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T.S. Eliot in his famous essay points out that the character of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play Tragedy of Hamlet, should not be solely linked to the “guilt of the mother” unlike Coriolanus, whose characteristic pride was acquired from his mother (Eliot 98). Eliot categorically refutes the idea of Hamlet’s character being solely shaped by Gertrude’s guilt. Eliot is correct when he says that Hamlet’s character cannot simply be expressed through his mother’s guilt. However, I believe, the maternal influence creates various complexities in his character that cannot be explained solely by the guilt theory. The inclusion of the maternal figure in Hamlet breaks the fragile compact that otherwise allows Shakespeare to explore familial and sexual relationships. Hamlet assumes the role of both the father and the son and the need to detect his identity about his idea of the father becomes problematic in the presence of his mother. Further, the presence of the mother figure and the sexual power she has over her son creates a clash in Hamlet’s character.
Therefore, Shakespeare gives Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, the power to contaminate her son’s heart with hatred such that her presence creates a dramatic conflict in Hamlet’s character. Similarly, the character of Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s play of the same name is also influenced by the presence of the maternal figure. Here, I must disagree with Eliot in his assertion that Coriolanus was the product of his pride. Though pride was the reason for his demise when his life is put under the microscope it becomes apparent that his pride was the mirror image of that of his mother, Volumnia. Her indulgence of her son’s pride and rage, even as a child, had shaped the man he had become. I believe that in both the Shakespearean tragedies, the maternal figure plays a strong role in the mold of the characters of their sons. In Hamlet, Gertrude’s hasty marriage to Claudius and in Coriolanus, Volumnia’s encouragement of her son’s ego resulted in the decisive tragedy in both the plays.
The paper will enumerate the relationship between the mother and son in Hamlet and Coriolanus. The objective of the paper will be to understand the relation between Hamlet and Gertrude, and that between Coriolanus and Volumnia. The mother-son relation has a strong influence on the characters and the outcome of the son’s fate. Further, the mothers in the two plays are flawed in their role as a traditional mother and wife that creates an identity crisis in their sons. Promptly discarding her widowhood, Gertrude fails to become the mother who remains the source of the “father’s ideal image” (Adelman 13). She does not mourn him; instead, she marries her dead husband’s brother. Thus, Hamlet fails to assume the masculine identity through the image of his dead father by killing the false father (Claudius), as he remains incapable to distinguish between his father and brother because his mother fails to distinguish properly between her two husbands. Gertrude’s inability to differentiate creates a considerable strain on Hamlet. Her loss of memory creates the necessity in Hamlet to rely on his memory to reconstruct his dead father and assuming the burden of differentiating and affixing the past in the present. He, therefore, takes a vow to avenge his father’s death as a tribute to this static memory. Thus, Gertrude’s failure results in Hamlet’s madness.
Coriolanus, unlike Hamlet, is the creation of the omnipresent mother and her affection. For Coriolanus, Volumnia becomes a source of extreme masculinity as her overbearing personality forces him to become blatantly ferocious, to guard his helplessness in her presence. Coriolanus becomes the product of his mother’s will and therefore, in search of his male identity, he assumes the excessively aggressive masculine demeanor. Thus, Coriolanus’s ego and masculinity are a means of escape from the over-exerting maternal presence that cannibalizes his mind, actions, and identity. The other difference in the framing of the mothers, in these two plays, is that in Coriolanus the mother figure is androgynous.
In this paper, I propose the thesis that in both Hamlet and Coriolanus, Shakespeare uses the threat of maternal power to create the crisis of manhood in the persona of Hamlet and Coriolanus that arises as a result of the absent father.
Hamlet’s Instability and his Mother
Ernest Jones believes that to understand the personality of Hamlet, it is necessary to use the Freudian theory that opens a window into the “unconscious” part of his mind that had remained buried since his infancy, signifying the mental conflict still operational in his adulthood (Jones 140). Lacan, Miller, and Hulbert study Hamlet’s character in the presence of the Mother as the Other, and the identity crisis that asserts itself in hamlet’s character is due to the desire of the mother confronted by the idealized and exalted dead father-figure and on the degraded uncle as the despicable father (12). Thus, a psychological analysis of Hamlet shows a definite affinity of Hamlet towards his mother that he had experienced even as a child.
