The editorial and transmission practices surrounding Shakespeare’s works are incredibly varied, from quarto to Folio, from Theobold and Pope’s editions to the twenty first century RSC and Arden Shakespeare collections. Indeed, there is no ‘complete’ Complete Works, the plays are tantalisingly mutable. This lack of fixity is mirrored in the plays themselves, and in the characters. Gertrude is a particularly complex mother-character; her identity fluctuates throughout the play itself, through quarto and Folio editions, and in dramatic performance. The power of the mother can be clearly identified in Hamlet, where Gertrude’s re-marriage appears to be the primary impediment to the Prince of Denmark forming any manner of romantic attachment. Gertrude is responsible for Hamlet not returning to university in Wittenberg, and as a result his life is essentially paused while he remains in Elsinore. Gertrude is identified in different editions in various ways. In Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor’s double-text Arden edition of the play, she is identified in the Dramatis Personae as ‘Queen Gertred and Queen Gertrude’ (Q1 and F respectively) and noted as ‘Queen’ in the dialogue; in the RSC Complete Works, she is simply ‘Gertrude’ throughout, and elaborated on, in the Dramatis Personae as ‘Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother’. To return briefly to the editorial power apparent in constructing characters, editorial decisions such as Thompson and Taylor’s see Gertrude function more as a wife (she is, possibly, Queen through marriage) whereas Bate and Rasmussen’s edition arguably focuses more on Gertrude the person: mother, wife, and also Queen. The multifaceted nature of a person (in contrast to the fairly limited scope of that person when confined by a certain title) is communicated when Gertrude is identified as ‘Gertrude’, liberating her from relational identities alone. Lack of editorial consistency indicates an inability to present Gertrude decisively as wife or mother through the Dramatis Personae and construction of character; she occupies a grey area where she (through a constructed character, inevitably moulded by actors’ or directors’ interpretations) succumbs wholeheartedly to neither role.
There are two scenes in particular which explicitly depict the problems in the mother/son relationship of Gertrude and Hamlet. In 3.4, which has come to be known as ‘the closet scene’, we see arguably the most concentrated dialogue between mother and son, in which (in the Q2/F texts, at least) Gertrude vows not to reveal that his madness is feigned. This scene raises key questions regarding the importance of the mother/son relationship, and the public/private realm of women. Can this maternal bond, by implication, only be experienced in private, or closeted behind the closed door of Hamlet’s mother’s room? Can Hamlet only be spoken to, and chided by, his mother, when concealed in this private domain? Since structural and filmic frames distance the audience and, perhaps, the characters themselves, when we consider Polonius’s vow to Claudius in 3.3, ‘I’ll call upon you ere you go to bed /And tell you what I know’ (3.3.3 6-7), the closeting of the mother/son bond is emphasized: it is, first, behind the closed doors of the closet itself; and then distanced again by the proposed narrating of the incident by Polonius to Claudius. The fact that Polonius does not survive to relate this tale to Claudius exposes an intriguing vulnerability in this voyeuristic plan. The vow is the turning point in Hamlet and Gertrude’s relationship; had Polonius narrated this event, audience members would not directly have seen the tortured exchange between mother and son, where Gertrude finally learns of Hamlet’s feelings. She swears: ‘Be thou assured, if words be made of breath /And breath of life, I have no life to breathe /What thou has said to me’ (3.4.195-7). Polonius’s death enables this scene, enhancing the dramatization ofthe mother/son relationship, and the dynamic’s power and resonance occupy vital roles in the play itself both as dramatic and in complicating its place as representative of the ‘tragic’ genre. The closet scene proves even more crucial to the play’s construction when one considers the printing and editing habits for earlier editions. In terms of dramatic genres, without this essential scene, the audience would be unable coherently to identify Gertrude’s influence upon her son. This would-be flaw in the construction of Gertrude and Hamlet’s relationship would prevent the further construction (and therefore influence) of Gertrude as Hamlet’s mother. Ellen O’Brien writes comprehensively on cuts to the closet scene, which directly impinge on how Gertrude is represented as Hamlet’s mother:
Perhaps the most devastating cut [in the Q2 edition] occurred in the closet scene itself, eliminating both Hamlet’s appeal to the Queen not to reveal that his madness is feigned and her vow to do so. Here we have the most direct manifestation of an association between Gertrude and her son, yet with overwhelming consistency, the acting editions and promptbooks of the [nineteenth century] cut the final twenty-eight lines of the Folio text [... ] Since nearly all the standard acting editions did not even print the excised lines, many actors probably never knew such a vow existed, creating a serious distortion in the textual patterns from which they might work (1992, 31-32).
