The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0624 Sunday, 27 December 2009
Date: Friday, 18 Dec 2009 12:57:04 EST
Subject: Good Marriages in Shakespeare
The Macbeths are often described as having the best marriage in the
plays. Has anyone ever nominated Claudius and Gertrude as runners-up?
It always surprises me how much academic commentary about the latter
couple takes Hamlet's view of them, as if he were an objective witness!
(Would Gertrude have described her first marriage in the idyllic terms
her son does? I doubt it.)
Directors take Hamlet's view surprisingly often, too. The Jude Law
production gives us a Gertrude who turns a cold shoulder to Claudius
after the closet scene, indeed shrinks away from his touch. But there's
nothing in the play to justify that -- nothing to suggest that she has
accepted Hamlet's view of her marriage. (Naturally, he has cleft her
heart in twain by saying what he does; he hates her husband, he doesn't
understand her situation, he's so harsh and unforgiving... Isn't there
some relief in her 'alas, he's mad' after Hamlet sees the Ghost in her
Claudius certainly makes it clear how much he loves her, in scenes with
her and with Laertes, as well as in soliloquy. He killed his brother to
get her as well as to get the crown; and no matter how he's provoked,
he's unfailingly polite to her son out of consideration for her
feelings. As for Gertrude, would she have agreed to what she knew was an
'o'er hasty marriage' if she weren't also in love with him?
One of the many brilliant touches in the closet scene is Hamlet's
outraged cry that 'at your age, the blood is tame, and waits upon the
judgment.' This is exactly what children think about their parents,
just what a son would say to a mother -- but is there anyone in the
audience over the age of forty who hasn't smiled at its naivete?
Hamlet can only explain Gertrude's behavior as frailty bordering on
idiocy. Granted, she's not a very bright or strong woman. Still, to
anyone more rational on this subject than Hamlet, passionate love is the
The only couple I recall playing this are Julie Christie and Derek
Jacobi in the Branagh film. Their Claudius and Gertrude were clearly in
love. They didn't hit you in the eye with it -- nothing like the vulgar
couple in the Nicole Williamson production, who were necking in public,
having (foolishly, in my opinion) been directed to carry out Hamlet's
fantasies. Their subtle performances nevertheless let us see the gap
between Hamlet's perception of their relationship, and their own. Surely
that's more interesting, and more what the playwright intended.
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