Gertrude's position

Claudius and Gertrude at courtLike Ophelia, Gertrude is apparently controlled by the men around her:

  • Although it is through marriage to her that Claudius has greatly increased his claim to the throne, it is he who addresses the court in Act I scene ii, where she has only nine and a half lines, all addressed to her son rather than to the court at large
  • In Act III scene iv, when Hamlet verbally attacks her at length, she never takes the initiative, responding to his bitter recriminations with ‘O speak to me no more … No more.'

Problems concerning Gertrude include:

  • How guilty is she?
  • Is she guilty of incest and adultery?
  • Did she know beforehand that Claudius planned to kill Old Hamlet?
  • Did she know afterwards, or is she entirely ignorant of his guilt?
  • Has she acted according to her own inclinations or been manipulated?

Is she guilty of incest?

Both the Ghost and Hamlet accuse Gertrude and Claudius of incest — that is, of unlawful sexual relations between those within bounds of kinship forbidden by the Church. (See Themes and significant ideas: Incest).

Not guilty

Shakespeare's audience may well have seen marriage with a deceased brother's wife as incestuous, but there is no indication that anyone at Elsinore other than the Ghost and Hamlet share this view:

  • In Act I scene ii Claudius remarks to his courtiers that, in his marriage to his ‘sometime sister, now our queen' the ‘better wisdoms' of the court ‘have freely gone / With this affair along'.
  • Although Gertrude herself later (Act II scene ii) calls it ‘our o'er-hasty marriage', she never admits that it is incestuous.


  • In Hamlet's first soliloquy, he attacks his mother for hurrying ‘with such dexterity to incestuous sheets'.
  • His father's ghost also uses the same image (Act I scene v):

‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.'

  • When Hamlet is sent for by her after the play, he denounces her relationship with Claudius:

‘You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife.'

  • When Hamlet finally kills Claudius, it is Claudius' act of incest which Hamlet names before he mentions the killing of the king:

‘Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane,
'Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?'

  • The fact that ‘union' can mean both a pearl and a marriage reinforces our sense of Hamlet's awareness, even as he dies, that Claudius' marriage to Gertrude is a prime motive for his revenge.

Is Gertrude guilty of adultery?

What does adultery mean?

See Themes and significant ideas: The Ten Commandments for a fuller discussion.

Both Hamlet and his father's ghost see Gertrude's relationship with Claudius as adulterous but it is never made clear to us whether sexual relations took place between them before their marriage, and, more importantly perhaps, before the death of Old Hamlet:

  • The Ghost's comments in Act I scene v seem to suggest that Gertrude was unfaithful before her first husband's death:
‘Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts —
O wicked wit, and gifts that have the power
So to seduce! — won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.'
  • But ‘The Mousetrap' (in so far as we may feel Hamlet sees it as a re-enactment of events at Elsinore) clearly shows a queen won over by gifts after her husband's death.

Even when Hamlet accuses Gertrude, in Act III scene iv, of gross immorality, there is no evidence that she sees her behaviour as adulterous:

  • Hamlet accuses her particularly of lust which, he says, is unnatural at her age
  • He berates her choice of an inferior second husband.

It may be that these are the faults which she is acknowledging when she says that:

‘Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.'

We do not know if what she is confessing is much worse behaviour — adultery or complicity in murder. By choosing not to give her a soliloquy, Shakespeare deliberately keeps her motives a mystery.

Did Gertrude know about Old Hamlet's murder?


  • The Ghost never suggests that Gertrude was in any way complicit in his murder
  • The re-enactment in ‘The Mousetrap' indicates in the dumb-show a queen who is guilty of nothing more than an ‘o'er-hasty' re-marriage
  • Nothing occurs, however, in dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude, or in Claudius' speech of attempted confession in Act III scene iii, to suggest that she had any knowledge of the crime
  • Her reply to Hamlet's remark about killing a king may indicate complete surprise: ‘As kill a king?' she queries.


  • There is in the dialogue between Player King and Queen the telling line spoken by the Player Queen that ‘None wed the second but who kill'd the first.'
  • At the beginning of his interview with his mother in Act III scene iv, immediately following the play-within-the-play, Hamlet seems clearly to suggest — and reinforces the suggestion by unusually using rhyme — that she was involved:
‘A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother,
As Kill a king and marry with his brother.'
  • Gertrude's surprised ‘As kill a king?' response could indicate guilt, and shock that Hamlet knows about the crime.

We cannot tell, and different actresses and directors will take different approaches to how this line is uttered.

Seeing the Ghost

Whilst talking in Gertrude's bedroom, Hamlet again sees his father's ghost. But whereas before, in Act I, others saw it too, so that it was undeniably there, now only Hamlet sees it:

  • This may suggest to us that Gertrude is guilty of adultery, incest and/or murder, and so sinful that she is not permitted to see her husband's ghost
  • Or it could indicate to us that, on this occasion, the Ghost emanates from Hamlet's mind, and from his sense of failing his father by delaying vengeance.

The fact that Shakespeare deliberately leaves open so many questions about Gertrude, and about her relationship with her son and both her husbands, adds to the interest of the play, since the audience must make up their own minds about her relative guilt or innocence.

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