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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: September ::
"My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's Adultery
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1765  Wednesday, 10 September 2003

[1]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Sep 2003 10:51:24 -0500
        Subj:   Adultery and Incest in Hamlet

[2]     From:   Emma Cooper <
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        Date:   Tue, 9 Sep 2003 12:34:13 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1748 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

[3]     From:   David Friedberg <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Sep 2003 13:13:34 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

[4]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 09 Sep 2003 17:57:22 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

[5]     From:   Abigail Quart <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Sep 2003 20:37:49 -0400
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

[6]     From:   Colin Cox <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Sep 2003 01:20:28 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Sep 2003 10:51:24 -0500
Subject:        Adultery and Incest in Hamlet

Regarding the following quoted by David Friedberg-

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursu'st this act, 92
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.

-I have a few observations on all this adultery and incest business.

For one thing, in Gertrude's behavior, I see no evidence of "incest,"
damned or otherwise. Either the Ghost is being merely hyperbolic or is
guilty of incorrect usage, unless "incestuous" has some other meaning
that isn't obvious to me.  (Is anyone suggesting that the ghost is
warning Hamlet against forbidden copulation?)  The text doesn't give
Gertrude's genetic provenance so I think we can safely assume that she
is genetically unrelated, if not distantly related, to Claudius (as to
old Hamlet).  Therefore, given that incest involves a close genetic
relation, e.g., father-daughter, mother son, brother-sister (roughly 50%
genetic overlap), there is nothing incestuous in any alleged adulterous
relationship with Claudius.  (Even cross-culturally common marriages
between cousins are not considered incestuous, though they are
consanguineous to the tune of 12.5% genetic overlap.)

For another, where is the strong evidence for illegitimacy in the text?
And what does Gertrude and Claudius's alleged adultery have to do with
Hamlet-does it mean that Gertrude was playing around all her adult life
so that we KNOW Old Hamlet is likely not Hamlet's father?  To raise the
illegitimacy question without good evidence is to demean one of the most
(the most?) deeply human characters in literature.  What's that all
about? Two points regarding evidence: First, at the outset of the play,
Claudius says, "Let the world take note, you (Hamlet) are the most
immediate to our throne." (I, ii)  I doubt he would say such a thing to
the gathered nobility if there were any taint of illegitimacy in
Hamlet.  Second, there is no evidence that Hamlet lacks any of old
Hamlet's physical or psychological features, as would likely be the case
were Hamlet's biological father other than Old Hamlet.  Rather, I would
argue that to create such verbal genius and soulfulness required
something "hyperion," "Jovian," etc.  (Old Hamlet) to make up for
Gertrude's rather ordinary contribution. I believe genetic fantasy
trumps illegitimacy fantasy.

David Cohen

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Emma Cooper <
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Date:           Tue, 9 Sep 2003 12:34:13 +0100
Subject: 14.1748 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1748 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

Thanks for everyone's thoughts on the subject.

Jeremy Fiebig wrote:

>In fact, Claudius says, "My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen..."

I had lumped ambition in with "my crown", assuming that it was just an
elaboration (or rather an extension, as his ambition could stretch
further than being King - being a good king, maybe winning some wars as
Old Hamlet did etc).  I don't believe that he wants to be King for any
other motive than ambition, such as your suggestion of jealousy.
Although I would be interested to hear the argument.

Martin Steward wrote:

>Most of the problems that Emma Cooper struggles with would not be
>problems if she gave up the peculiar notion that Shakespeare wrote plays
>by 1) devising characters of psychological super-realism and then 2)
>setting them free on a stage to see how they would react.

I don't think that to consider so is to consider too closely.
Shakespeare hints at adultery enough times while still leaving the
audience in some doubt, that it seems we are being welcomed to think on
the matter.  I agree that we can not say, for example, 'the fact that
Claudius killed his brother must be adequate proof that they always
fought as children.' The difference between that example and my question
is that the nature of Claudius' relationship with his brother is not
posed in the text, whereas Gertrude's fidelity is.

