The Queen of Denmark
‘Gertrude. The Queen of Denmark. It is important to remember that. She’s not only a mother and a wife but a head of state’ (Jand, page 349).
I’m quoting myself here. This is what I wrote in my text ‘Who’s There?’ after reading Hamlet last time. I noted further that Gertrude is troubled by the paradox she must live as sexless widow and sexy wife. ‘She is well aware of the Christian view of women’s sexuality as evil and sinful contrasting with society’s bawdy acceptance of lust…Her ‘heart is cleft in twain’ as indeed is unavoidable in a society (like our own) that demands that a woman be sexy and sexless at the same time’ (Jand, page 350). As for Gertrude’s questions, ‘What shall I do?’ I write that ‘she is asking herself, what do I do now with this cruel mad hurtful son?’ (Jand, page 350).
Shakespeare’s characters, as we know, can be and are interpreted in many different ways but I think Gertrude is one of his most interesting characters most often and so badly acted.
We didn’t watch all of our Hamlet films this time and what we have is but a fraction of those that exist. While watching, though, I paid special attention to Gertrude.
What did I see? Film by film I saw this:
- First a Swedish version from 1984 with Stellan Skarsgård as Hamlet. The renowned (in Sweden) Mona Malm plays Gertrude and things start out badly when both she and her Claudius are aging jolly sexpots. Wrong! But she’s quite good in the bedroom scene as a haughty queen and then a puzzled unhappy mother. Let’s say 2 * of 5.
- Next Peter Brook’s version with Adrian Lester as Hamlet. Natasha Parry does Gertrude and oddly I didn’t like her performance at all when we watched it the first time, finding it dull and emotionless. This time I saw her as low-key, earnest and uneasy although too smiley with Claudius. In the bedroom scene she is puzzled, impatient, despairing over her son’s madness. It is that which has cleft her heart in twain, not guilt. 4 * of 5.
- In Laurence Olivier’s version Eileen Herlie is simply dreadful. For a start she’s younger than Olivier and her Gertrude is incestuous, seductive and cajoling from the beginning. In the bedroom scene she is weepy, shrill and pathetic. Her monolog about the drowning of Ophelia is flat and without emotion. 0* of 5.
- In the BBC production from 1980, with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Claire Bloom is a mixed Gertrude. She starts out admirably with an aloof, gracious and regal air and in the beginning of the bedroom scene she is angry but calm and firm. She is appropriately aghast at the murder of Polonius but then, after a moment of reawakened grief when confronted by the two portraits, Bloom loses control of her character and allows her to become weepy and clinging. When she whimpers, ‘What shall I do?’ she is appealing to her son, having given in to wild accusations and accepted the guilt he throws at her. She rallies and does a deeply moving ‘there is a willow’ monolog. Claire Bloom is a great actor and some of her Gertrude is finely done. 3* of 5.
- Ethan Hawke is the best sullen teen-aged Hamlet I’ve seen but Diane Venora is a disappointment in Almereyda’s film. She did the best Ophelia I’ve ever seen in the Kevin Kline production but as a chic and brassy Gertrude, well, it could have been all right if she hadn’t smiled so much, been so lovey-dovey with Claudius, so happy and clinging and flirtatious. She is not the regal queen she should be, she is a celebrity who glories in the glitzy spotlight. She is vampy and sexy. In the bedroom scene she weeps and kisses Hamlet and submits to his accusations and demands. She plays the role well. It’s just that it’s the wrong role for Gertrude. 2* of 5.
- It is no secret that I think Branagh’s is the best Hamlet film made yet but also one of the best films made…ever. Julie Christie is one of the reasons. From her solemn sad tremulous smiles in her first scene she is the perfect Gertrude. She speaks earnestly to Hamlet, dances frantically at the Wassail ball, receives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern graciously and performs her responsibilities as a ruling monarch with dignity. In the bedroom scene she starts by being just indignant enough. She is strong in her remorse and grief. She is never frightened by Hamlet but sorrowful and worried. Her heart is cleft in twain by his madness and the murder. Pitch perfect in this scene, she’s uneasy and distressed throughout the play. Exactly as a recently widowed monarch with heavy responsibilities, a new marriage and a mad son should be. 10 * of 10.
- Nothing can top Christie as Gertrude or Branagh’s film as a whole but Gregory Doran’s version with David Tennant comes close at times and Penny Downie has some very strong moments. Though too smiley and adoring at times she is also regal and concerned. In the bedroom before Hamlet arrives she is smoking and drinking whiskey and removing her sumptuous wig (this Hamlet is set in modern times). She’s too accepting of the guilt Hamlet dumps on her but she is also concerned and powerless before his madness. Her ‘What shall I do?’ is spoken to herself as it should be and her almost harsh and unexpected laugh is startling and very effective. With Ophelia she is haughty and repelled but also kind. Downie is not completely successful as Gertrude but she is very strong and her portrayal of a complex and at times inscrutable Gertrude is intriguing. 4 ½ * of 5.
Playing the role of Gertrude is no easy task. Rebecca Smith, in the anthology of essays in Hamlet, contemporary Critical Essays, has given her essay the title ‘The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude.’ A dilemma she is. Tina Parker in her Women of Will reminds us that old Hamlet has kept Gertrude on a pedestal while Claudius not only loves her but respects and needs her ability as a co-ruler.
Dilemma, complexity, authority in one woman. To do Gertrude justice all this and more must be done by any actor playing her. Shakespeare’s women have throughout the ages been mistreated by the societies in which gender roles have forced women into the Madonna-whore dichotomy. It’s high time that she be treated with respect. It gladdens me that some productions are now doing that.
- Jand, Ruby. Shakespeare Calling – the book. Vulkan. 2015.
- Packer, Tina. Women of Will. Alfred A. Knopf. 2015.
- Smith, Rebecca. ‘A Heart Cleft in Twain – The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude’ in Hamlet Case Studies. Palgrave Macmillan. 1992.
- William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.
See further in Shakespeare Calling – the book http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-Calling-book-Ruby-Jand/dp/9163782626?ie=UTF8&keywords=ruby%20jand&qid=1464585465&ref_=sr_1_3&s=books&sr=1-3