Death in Denmark seems to follow a consistent pattern—it is often rooted in obscurity. Hamlet himself is plagued with this fascination/fear of death throughout the story and perhaps even stays his suicidal hand because of “The dread of something after death.” He thrives in melancholy and fears an afterlife that he knows nothing about. Even the inciting incident of the play—the ghost of King Hamlet instructing the prince to murder Claudius—is riddled with uncertainty: is the apparition really the dead king or is he an evil spirit? if he is the king, is he fully aware of the facts surrounding his death (he was sleeping after all)? does he even care about his son or does he just seek revenge? Out of the ten deaths mentioned in the play (not including Yorick’s), many of them can be questioned in terms of morality, necessity, and what exactly occurred. Yet despite there being greater and more obvious ambiguities tied to certain deaths, the one I am most interested in is that of Gertrude’s.
Was Gertrude’s death an accident or a suicide? In other words: when she drank the goblet intended for Hamlet, did she know that there was poison inside or not? When I first read through the scene, I thought Gertrude to be another female character to fall victim to the folly of men—just as Ophelia does. Gertrude’s exact words are, “The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” and then after Claudius commands her not to drink, she says, “I will, my lord. I pray you pardon me” (5.2.265-268). If she were a mirror (or foil) of Ophelia, and was unaware of the poison, then Gertrude dies because the men surrounding her are too caught up in their own concerns to think on the consequences of their actions.
But I prefer another reading. This particular theme for my blog assignment came to me after reading some of my other classmate’s work regarding foils in Hamlet. Ophelia and Gertrude fit the enduring architype of the virgin-whore dichotomy. So, if they are so connected—especially as they are the only women in the play—could it be possible that they both turn to suicide in the end (assuming here that Ophelia’s death was indeed a suicide)? Gertrude, an act earlier, says:
To my sick soul as sin’s true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt. (4.2.17-20)
First, she declares her soul to be sick with sin, and then, her guilt (which has been plaguing her for quite some time, despite her attempts to disguise it) is finally poring over. Thus, we know that Gertrude has reached a breaking point.
Furthermore, Gertrude has (up until now) not refused Claudius anything; she even tells him of Hamlet’s deeds and her conversation with him after their scene in her chambers. Notably, however, she does not disclose the fact that Hamlet’s insanity has been a ruse—this proves that she does not have unwavering faith to Claudius but is still subject to his orders. So when the king demands that she not drink from the goblet, and she blatantly refuses, I would read this as a guilt-ridden women finally acting in defiance towards the one who has perpetuated her guilt. She knowingly drinks from the poisoned cup and then offers it to Hamlet so that Claudius’s plan could not come to fruition—he, who has killed her husband, would not also be responsible for the death of her son. She realizes the moment that Claudius says “Gertrude, do not drink” and then proceeds to do something we have not seen thus far. It is the only scene where we see Gertrude acting motherly—wiping Hamlet’s brow and bidding him luck in the duel—and I assert that this is her attempt at redemption—playing the part of the mother-figure that she has been ignoring.
If Gertrude did kill herself, it would establish a connection between a desire for suicide and each of the characters that Hamlet truly loves—Ophelia, Gertrude, and Horatio; Ophelia would drown herself, Gertrude would poison herself, and Horatio would search out the goblet so that he could follow Hamlet into death. While nothing seems to ever be certain with Shakespeare (least of all his character deaths) I do believe that this uncertainty calls for many different readings, and if Gertrude does in fact commit suicide, then this may completely change a reader’s thoughts of her character as it did mine.