The Happy Couple: Gertrude (Julie Christie) and Claudius (Derek Jacobi) from Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film.
My actors’ Big Questions zero in on their own characters, as you might expect. As director, I have other concerns. And right from the start of my relationship with Hamlet (that is, 25 years), Gertrude has been a concern.
At a guess, I’ve seen a dozen stage productions in that time, and half a dozen film performances. I’ve seen strong, smart actresses play Gertrude. But I’ve never seen a strong, smart Gertrude, and that concerns me.
The most likely conclusion: she’s weak and dim. But accepting that sauce from Chef Shakespeare means reducing the number of good female parts in Hamlet from two to one. It also means that Hamlet’s misogynistic whining comes across as much more justified (which in turn makes Will more sexist, which we all know perfectly well, but don’t like to be reminded of). And finally, it makes an already awkward death scene seem just plain pathetic.
Working backwards, Gertrude can offer an actress some potential moments of strength. In Almereyda’s 2000 film, Diane Venora drinks the poisoned cup knowingly, saving her son whilst defiantly exposing her murderous husband. (She wasn’t the first Gertrude to catch on, but I’m too lazy to look up the stage tradition right now; revisit and edit, Sharplin.) As sacrifices go, it earns the Queen high points for bravado, but doesn’t help her in the dim department.
Such an act also cements Gertrude’s level of loyalty to Hamlet, something actresses and directors labour to pin down in Acts 4 and 5. Productions of the First Quarto Hamlet take the cue from Scene 14, an exposition-heavy dialogue between Gertrude and Horatio that does not appear in either Q2 or F. It contains much of the same info as 4.6, 4.7 and the first half of 5.2, distilling it into a shorter scene: Hamlet has uncovered Claudius’s plot against him and returned to Denmark. Gertrude replies (referring to Claudius):
Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar o’er his villainy.
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous.
That’s a strong, canny tactic, so much so that I wish the scene were used in more productions. Maybe directors prefer using 4.6, where Horatio receives the news from a pirate (because: pirates!). Personally, I don’t think either scene is essential, and I’m hard at work devising a sequence that shows Hamlet’s escape instead of telling it (because: pirates!). But it would be great to find a space to insert these lines…
…if Gertrude’s strong, smart choice is, indeed, supporting her son. 99% of productions use a Q2/F hybrid text, so they must rely on other indications of the Queen’s choice. In the “closet” scene, she seems repentant; she asks Hamlet “What shall I do?”; and she assures him that
if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me. (3.4.195-197)
All of these seem to indicate that (a) she believes Hamlet when he says he’s feigning madness, and (b) she does not intend to cater to Claudius’s whims, sexual or otherwise. When she meets with Claudius in the next scene, her words support her resolve to conspire with Hamlet, but only vaguely. She calls him “mad as the sea and wind,” and describes Polonius’s death as the Prince’s “brainish apprehension.” Is she defending Hamlet by helping him maintain his ruse? Or does she genuinely believe he’s mad, as she did in 3.4.135-137? Also, when she says that Hamlet has gone
To draw apart the body he hath kill’d:
O’er whom his very madness, like some ore
Among a mineral of metals base,
Shows itself pure; he weeps for what is done. (4.1.24-27)
Is this a necessary lie? Hamlet’s dialogue implies very little grief about Polonius, and I’ve never seen a Hamlet show genuine remorse about his death. Gertrude may be trying to urge mercy. Or she may be embellishing, in the way of a bad liar. Whatever her motives, it’s not enough to read as assertive, or clever, without an actress working hard to play a particular subtext.
And whatever sympathy we gain for the Queen in this ambiguous moment, it’s hard to hang on to it in 4.5, when Gertrude physically defends her King against Laertes’s vengeful rage. “Let him go, Gertrude,” says Claudius, and presumably she does, but then she adds “But not by him,” when Claudius admits that Polonius is dead. This is where the Queen is at her most confounding, because if she trusted Hamlet’s sanity four scenes ago, then she knows that Claudius murdered her former husband. And if she were smart, she would have figured out by now that Hamlet isn’t coming back from England. Why not let Laertes pick up the revenge that Hamlet dropped?
In gratitude for her support, Claudius snaps at Gertrude when she interrupts his conspiratorial chat with Laertes with news of Ophelia’s death.
How much I had to do to calm his rage!
Now fear I this will give it start again;
Therefore let’s follow. (4.7.190-192)
The Arden’s notes say that “in some productions the Queen seems reluctant to follow,” and that Julie Christie used this moment as “the turning point: … ‘She will not follow. Never again.'” That leaves her with only two scenes of “not following,” though, and apart from potentially drinking the wine on purpose, we see about as much defiance as she showed in 4.1 or 4.5. Like so much of Gertrude’s story, the strength, if it comes at all, comes in silences.
The strongest arc would seem to be: Gertrude rejects Hamlet’s portrayal of Claudius and defends him sincerely from Laertes. Then she sees a glimpse of the true man in 4.7, when he sheds nary a tear for Ophelia’s heartbreaking demise, but rather gripes about the Queen’s poor timing. From here, she intuits that Claudius is vile enough to try poisoning her son, and swoops in to save him…by dying pointlessly herself. Well, nobody’s perfect.
It’s a lot of tricky maneuvering, and it all happens so late in the game. I’ve never seen a Gertrude pull it off. But that doesn’t mean it’s an impossibility. Just…a concern.