So the nineteenth-century audience lost the image of the caring, motherly Gertrude that swears to keep her son’s secret. This vow demonstrates a vestige of protective motherly instinct that had been hidden beneath the persona of an obedient wife. When this vow is removed from the play, audience members are prevented from seeing the reconciliation between Hamlet and his mother which leaves the final scene, with all of Gertrude’s motherly affection, rather isolated. The maternal image that she develops throughout the play (only as a response to the catalytic ‘madness’ of her son) quite obviously waxes, as her wifely devotion wanes following Claudius’s overtly guilty behaviour following ‘The Mousetrap’, and Hamlet’s confrontation of her in her closet. These events make her susceptible to ‘those thorns that in her bosom lodge/To prick and sting her’ (1.5.92-3).
The second (albeit not quite as influential) scene in which this explicitly maternal Gertrude appears is the final one (5.2). The motherly image of Gertrude, in Laertes’s and Hamlet’s fight, is notably at odds with her earlier behaviour, where she stands by while Claudius verbally attacks her son: she worries about his ‘fat, and scant of breath’ condition (5.2.290), and wipes his face; the latter a gesture which David Tennant’s Hamlet in the Doran production brushes away impatiently. Gertrude’s inability to balance her roles as wife and mother leads to such unhappiness that, arguably, her only recourse is suicide. Critics are unable to agree on whether Gertrude drinks the poison accidentally, or whether it is deliberate. Following the emotional intensity of the closet-scene encounter between Gertrude and Hamlet, it is possible that Gertrude has finally realized the futility of her attempts to embody both wife and mother successfully. This scene has been depicted in performance in various ways: some Gertrudes appear innocent of the consequences, others make Gertrude’s drinking from the chalice seem a deliberate and considered act, whereas others turn their response to Claudius’s command ‘do not drink’ into a notable act of defiance, indicating her choice of Hamlet over her husband. Penny Downie’s Gertrude looks frightened by what she is about to do, yet determinedly draws the cup to her lips. This action, where the audience sees Gertrude sacrificing herself for her son, can be read as the ultimate maternal gesture of unconditional love. However, this act comes far too late. Gertrude’s previous shedding of her maternal function, through transforming into the wife of Claudius, leaves Hamlet resentful and abandoned, though finally finding his raison d’etre in his mother’s death moves him to action.
There are two notable turning points in the play that dictate the course of dramatic action: Gertrude’s begging Hamlet not to return to university; and her swearing to keep his secret safe. Gertrude epitomizes the evolving and generating mother: she gives birth both to Hamlet, and by her constant, complex presence, to the events of his life. Her plea for him to remain in Elsinore instigates the action that follows. Gertrude’s influence must be recognized as a force throughout the play, influencing how it progresses. The mother/son relationship is the foundation for the entire play, and provides prompts throughout the dramatic work, moving forward the play’s action. Throughout the intriguing disparities in genre in varying editions of Hamlet, Gertrude’s influence on the development of the play remains constant either because or in spite of her emotional absence. The editorial and directorial decisions on Hamlet and Henry V may be seen to pick up on clues in the play-texts themselves, recognising the mother/son and mother/daughter relationship, respectively, as integral to the development of the plays. That both processes were most probably orchestrated unwittingly tells us much about the perception of mothers in these two works, and this relates to monogeneric critical practices. When works are approached in a linear way (where the ‘main’ male character is apparently destined to follow one path and one path only, from the strict progression from start to finish), the recognition that other characters influence dramatic action is hard to grasp. To conclude by addressing Rose’s question in her title, ‘where are the mothers in Shakespeare?’, the more pertinent question might be ‘where aren’t the mothers in Shakespeare?’. The influence of the mother-character is so powerful, pervasive and inventive that it can be traced through so many of Shakespeare’s works when absence is not regarded merely as absent, and the critical lens is readjusted to recognize the impactful absence and the very present missing mother.