Gertrude is an affectionate mother and so she has been since Hamlet’s childhood. However, when he has to share that affection with his treacherous uncle, something he had found hard to share even with his father, fails to endure it and his subliminal jealousy grips his persona, driving him to insanity. Memory plays a vital role in the resurrection of these repressed feelings after the death of his father and his mother’s hasty marriage to his uncle. In the whole process, he blames his mother for being disrespectful of not only of his father’s memories but that of his affection towards his mother. Thus, the feeling of affection towards his mother and his desire for her that was repressed in childhood emerged after his mother’s second marriage. But now, it was no longer a source of love but that of hatred and repulsion. Thus, his long-repressed desire to take his father’s place and become the unchallenged recipient of his mother’s affection pushes him to hate the one person whose affection he has craved since childhood. Thus, when his father’s Ghost declares that he was murdered, Hamlet’s stability is disturbed.
The awareness of his mother’s marriage to the murderer of his father becomes another source of instability in Hamlet’s character. However, it must be born in mind that Hamlet’s instability does not arise out of his desire for his mother, as Freudian analysis would suggest. Instead, it is due to his mother’s desire that becomes the cause of Hamlet’s instability. After his father’s death Hamlet is thrown into melancholia and in his despair seeks his mother’s affection. When in depression, the general tendency of a man is to identify himself with the object of his affection, and when this object fails to stand up to his esteem, it creates a crisis in his identity. Thus, Hamlet feels dejected and betrayed upon hearing his mother’s decision to marry his uncle and his frustration finds a voice in acrimonious irony:
“Must I remember? why she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month,
Let me not think on ’t: Frailty, thy name is a woman!” (Hamlet 1.2.143-146)
His mother’s presence is absolute in all that he speaks. His mother is omnipresent in Hamlet’s fantasies about Gertrude with Claudius or in his memory of her love for his dead father. Gertrude’s “overhasty marriage” (Hamlet 2.2.57) to his uncle is the primary source of Hamlet’s anger towards his mother. While describing his ardent feelings on the death of his father, Hamlet ends up describing his disgust of his mother’s second marriage. He loathes the hastiness of her decision to remarry and calls her relation to Claudius incestuous:
… within a month,
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Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (Hamlet 1.2.153-157)
Hamlet’s aversion towards his mother’s second marriage is made abundantly clear in the excerpt from his soliloquy. The passage indicates that Hamlet is more distressed with his mother’s marriage than his father’s murder. Hamlet feels that he has lost the affection of his mother just when he had acquired sole access to it. Further, his second marriage brings forth the question of his mother’s sexuality that leads to an intense sexual revulsion that has been expressed with the usage of the phrase “incestuous sheet”. The anger and jealously he feels towards his mother at the sight of her giving herself to another man whom he is not obliged to love or respect. This creates Hamlet’s distrust and extreme resentment against women that is abundantly shown towards Ophelia.
Hamlet reproaches Ophelia’s puritanical hypocrisy that makes her follow all her father’s wishes. He hates her affiliation with another man. Consequently, Ophelia too falls from his good opinion, just the way his love for his mother is poisoned. Hamlet is suspicious of Ophelia and convinces himself that she has been sent to deceive him by another man. So when he admonishes Ophelia, he is expressing his bitterness towards his mother. Thus, Hamlet’s mother’s second marriage creates a dichotomy of the maternal image he had painted in his infantile mind. The child sees his mother as the virginal Madonna, solemnly pure and beyond carnal allure. However, when his mother marries another man that image is shattered marking the birth of his stifled sensual awakening. Hamlet is thus, a product of his repressed feelings towards his mother, a misogynist who resents both the pure and the sensual image of women. His relation with his mother is the key reason behind the insecurity and madness of Hamlet’s character.
Coriolanus and his Mother
Coriolanus’s character is shaped by his subliminal desire to ward off the dominating maternal presence to hide his weaknesses (Adelman 130). Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, is a Roman aristocrat. By her birth and status, she shows a highborn attitude in the nurturing of her son. She has a large ego like her son, but she does not have her son’s temper. Volumnia is the androgynous parent with the pride and egotism of an aristocratic man. She is infected with the thoughtless militarism of her class and her son falls prey to this arrogance. She loves to see her son’s wounds that reflect her son’s bravery and might. She has no care for the wounds of his men, who have fought valiantly to earn fame for her son. She is proud of her son’s victories and boasts of them by describing the woes he causes with terrible phrases describing the terror. Thus, Volumnia, unlike Gertrude, dedicates her attention solely to her son but she shows no love or affection towards him.
