannot be a stupid, shallow one running around if there is no point in it. Hamlet’s mother is one of the key characters, and she simply cannot be the dull-minded woman many expect her to be.

How Hamlet’s Mother Has Been Seen

Many great critics see Hamlet’s mother as “a soft, easygoing, sentimental woman” with a “compliant nature” who has a “total unconsciousness of having done anything wrong.” In contrast, Gertrude is one of the most complex Shakespearean heroines. In 1957, Carolyn Heilbrun, a female professor, published an essay on how Gertrude has been under-read: ‘The Character of Hamlet’s Mother’.

That was the start of a new view of Gertrude and the depth and complex levels of her character. In Shakespeare’s plays, the role of the tragic woman is always bold and vital. To know the character, one must focus on what she says and what is said about her.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s theater and stagecraft.

Gertrude’s Lines in Hamlet

A painting showing Hamlet with his mother.
All the characters in Hamlet have crucial roles and are somehow tied to Shakespeare’s personal life, and Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is no exception. (Image: Public domain)

Hamlet is the longest play Shakespeare ever wrote, holding the first place with over 4000 lines, way above the second-longest play. Naturally, every character has to have many lines, but Hamlet’s mother has only 70! Hamlet himself has about 1500 lines. Thus, there must be something important hidden in her seldom and moderate lines.

In act 1, scene 2, she speaks for the first time, and it is to an upset Hamlet. He is standing apart from the court, showing how unhappy he is with his mother’s marriage to his uncle. She says,

“Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know’st ‘tis common. All that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity.”

Learn more about Romeo and Juliet-words, words, words.

The Wise Woman, Gertrude

With her lines in act 1 scene 2, she is trying to mend the relationship between Hamlet and Claudius, while also showing that she understands her son’s grief in the loss of his father and trying to comfort him. “Let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark” asks Hamlet to accept his uncle as the new king and her husband and treat him well.

Her view of death is what takes Hamlet five acts to get to: we are born to die. She says to her son that we leave behind “nature” after death, and Hamlet refers to the same concept with “this harsh world” full of pain when he is dying. The next thing that she points out is entering eternity.

All of her words address the complex concerns that Hamlet deals with throughout the play. Gertrude knows exactly what her son is concerned with, and she addresses all of them in a few words.

These words, the main themes of the whole play, and what concerns Hamlet cannot come from a dull and shallow woman who lacks understanding of surroundings. Hamlet’s mother sets out the themes of the play in only eight lines, and that is no coincidence in Shakespeare’s works.

Common Questions about Hamlet’s Mother

Q: Is Hamlet’s mother a weak woman?

Even though Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is usually described as a weak woman, like a happy sheep, that is not the truth. She proves in her few lines in the play that she is wise and understands what goes on around her.

Q: Does Hamlet’s mother know that her new husband has killed the old one?

No. Hamlet’s mother marries his uncle after her husband’s death without knowing that he is the murderer.

Q: Did Hamlet’s mother stay loyal to her son?

Hamlet was never happy with his mother’s second marriage. However, in the end, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, drinks the poisoned wine. She tries to show her support and loyalty for her son, and when she realizes that the wine was poisoned, she warns Hamlet not to drink it.

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