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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shakespeare's Real Gertrude


Who was the real Gertrude, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet play?

Did Shakespeare base his Gertrude character on a real person?

If so, who?

Whom did Shakespeare know in his lifetime that would seem to fit the character of Hamlet’s mother, whose husband was murdered, and who marries her brother-in-law, Claudius?

Eileen Herlie as Gertrude
with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

As I wrote recently, Shakespeare based his Hamlet character on at least two men he knew personally, the Earl of Essex and King James.

Both of these men had fathers who died under very suspicious circumstances.

Both of their mothers married the men who were suspected of killing their fathers.

Essex’s mother, Lettice, married the Earl of Leicester, and caused controversy at the court, especially for Queen Elizabeth who was very close Leicester, her favourite.

Was Lettice the real Gertrude?

Mary, Queen of Scots married the Earl of Bothwell and caused a civil war.

Was Mary, Queen of Scots the real Gertrude?

It is tempting to think that Gertrude is based on Lettice or Mary.

To this day it is unknown if either Lettice or Mary were involved in the deaths of their husbands. They may have been entirely ignorant and innocent of their deaths — or they may have conspired to murder them. We don’t know.

Just as we also don’t know if Gertrude was involved in her husband’s murder. Shakespeare doesn’t make it clear if she conspired with Claudius.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father does give us a clue when he refers to Gertrude as a “most seeming-virtuous queen.” Also, the ghost instructs Hamlet:

But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. 

The ghost doesn’t want Hamlet to take revenge on Gertrude, only Claudius. 

But this doesn’t mean that Gertrude is innocent, since the ghost says that she will suffer after she dies for some unspecified reason. 

The fact that the ghost says that she will go to heaven suggests that whatever she has done will not make her go to Hell.

Shakespeare has created a contradictory knot of meaning: Gertrude will go to heaven but will suffer.

Dame Judi Dench as Gertrude
with Daniel Day-Lewis

Shakespeare does not want to tell us if Gertrude is guilty, but wants us to decide for ourselves.

It is impossible to know if Shakespeare based his Gertrude character on either Lettice or Mary. 

However, Shakespeare’s audience at the time would have instantly understood Gertrude to be both women. The murders of Essex’s and James’s fathers were some of the greatest scandals of the age, and widely known. There was even a book published that accused Leicester of murdering Essex’s father.

In other words, if Shakespeare did not want to draw comparisons between Gertrude, Lettice and Mary, he did a very bad job.

But there is more. Shakespeare complicates the true identity of Gertrude.

Francesca Annis as Gertrude
with Ralph Fiennes

In Act 3 Scene 4, Hamlet storms into the Queen’s closet, and argues with her: “Mother, you have my father much offended.”

This is a fascinating scene, full of drama. But Shakespeare’s audience would have understood this in a way we do not.

There was a famous incident that was well known at the time, in 1599, where the Earl of Essex stormed into Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, before she had applied any make-up to her face. 

Since she was 66 years old, and she had scars on her face from a bout of smallpox, she was very upset at being seen like this by her royal favourite.

Queen Elizabeth as she wanted to appear, ca 1600


Queen Elizabeth as she probably really looked, ca 1601

There were other tempestuous moments between Essex and Elizabeth, but this was the greatest breach of etiquette and propriety of all. It was the last straw, and it led to Essex’s fall from grace. 

Not long after, Essex would lead a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth and her Court, and he would be executed for this treason.

As soon as Hamlet enters Gertrude’s bedchamber, Shakespeare’s audience would have seen the parallel, and it created a new question in their minds: was Gertrude based on Queen Elizabeth?

As the audience no doubt struggled with this question, Shakespeare made it even more clear to them, that yes, Gertrude is Elizabeth.

David Tennant as Hamlet

In Act 5 Scene 1, in the churchyard, Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick. 

As he holds the skull he has one of his most famous speeches, during which he says:  "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that."

My rough translation of this is “go to your lady’s bedchamber and tell her that no matter how much make-up she puts on her face, one day she will look like a skull. Let's see if she finds it funny."

This rather odd line makes doesn’t seem to make sense, at least to us. But for Shakespeare’s audience, many of whom had heard of the story of Essex in Elizabeth’s bedchamber, the joke is very clear.

In this moment, Hamlet’s joke is really Essex’s joke at the expense of Queen Elizabeth.

Therefore, twice in the play Shakespeare draws a connection to Queen Elizabeth.

Was Queen Elizabeth the real Gertrude?

Does that mean Gertrude is Queen Elizabeth, and Lettice and Mary, Queen of Scots?

Yes, perhaps. After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet character is based on perhaps 4 or more men.

Is there any significance to the fact that Elizabeth and Lettice were cousins? Also, Lettice looked very much like Elizabeth.

Is there any significance to the fact that Elizabeth and Mary were also cousins?

Yes, I think there is.

But there is one more mystery to the identity of Gertrude.

Her name. 

Shakespeare based his Hamlet play on an old Scandanavian legend. Shakespeare’s Gertrude character is based on the character Gerutha.

But Shakespeare changed the names King Horwendil to King Hamlet, and Feng to Claudius.

Shakespeare didn’t have to keep Gerutha. He could have changed it. But he didn’t. He kept it for a reason.

Gertrude derives from the German roots ger meaning “spear”  and thrud meaning “strength.”

Gertrude means “spear of strength” or “strong spear.”

Why would Shakespeare create the Gertrude name?

Was it just because of the obvious allusion to his own name?

Did this spear of strength refer to a monarch’s sceptre?

Was Shakespeare alluding to his own mother, Mary Shakespeare?

I don’t know. It could be for all of these reasons, or none of them. 

But Shakespeare chose his words with care, and chose the names of characters with even greater care. 

We may never know all of the reasons why Shakespeare chose this name for this character, or who the real Gertrude was.

But for his audience, the people who understood his plays far better than we ever will, the people for whom he really wrote these plays, a queen named Gertrude on stage would have instantly brought Queen Elizabeth to mind.

If you would like to know more about why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, I invite you to read my version of the play.

Cheers,