The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0275 Monday, 2 February 2004
From: John Reed <
Date: Saturday, 31 Jan 2004 19:50:19 -0800
Subject: Gertrude and the Progression of Evil
Gertrude and the Progression of Evil
There was an interesting thread lower down about the psychology of
Gertrude. It might also be interesting to consider her spirituality.
This matter could be involved with a concept long-known in Catholic
lore: the idea of the Progression of Evil. I first came across it in
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien:
"And wrong behaviour (if it is really wrong on universal principles) is
progressive, always: it never stops at being 'not very good', 'second
best' - it either reforms, or goes on to third rate, bad, abominable."
(Letter 49. 1943).
Originally I thought Tolkien made it up himself, but it appears Thomas
Aquinas was familiar with the idea:
"In both good and bad, one proceeds, as a rule, from what is imperfect
to what is perfect." (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II, II, 14,
4. 1265-1274). No, I didn't read the Summa, but I did plow through On
Evil (if you like syllogisms regarding the heritability of original sin,
this is the book for you). I counted nine references to it there, one
"Since evil causes only by the power of good, sinners in sinning
progress from what has a greater semblance of good, and so lesser sins
very often lead human beings to commit greater sins." (Question 12,
Going back further in time, St. Augustine made this classic statement:
"My will the enemy held, and thence had made a chain for me, and bound
me. For of a froward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became
custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity. By which links, as
it were, joined together (whence I called it a chain) a hard bondage
held me enthralled. But that new will which had begun to be in me,
freely to serve Thee, and to wish to enjoy Thee, O God, the only assured
pleasantness, was not yet able to overcome my former wilfulness,
strengthened by age. Thus did my two wills, one new, and the other old,
one carnal, the other spiritual, struggle within me; and by their
discord, undid my soul." (Confessions, Book VIII. ca. 397-400)
And in the Pauline Epistles there is:
"Yes, persecution will come to all who want to live a godly life as
Christians, whereas wicked men and charlatans will make progress from
bad to worse, deceiving and deceived." (2 Timothy 3:12-14. ca. 65)
St. Thomas also cites a work by Gregory, where the latter commented upon
a phrase in Job 11 -- "He knows the vanity of human beings." So, "We
are led, Job says, from vanity to iniquity when we first sink into
slight sins, so that from habit making light of all things, we are not
at all afraid later to commit more serious sins." (in On Evil, Question
14, Article 2). In the same section of that work St. Thomas also cites
Ecclesiasticus 19:1 as reflecting the same idea.
One modern Protestant commentator wrote:
"When a person determines to think his own way, do things his own way,
and pursue his own destiny, he cuts himself off from God. When that
happens, he cuts himself off from truth and becomes spiritually blind
and without standards of morality. Without standards of morality,
immorality becomes a shameless and calloused way of life. When that is
continued it destroys the mind's ability to distinguish good from evil,
truth from falsehood,and reality from unreality. The godless life
becomes the mindless life. That process characterizes every unbeliever.
It is the direction that every ungodly person is headed, although some
are further along than others." (John MacArthur. Ephesians. 1986).
This concept of the Progression of Evil might be applied almost with
impunity to many characters in Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies.
So then there is Gertrude.
Leaving aside the Ghost's tantalizingly vague labelling of Claudius as
an "adulterate beast," there is a curious passage in 5.4. It's the part
that goes, "'Before you tumbled me,/You promised me to wed.' He
answers, 'So would I a done, by yonder Sunday,/And thou hadst not come
to my bed.'" I think Ophelia, somehow, is quoting dialogue that passed
between Claudius and Gertrude. So, maybe Gertrude and Claudius had
relations with each other before they were married. That's fornication,
not necessarily adultery, although it strengthens the implication that
there was adultery -- actual adultery, not Claudius just intending to do
it as part of his plan. No doubt Gertrude continues to enjoy herself
with Claudius (maritally speaking), and somewhere or other I've come
across the notion even that was considered by some to be a sin (although
venial). Suppose Gertrude neither took part in nor knew about the
killing of Old Hamlet. She might therefore be considered sort of bad,
but not so bad, near time of the start of the play.
A crucial moment occurs at the end of The Murder of Gonzago, where it is
likely Claudius gives himself away to some astute observers. She might
know what Claudius has done by then. The thought is reinforced by
Hamlet's accusation immediately afterward. At that point she might have
repented, but she does not. According to J.R.R. Tolkien himself, the
most moving part of The Lord of the Rings was (for him) the one where
Gollum almost, but not quite, repents (it's in the Letters, twice, if I
remember right. I could look it up if anyone insists). Gertrude's
similar lack of repentance is discussed by Eleanor Prosser, in Hamlet
and Revenge. She notes:
"Nonetheless, Gertrude's cries of anguish indicate that [Hamlet's] words
have moved her beyond mere terror to the first conviction of sin, and it
seems likely that she will repent. At that moment the Ghost
enters...[she advances a new theory about the purpose of the Ghost's
appearance] that...explains one important fact: the fact that despite
her recognition of guilt just before the Ghost enters, Gertrude does not
repent. We can all agree that the Ghost's appearance indicates that
Hamlet is doing something the Ghost believes he should not be doing.
