The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0624  Sunday, 27 December 2009

From:       Lynn Brenner <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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 
obvious explanation.

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.

Lynn Brenner

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