Also: *assuming* that they weren't having an affair, this would mean
that we were being asked to believe that Shakespeare had - at the simple
plot level - written a story in which a man kills his brother for a
prize that he has no guarantee of winning  (further: much is made both
by the characters and the audience of the unwholesome incestuous nature
of their marriage, that the court was probably corrupt to have let it
happen at all. So it seems an even bigger leap of faith on Claudius'
behalf to assume/hope that she would be certain to say yes to a union
that was bound to be so adversely commented upon).

Thus my assumption that Shakespeare meant us to conclude that they were
adulterous. Once you accept that you get rid of the problem that I had
made myself.

This isn't, to my mind, subjecting them to psychological super-realism.
I believe, rather, that without assuming that they were adulterous the
play is left with a rather thin patch showing up in the plot.

I think I am probably agreeing with most people, I just seem to be going
a rather circuitous route getting there.

Like lots of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet deals with the themes of
political power and family relationships; and as so often, those plays
and their characters are presented in such a way as to emphasize the
meeting points of those themes.

Yes, I agree with that to a point. However, can we really say of a play
as complex as Hamlet that Gertrude does a thing *because* it
demonstrates a theme that Shakespeare is trying to illustrate, rather
than the other way round?  Isn't that like saying that we can not study
the nature of Hamlet's madness, because it is put there to deal with the
theme of madness.

Yes, the crown and Gertrude are often presented as one, especially in
Claudius' first speech ("the imperial jointress" etc), and I should
imagine that in one sense we are supposed to see them piled together in
Claudius' mind - representing the 'ill-gotten booty.' But I have
difficulties accepting that Shakespeare would made her simply as a plot
device, without giving her character depth enough to withstand even the
gentlest of probings.

David Friedberg wrote:

>No Emma, I am sorry but this is Victorian thinking, not Elizabethan. In
>Victoria's day they thought that respectable married ladies don't have a
>bit on the side; in the reign of either Elizabeth they know/knew that
>they might.

OK, but surely it's a big leap from "Elizabethans were on the whole an
adulterous lot" to thus Gertrude must've been.

There are many phrases in that first speech of the Ghost that emphasize
that Old Hamlet knew of Gertrude's adultery.  That is assuming that the
Ghost is the soul of the old King.

Let me make it quite clear that I have been, all along, agreeing with
most of the people that have responded (sorry Abigail!) I do believe
that Gertrude was unfaithful. However, looking at both arguments: If you
look in any dictionary for adultery you will get a definition that isn't
exclusively about being unfaithful to the marriage vows, but includes a
more general 'to falsify, mix with baser matter'. In fact in Matt 12:39,
Jews are styled "an adulterous generation" and even an apostate church
can be an "adulteress."

Hamlet's O most pernicious woman cry could just as easily be a response
to the fact that she married her husband's murderer - isn't it possible
for Hamlet to see her as innocent but still harmful?

But no, I am in agreement that, much as there are arguments for her
innocence, they are all defensive and mostly not as strong as the
arguments to the contrary.

Thanks,
Emma

PS: Bill Arnold: read <http://www.shu.ac.uk/emls/02-1/sohmshak.html>

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Friedberg <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Sep 2003 13:13:34 -0400
Subject: 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

Bill Arnold stated,

>Which is why Hamlet is illegitimate and did not succeed to the crown at the
>moment of Old Hamlet's death; illegitimates could not inherit or succeed."
>
>Fascinating stuff.
>
>I must have missed something in my reading of Hamlet, which I admit, could
>have happened;

I suggest to Bill that when he reads the play once more he pay
particular attention to these lines from Act 5 Scene 1.

Hamlet.  How absolute the knave is! we must speak by the card, or
equivocation will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio, these three years I
have taken note of it; the age is grown so picked that the toe of the
peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe.

How long hast thou been a grave-maker?

