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The Wife of Claudius: Guilty or Manipulated?

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

After an unforeseeable event, or the death of a loved on, most humans react to these

undesirable events in this manner. During this time they are fragile and need to be deeply cared

for as they will intend to find whatever can take them out of these stages immediately. However,

in the play ​Hamlet​, by William Shakespeare, Queen Gertrude does not seem to get a chance to

experience any stage of grief after the death of her husband, King Hamlet. Claudius, Hamlet’s

brother, quickly rushes Gertrude into marriage, and steps up to the throne. Although, how much,

if any, of this decision was actually Gertrude’s? Claudius took advantage of Gertrude in her time

of grief, and manipulated her into actions that she would have not done if she was not in this

fragile state. In both the written play script ​Hamlet​ by William Shakespeare as well as the

modern film adaptation by The Royal Shakespeare Company, Hamlet (2009), most of the

actions of Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, are a direct result of the manipulation of Claudius,

Hamlet’s Uncle.

Throughout the text, there are several instances in which the true innocent nature of

Gertrude is portrayed versus the manipulated version. For example, in the second scene of the

second act, Claudius exclaims that he found someone who can tell them the reason behind

Hamlet’s madness. Gertrude responds and says “I doubt it is no other but the main;/His father’s

death and our o’erhasty marriage”, however, Claudius declines and says “Well, we shall sift him”

(2.2.56-58). In this situation, it becomes clear that Gertrude is aware of the nature of her

marriage and how it moved way too quickly for even her to process. Although, the matter that

Claudius responded persuades the audience that he is in control and is always striving to make

her believe that something is not what it is. Claudius is attempting to convince her that Hamlet is
truly going insane and that their marriage has nothing to do with it, hence always trying to make

it seem “okay” that they got married so quickly. This proves that in any instance Gertrude may

have had a doubt about their marriage, Claudius had always either changed the subject, or

found other reasons to convince her to continue through with it. Another example that reveals

Gertrude’s true nature is in Act 3 Scene 4 when Hamlet is yelling at her and telling her about all

the ways she wronged both him and his father. In this instance, Gertrude is becoming aware of

all of her actions and how they may not be ethical as she tells Hamlet to stop and exclaims that

“These words like daggers enter in my ears” (3.4.96). As she becomes more and more aware of

Claudius’ manipulation of her, she begins to hurt more since not only is the grief of the death of

King Hamlet kicking in, but also how she did him wrong after his passing instead of honoring

him. The text greatly shows the differences between how Claudius becomes overprotective of

Gertrude and is constantly making sure that she is on his path, while Hamlet is striving to make

her aware of the spell that Claudius has her under.

Although the text provides great detail in the script as to how Gertrude is manipulated by

Claudius, the film adaptation of the script further emphasizes the manipulation through the

strong body language. For example, in the second scene of the first act while Claudius, Hamlet,

and Gertrude are all speaking to each other, it is clear that only two out of the three characters

in this scene are actually voicing their opinion. Hamlet and Claudius are going back and forth

between each other with longer dialogues, whereas Gertrude does not contribute much to the

conversation. However, in the movie it is evident that there are several instances where she

wishes to begin to contribute, but is quickly interrupted by Claudius who chooses to do all the

taking for her. Furthermore, there are also instances where her facial expressions are tense and

at unease, but as soon as Claudius begins to notice any changes, he turns and gives her “love

and affection” in order to lighten her up. He immediately wants to clear her mind and keep her
under his power and spell of manipulation. On the other hand, there is also a clear

representation of Gertrude’s true nature that can be seen through her body language scene four

of act 3. As Hamlet is telling her the sad truth behind her actions and how she should be

punished for them, at this point, Gertrude has broken down and is crying and pleading for

Hamlet to stop saying those words. As she is crying in disbelief, it is evident to the audience that

Gertrude does not approve of what she has done with her life. The visualization of body

language in the film adaption creates a bridge between the written script as well as the

emotional distress of Gertrude as she learns about the manipulation of Claudius.

Although Gertrude had been widely manipulated by Claudius in terms of the death of

King Hamlet, there is an instance where it is possible that Gertrude was never manipulated in

the first place and that all of her actions are truly her. Claudius was constantly manipulating her

in order to stay head of the throne, for this reason, he never had any reason to change her

thoughts on Ophelia’s actions. Although, after Ophelia’s death, Gertrude described the death in

an unusual way by saying “Her clothes spread wide,/And mermaid-like a while they bore her

up:/Which time she chanted snatched of old tunes,/As one incapable of her own distress”

(4.7.175-178). This implies that Gertrude is not greatly affected by death in general due to her

ease in describing this situation with too great of detail and imagery. It makes the audience

question whether Claudius was really manipulating her throughout the whole play, or whether

this is who Gertrude truly is. However, it is uncommon that she is this cold-blooded towards

everyone’s death, and she merely had to have been affected at least slightly by King Hamlet’s

death. For this reason, the idea that Gertrude was manipulated by Claudius is more likely than

the opposite.

Gertrude is portrayed as an irrational backstabber, however, most of these actions are

as a result of the manipulation of Claudius. In the text, the differences between how Gertrude
acts while around Claudius is quite different from when she is solely with Hamlet. Furthermore,

her body language in the film adaption greatly leads the audience into believing her struggles

and how much of what she is doing is not the true her. After being led on for long, and being

tricked into becoming this horrible person that she never was, Hamlet let’s her realize what she

has done and the full extent of her actions. At the end of the play, it seems as though she

cannot live anymore with the person she has become and takes the easy way out of drinking

poison to end her life. Although it may have seemed that she did not know that the cup was

poisoned, the audience can be led on to believe that she was fully aware, and drank it in order

to be put out of her misery, release the spell of manipulation from Claudius, and join her

husband in death.

“I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid in completing my work, nor have I

presented someone else’s work as my own”

Works Cited

“Hamlet". ​The Norton Anthology of World Literature.​ Gen. ed. Martin Puchner. 3rd ed. Vol. C.

New York: Norton, 2012. 651-751. Print.