Gertrude’s Self-Mate

by Joshua H. Liberatore

“The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet!” cries Gertrude as she puts the poisoned cup to her lips and ends her own life. Her last act is one of both defiance and morbid resignation, a paradox well captured by her last lines in the play. Against the protests of Claudius she drinks from the cup intended to seal Hamlet’s demise, she exclaims “I will, my lord,” and asks for his pardon. This last act completes the pathological descent that is evident in other passages of the drama and betrays her implicit guilt in the woes of Denmark. Earlier words and behavior suggest that by the end of Act V she has prepared herself to capitulate to the forces of darkness which seem to engulf Elsinore.

    In a play replete with character doubling, Shakespeare’s most subtle pairing links Gertrude to Ophelia. Both do their best to be obedient to their respective masters. Gertrude’s response to and tacit approval of Claudius’s ploy to discredit Hamlet (“I shall obey you,” III.1.42) echoes Ophelia’s meek submission to the imprecations of her father and brother that she resist Hamlet’s amorous overtures (I.iii.143). Both are party to (however indirectly or innocently) the machinations of Claudius and Polonius, both consent to the covert surveillance of Hamlet, both approve the assertion of his madness, and tragically, both must reap the whirlwind that whips at the doors of a kingdom diseased by fraudulence, betrayal, and espionage. Gertrude’s response to the madness and ultimate drowning of Ophelia further reveals her psychological kinship with Hamlet’s beloved. In describing her death to Laertes, Gertrude portrays Ophelia’s act of suicide as a beautiful and natural completion of her melancholic character. Her death becomes a lyrical extension of a life spent singing mysterious songs and gathering flowers among the nettles, “like a creature native and indued unto that element” (IV.7.197–98). “Mermaid-like,” Ophelia simply merges with the “weeping brook” that was her earthly domain and thus, in Gertrude’s narrative, her death becomes a kind of poetic return. In her own final moments, Gertrude must make a similar return to the elements of her own habits and character, and fuse her fate to that of her soon-to-be-slain son.

    Any competent chess player can recognize moments in the game when important figures, even the most powerful, must be sacrificed to the greater cause of defending the king. In Hamlet, the rightful king is dead, his son and heir doomed to violent death, but the ideal of king must be preserved intact. Gertrude takes the poisoned chalice knowing that it will snuff out her life, but also that it will end her unholy union with the usurper to her husband’s throne. Hamlet’s fortune, as it becomes clear in the last several scenes, is to die at the hands of Claudius’s vile conspiracy, staged ironically in the form of a gentleman’s affaire d’honneur arranged by the king. Gertrude must know that Hamlet will not escape the duel alive. Having killed the king’s top advisor, foiled Claudius’s attempt to kill him upon arrival in England, interrupted Ophelia’s funeral procession with his bold return, Hamlet knowingly descends on a palace that has condemned him. Horatio is his only trusted ally. Gertrude’s strange suicide represents an act of renewed solidarity with Hamlet, by which she hopes to redeem her unspeakable treachery. In “carousing” to his fortune, which can only spell certain death for the prince, she joins him at his nadir, where she releases herself from her “incestuous sheets,” the source of her illegitimacy in Hamlet’s eyes, and celebrates her familial allegiance to her orphaned son. Just as the poison begins to grip her, she insists on wiping Hamlet’s brow, as if her last act as mother must be of the nurturing kind, a species of natural love, which her marriage to Claudius has prevented her from bestowing on her troubled son. In these last moments of pity for the fate she has allowed him, if not invited, Gertrude attempts to reclaim her legitimate role as mother and queen, even if it requires an act of self-mate.

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