First Clown.  Of all the days i' the year, I came to 't that day that
our last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.

Hamlet.  How long is that since?

First Clown.  Cannot you tell that? every fool can tell that; it was the
very day that young Hamlet was born; he that is mad, and sent into
England.

Assuming we trust the clown, that means that Young Hamlet was born the
day old Hamlet bumped off old Fortinbras.  And since Horvendil [to use
the older Saxo[n]  names] was given the hand of Geruth  and the throne
of Denmark by her grateful father Rorik, surely she was impregnated
before her wedding ceremony. Everybody knew that, it was in all the
papers at the time.

And thank Bill also for giving me Bernard Grebanier!

David Friedberg

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Tuesday, 09 Sep 2003 17:57:22 -0400
Subject: 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

>The head is not more native to the heart,
>The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
>Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
>
>So said Claudius of Polonius, leading me, and others, to suspect that
>Polonius was to say the least complicit in the murder, at most an
>accessory.

This is a stretch, but I think it likely that we are meant to understand
that Polonius was instrumental in the election of Claudius.   All the
stuff about the "legitimate" heir is out of place when we remember that
the succession was determined (that word again) by an assembly of
noblemen (originally Viking chiefs).  Shakespeare clearly knew this, as
the play mentions it several times.

Of course, since the succession was thus subject to political vagaries,
Claudius should have had some sort of assurance before running the risk
of regicide.  So, maybe Polonius was in on it.

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Abigail Quart <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Sep 2003 20:37:49 -0400
Subject: 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursu'st this act, 92
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.

Incest is adultery? Sorry. She's getting it on with his brother! And
she's enjoying it! And he's only been dead for four months and, did he
mention, his brother murdered him? She's having a good time with his
murderer! She's a widow! She's supposed to enter a convent (a real one,
not a whorehouse) and spend her days in perpetual prayer for his soul
which she would do if she really cared. Instead she's getting "pricked."

Yet this vindictive ass (I stand by that description) says "Leave her to
heaven." He still wants his only son to take action against his brother.
No forgiveness there, no leave HIM to heaven, nuh uh. Even comes back
and nudges him on when he thinks he's backing down. Not the least bit
bothered by the consequences of such action, not old Hamlet Senior. No,
he'll have his vengeance or he'll know the reason why. His son ends up
dead and his line extinct. His kingdom passes into foreign hands. THAT's
the result of the RIGHT thing to do.

I will amend my description of the ghost: Selfish, vindictive ass.

But I still don't see how anyone gets adultery from anything in the
play.

BTW, isn't it cute how Ghosty doesn't have a problem appearing to the
soldiers, and Horatio as well as Hamlet, but Gertrude? Nuh uh again.

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Colin Cox <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Sep 2003 01:20:28 -0700
Subject: 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1759 "My crown ... and my queen" - Gertrude's
Adultery

Bill Arnold writes:

>I must have missed something in my reading of Hamlet, which I admit,
>could have happened; so I wonder, where in the text of Hamlet is the
>fact that Hamlet was "illegitimate and did not succeed to the crown at
>the moment of Old Hamlet's death; illegitimates could not inherit or
>succeed"?

Hi Bill, though I agree with much you have said, in terms of the
succession there is another factor to consider (this also applies in
Macbeth).  Historically, and I do think Shakespeare was clearly aware of
this, these plays are both pre Magna Carta. There is no primogeniture
ruling in place.  Neither Hamlet nor Malcolm, upon the deaths of their
respective fathers, are automatic choices for the throne. Shakespeare
very clearly points this out in Macbeth by having Duncan declare Malcolm
the Prince of Cumberland and having Macbeth realize at that moment he is
going to have to take the throne by force. Hamlet's agony over the rapid
marriage of his mother is as much to do with his lost opportunity for
election to the throne as it is for any grieving over his dad. As he
points out to us those funeral baked meats were still warm; that's fast
and very political.

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