Wives and/or Mothers?
Isabel and Gertrude differ in the performance of their roles: while both physically present within the plays at certain points, their appearances are selective and both characters can be identified as failing in their duties as mothers at points. Isabel’s role in the play is reserved for the final scene; she has no other utterances throughout the course of Henry V and she does not appear in any other act or scene. Isabel’s speeches which are removed show an alternate queen and mother to the one that exists in the two productions discussed here, where her input is entirely excised. Her greeting to Henry shows a confidence in her position, and her use of the ‘Royal we’ reinforces this; she states:
As we are now glad to behold your eyes;
Your eyes, which hitherto have borne in them Against the French, that met them in their bent, The fatal balls of murdering basilisks:
The venom of such looks, we fairly hope,
Have lost their quality, and that this day Shall change all griefs and quarrels into love.
The King’s response to Henry’s entrance is notably less impassioned: ‘Right joyous are we to behold your face,/Most worthy brother England; fairly met:/So are you, princes English, every one’. The violent imagery contained in Isabel’s apparent welcome can indicate dissatisfaction with what is about to happen, that her daughter will be bargained for the sake of peace. When Henry commands his compatriots to exit with the King to discuss the terms of France and England’s peace and Katherine’s transference, Isabel makes the decision to attend this discussion as the one ‘woman’s voice’. It seems that Isabel is seeking to assert her authority in a male-dominated court;
only one of her five utterances is in response to a question or comment directly addressed to her.
Where Isabel is only seen in the final scene of Henry V, leaving Katherine on her own with her father, her maid Alice or with Henry, Gertrude’s appearances are interspersed throughout Hamlet. Isabel’s lack of participation in the play can be read as indicative of her lack of emotional support for Katherine, whereas Gertrude’s appearances can suggest a constant interference in her son’s life, an input that results in him staying in Elsinore and not returning to university in Wittenberg. Prior to Act 4, Gertrude does not appear in a single scene of Hamlet without the appearance of her son, whether from the beginning of the scene or joining her later. This could indicate that in the textual composition of the play she is defined by her role as mother, with her son appearing as ‘evidence’ of her maternal state. They seem to exist as a dyad but during the play Hamlet starts to reject the primal bond, and act independently.
Marvin Rosenberg, in The Masks of Hamlet, poses a key question: ‘How maternal may Gertrude be?’ (1992, 76). There appears to be an incompatibility in merging both the motherly and wifely roles of Gertrude: she is either too maternal or too sexualized. The tensions between Gertrude-as- wife and Gertrude-as-mother appear time and again in productions and critical analyses of Hamlet. Marvin Rosenberg identifies a difficulty, in performance, in acting both wife and mother:
The relatively young Gibson Gertrude assumed that she had first married at 12, a “child bride” to a “father figure.” She bore Hamlet as soon as she was “biologically able,” a teenage mother; and so would have been in her early 40s when, with the virile Claudius, she had a “revelatory sexual experience” (1992, 74).
This perspective suggests (in a purely hypothetical sense) that prior to meeting Claudius, Gertrude was first and foremost a mother, with her sexual appetite coming later in life, once the essential business of giving birth to a son had been fulfilled. Rosenberg further observes that in one performance (and in unfortunately colloquial language) ‘one Gertrude was sadly dismissed because, lacking in sexuality, she seems to be little more than a worried old Mum’ (1992, 76). Rosenberg’s approach to analyzing the various Gertrudes along the spectrum ofsexual and motherly personae may not be critically astute; however, his point remains interesting in identifying a problem in balancing the apparently discordant roles of wife and mother. Gertrude’s indeterminacy of character allows for dramatic interpretation where actors can emphasize any of Gertrude’s traits.
The intense bond between Gertrude and Hamlet has, for example, been portrayed as potentially incestuous. The relationship has, in both early and more recent scholarship, become a theme which often defines the play itself. In various performances (including, most notably, Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of the play, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close) the question of incest between Hamlet and his mother remains one of the most recognizable elements of the production. In contrast to others of Shakespeare’s plays, where the familial relationship is only one ‘part’ of the dramatic make-up of the play, Hamlet is entirely constructed around the ‘vibrating triangle’ of the family dynamic, centred on the premise of the newly married mother, the resentful son, and the step-father (Rosenberg 1992, 76). Doran’s 2009 production explicitly foregrounds the mother/son dynamic in 1.2; the relational positions of the characters to each other suggest that neither Hamlet nor Gertrude have yet acclimatized to their new roles, through the evident tension between Hamlet and Claudius with Gertrude watching on, ineffectually. As opposed to speculations of incest between Hamlet and Gertrude, this mother/son combination is, instead, attempting to negotiate and map out the boundaries of a new relationship that now incorporates a stepfather, rather than the nuclear family structure of which Hamlet had previously been a part. On entering his mother’s closet in 3.4., Hamlet interrogates her, ‘Now, mother, what’s the matter?’ (3.4.9). This demand in itself can be read as questioning the state of motherhood: the etymology for ‘mother’ comes from the classical Latin mater (meaning ‘womb’ in the fifteenth-century).1 So when Hamlet asks the ‘matter’, it can be read that he demands what is a mother, indicating, perhaps, his mother’s insufficiency in her maternal role, when she pursues her royal one.
In her pursuit of a happy marriage with Claudius, Gertrude automatically, and somewhat inexplicably, draws Hamlet closer to her, requesting him not to return to university in Wittenberg: ‘Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:/I prithee stay with us’ (1.2.118-19). Referring to herself in this manner as ‘thy mother’ reiterates her bond with Hamlet, using this as a means for persuasion, which she then builds on by directly imploring him with the first person ‘ I’ . This is, evidently, the first instance where Gertrude exercizes her maternal command over her son to change his intentions. However, as the play later demonstrates, successful balancing of her two roles of wife and mother continually eludes the Queen of
Denmark; in the courtly situation of 1.2, Gertrude must stand by Claudius’s side, as he expresses his contempt for Hamlet’s ‘unmanly grief’ (1.2.92) in his ‘obstinate condolement’ (1.2.91). In Doran’s 2009 production, where Patrick Stewart’s Claudius initially turns to speak to David Tennant’s Hamlet only to find him unwilling to engage, the King turns his attention to Laertes: in observing this overt show of allegiance to another man’s son (even embracing Laertes after he has requested permission to leave Denmark) Gertrude appears appalled, and looks pointedly at Hamlet. As Claudius tells Hamlet to ‘think of us /As of a father’ (1.2.107-8), Penny Downie’s Gertrude again looks torn between her allegiances to her husband and her son, and puts out a hand as if to stop Claudius. Thus, in the first scene which involves Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius, the audience can identify the tensions in this newly established triangular familial relationship, which Doran explicitly foregrounds, and Gertrude’s difficulties in remaining emotionally available to her son and to her new husband are shown.