What, then, is he doing? If we can judge from Gertrude's response, his
words are beginning to pierce through her complaceny. For the first
time, she sees the 'black and grained spots' tainting her own soul, and
we sense that if Hamlet would but pause to heed her, if she had but a
moment of calm she might speak her first words of true repentance. At
that precise moment, her beloved son has a hallucination, or so she
thinks. 'Alas, he's mad!' It is a cry of pain, but also a gasp of
relief. Gertrude is off the hook. Immediately she reverts to her old
self, acting the role of compassionate mother tending her sick son,
speaking matronly words of counsel. The fleeting moment of proffered
grace is gone." (p. 197-98)
She does not follow Hamlet's advice of denying herself to Claudius. She
does not turn on Claudius with revulsion or with any kind of accusations
(public or private) as she might have. So, in a way, and after the
fact, she becomes his partner in the deed. She falls. According to
Marvin Rosenberg in his Masks of Hamlet, when Laertes arrives with his
followers she has often been interpreted on the stage as intercepting
Laertes. Perhaps she has a weapon. Here, for once, "the Text" does
offer some support for the Action, as Claudius more than once tells her
to let Laertes go. This little scene might be significant, as it seems
to show Gertrude ready to use violence to defend Claudius, and therefore
herself. Her progress toward evil has been definite if not
considerable. By now it might not seem so far-fetched that she might,
on her own initiative, eliminate Ophelia, who also represents a threat.
Her situation might be generally analogous to what we have in Macbeth,
as when Macbeth complains
"I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er."
Wait a minute, I didn't explain how Ophelia is a threat. In 4.5 Ophelia
has her Mad scene; she is mad, but I have the impression it is more
likely the demon-possession kind of madness rather than the chemical
imbalance kind. The strange remarks and snatches of songs look to me
like references to Gertrude, Old Hamlet, and Claudius, perhaps even to
the extent of quoting their previous dialogue. Somehow Ophelia knows
all about them (if she were demon possessed she would have the demon's
knowledge). If Ophelia goes on shooting her mouth off all over the
place, it might expose Claudius, who indeed seems worried: "How long has
she been thus?" Gertrude is present and might recognize the threat as
well as he. A threat to Claudius is a threat to herself. What's she
going to do? Nothing? Repent? Or continue on the course she has been
going? She's had a chance to repent and passed that one by.
Therefore, I suggest it was Gertrude who drowned Ophelia.
Yes, it is suggested that Ophelia committed suicide. Hamlet makes the
inference in the lines at 5.1.211-214 (of the Arden edition). This is
apparently confirmed by the Priest (5.1.219-227). On the other hand,
the first report of her death is from...Gertrude, who represents it as
an accident (4.7.171-182). So in between Act 4 and Act 5, they changed
their story. And Laertes seems surprised about it, as he might, since
he was present when Gertrude made the first report. That's interesting.
Also, Gertrude made no mention of any attempt at rescue, even though
the process of Ophelia's drowning was apparently not instantaneous.
There is all kinds of intrigue going on in this play, as everyone knows.
It was "given out" that Old Hamlet was done in by a serpent, whereas
in reality it was Claudius, all along (if the Ghost can be believed).
All right, it can be believed (in this one instance), as Claudius admits
it at 3.3.38.
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first approach Hamlet, it is done
under the guise of honest friendship.
Polonius engages in deception more than once, among them: by setting
Ophelia against Hamlet as a kind of secret agent, and also by sneaking
around and eavesdropping on the interview between Hamlet and Gertrude.
Gertrude has previously lied on at least one occasion. When questioned
by Claudius about Hamlet in 4.2, she mentions Hamlet is sorry about
having killed Polonius ("a weeps for what is done."). This is right
after she has heard Hamlet give his own account of his feelings:
"I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.
Mother, good night indeed. This counsellor
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave,
Who was in life a foolish prating knave." (3.4.214-216)
Then Claudius sends Hamlet to England with the intention of having him
killed, without telling Hamlet about it first: not exactly lying about
it, but still, a deception, a very palpable deception. Although there
is no mention of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowing this end of the
voyage, I believe they probably did know, otherwise Claudius would have
sent somebody else, somebody knowledgeable enough to see to it the plan
was actually carried out and not merely going along for the ride just
for the fun of it. When that plans fails, he concocts a new one, and
involves both Laertes and Osric (at least).
This is disregarding any deceptions possibly originating from the Ghost.
All these lies, deceptions, and giving outs, it reminds me of a line
from Deliverance ("Sheriff, them boys is lyin'"). So when the Priest
announces Ophelia committed suicide, what kind of warranty does he have
for it? For that matter, who or what is the Priest? I mean, is he a
man (a member of Homo sapiens), or is he a chimpanzee, an alien,
If Gertrude really did drown Ophelia, when she reports Ophelia's death
to Claudius and Laertes it could be a prefiguring of Lady Macbeth's
Sleepwalking scene. When she says, "Drown'd, drown'd." she might be
looking at her hands. Then in Macbeth there is the Party scene, ruined
for Lady Macbeth by Macbeth's vision of Banquo. In Hamlet, therefore,
we might imagine the fencing match to be preceded by something similar,
a (small) fete of some kind.
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