What Hamlet Dislikes about Gertrude and Claudius

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

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

Gertrude and Claudius marry each other while Hamlet is still grieving the death of his father. Even though he does not know the new king is the murderer, Hamlet is explicitly against the marriage for some reason, and he keeps accusing his mother of lust until she regrets her decision. Are his mother’s sexual interests all that concern Hamlet?

Statue of Hamlet, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England.
Hamlet is against Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage even before he finds out that his uncle, Claudius, is the murderer of his father. (Image: givi585/Shutterstock)

When Gertrude and Claudius are getting married, Hamlet stands away from the crowd and shows his displeasure. Gertrude tries to calm and console him, but he keeps his negative views. His first problem with the marriage, before the ghost reveals to him that his uncle, Claudius is the murderer, is Gertrude’s obvious sexual interest in Claudius.

A Marriage Built upon Lust

Gertrude marries Claudius two months after the death of her husband. Hamlet believes that is too short for mourning and his famous charge forms in this context: “Frailty, thy name is woman.”

In act three, he finally confronts his mother as he refers to her sexual life and tells her she cannot call it love: “You cannot call it love; for at your age / The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble; / And waits upon the judgment.” He denies any non-sexual affection between the two until Gertrude is affected and asks him to stop talking because his words are like “daggers that enter in her ears.”

She uses the same words that her dead husband, the ghost, uses when he describes his death: “in the porches of mine ears did pour …” Hamlet does not stop and continues with how angry he is that his mother and uncle are married and share the same bed: “Nay, but to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, / Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” The lines do not describe what he has seen, but what he imagines. This is where the ghost appears again to make him stop ranting about the details of her mother’s sexual life. Does this mean his imagination is wrong?

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

Gertrude’s Sexual Life

Gertrude is a woman of around 45 years old. There is no reason for her not to have an active and erotic sex life. Hamlet is right about thinking that she enjoys making love to his uncle. The point is, most critics have acted just like Hamlet, trying to deny the sexual needs of Gertrude.  

Why should she turn into a sexless being after the death of her husband, and keep mourning forever? Why should she deny the erotic part of herself? She expresses herself through what she can, and her body is one way to do so. She has only 70 lines in the whole play, and every time that she speaks, there are some fundamental points being revealed.

Learn more about the religious drama of Hamlet.

Why Is Hamlet Mad?

In one act, Claudius and Polonius are trying to figure out the reasons for Hamlet’s anger. They go on with different causes until Gertrude speaks out the truth in a few lines: “I doubt it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” However, she does not know that her new husband has killed the old one, while Hamlet does.

When Polonius continues with the numerous unlikely reasons for Hamlet’s anger without noting the truth, it is Gertrude who reminds him how he is missing the main point: “more matter with less art.” She always tries to say what other characters mean in her few accurate lines.

At one scene, the players are putting on the Mousetrap play, and the player queen is exaggeratedly saying that if her husband should die, she would never, ever marry another. Hamlet asks his mother what she thinks about the play. Gertrude knows what Hamlet is implying, and answers, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Gertrude’s lines usually convey a lot of meaning in a little space.

Learn more about staging Hamlet.

Gertrude’s Loyalty to Hamlet

Despite all that happens, Gertrude chooses to remain loyal to Hamlet. At the end of act three, he reveals to Gertrude that he is only mad in craft, not for real, and he askes her not to sleep with Claudius anymore. She listens, and the evidence is in act four when Claudius calls her to follow him, and he has to repeat it several times before she does.

Photo shows Russian actors as Claudius and Gertrude in Edward Gordon Craig and Constantin Stanislavski's production of 'Hamlet' (1911).
Gertrude remained married to Claudius but stopped following him after Hamlet asked her to and told her that he is not really mad. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

In the final scene, we see how she is on Hamlet’s side. Laertes is dueling Hamlet, and Gertrude wipes her son’s brow in the break and tells him that she will drink to his honor. The wine is poisoned, and even though Claudius tells her not to drink, she does.

Her dying words are addressed to Hamlet: “No, no! The drink, the drink! O my dear Hamlet! / The drink, the drink! I am poison’d.” Hamlet’s final words to her show how he understands her situation and shares in her pain: “Wretched queen, adieu.”

Hamlet was against the marriage both because of the sexual life and the fact that his uncle was the murderer. However, he came to realize his mother’s hardships and respected her in the end.

Common Questions about Gertrude and Claudius

Q: What is the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude?

Claudius is Gertrude’s brother-in-law in the play. After he kills his brother for the crown, he lies to Gertrude and marries her.

Q: How does Gertrude die in the play?

Gertrude drinks poisoned wine in the play and dies. She warns her son before dying that the wine is poisoned.

Q: What is Hamlet’s main problem with his mother’s marriage?

He refers to Gertrude and Claudius’s sex life many times in the play. He cannot accept that his mother gets married to his uncle immediately after his father’s death.

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