The relationship between Coriolanus and his mother is very close. They stand together on an isolated island, an alcove of their own, away from all other. Their relationship underlines the character traits of Coriolanus. Shakespeare glorifies the love of mother and son by creating a conceited woman and an excessively aggressive warrior. Coriolanus is brought up in the cocoon of his mother’s care. It is not until he is away from her does he realize that he is lost. The persona of the mother resides within her son. She was the one who had created him. She had given birth to him and that has been Coriolanus’s identity for a long time. He is the mother in a man’s body. He fights the battles that she would have fought had she been a man. He imbibes her mother’s arrogance, conceit, and pride. She has been his educator and has taught him to:
To call them woolen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats, to show bare heads
In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder,
When one but of my ordinance stood up
To speak of peace or war. (Coriolanus 3.2.10-14)
Coriolanus has been brought up to love fame, which has been his inspiration since infancy. His pride is his mother’s creation. When Coriolanus returns from battle, wounded, his mother cries, “O! he is wounded; I thank the gods for ’t” (Coriolanus 2.1.99). Volumnia basks in the glory of her son. Her son’s honors are hers; the misfortune that falls on her son, in the end, is essentially hers.
Coriolanus has a tempestuous temper. His mother nurtured this since childhood. However, in the end, when facing the mob in Rome, Volumnia pleads her son to bend the truth to flatter the mob, their connection snaps. Further, when his consulship depends on the restrictions of his temper, she advises him to do so. Volumnia’s manipulative nature had learned self-restraint but her son remained unaltered. But when the tribune had given their verdict and left, she forgets restraint and becomes the feminine image of her son. She cries, “Anger is my meat; I sup upon myself” (Coriolanus 4.2.52).
Unmodified and unrestrained by femininity, her anger knows no bound. This is the temper that her son inherits from her and this becomes the cause of his ruin. Coriolanus is exiled from Rome for being a traitor to his country.
Mothers – the Bearer of Tragedy
Both Gertrude and Volumnia played a strong role in shaping the character of their sons. However, their influence has been distinctly different. Gertrude can never be considered as a heartless woman. Her only folly must be her love of herself and comfortable life. These are follies, but not crimes. Gertrude is not ferocious or ruthless like Lady Macbeth or King Lear’s mother. She has not committed a crime for Shakespeare makes it abundantly clear that she was not Claudius’s ally in committing regicide. She loved and cared for her son and truly wanted him to marry Ophelia and be happy. But the vainness of her character, her frivolity, and her self-centeredness created a chasm in Hamlet’s heart. Above all, her crime was her second marriage to her dead husband’s brother. Hamlet’s frustration, disgust, and anger are all directed towards his mother.
Though Gertrude has very little stage presence, her persona remains omnipresent. She encompasses her son’s mind and soul, who fails to differentiate between her and any other woman. To Hamlet, all women become an image of Gertrude, self-centered, and conceited. In his hatred against women, which has stemmed from his hatred of his mother, he is suspicious of Ophelia and fails to see her true love. Hamlet’s hatred for his mother was so acute that he forced himself to consciously overlook the fact (which I believe he was aware of) that his mother was innocent. Hamlet’s character is shown in mourning from the very beginning of the play. However, his mourning is not one that is composed of grief. He is angry with his mother. He does not pray but questions the meaning of human existence. He is lost in the world, devoid of any parent to lean on. He feels like an orphan after his father’s death, even when his mother is alive. In his search for himself, he tries to hold onto the one thing that is closest to him – his mother. But when she marries another man, she ceases to be his mother, and all his anger falls on her for deserting him.
On the other hand, Volumnia is a strong-willed mother who valued pride and love of her motherland even above the love of her son. She is ruthless and demanding. She wanted her son to become a brave warrior and serve his country. Her son did. However, in the process of becoming a great warrior, he becomes even more ruthless than his mother. He turns out to be the epitome of male ferociousness. She was not cruel but strong-willed and arrogant. Coriolanus inherited her pride and gentry. Her education of bravery and vanity made him the man he turned out to be. Coriolanus had a terrible rage and colossal masculine ego. His mother nurtured this since he was a boy. Coriolanus’s exile and his coalition with Aufidius finally marked the road to his death. When Coriolanus sought vengeance against Rome, Volumnia dissuades her son to attack the Romans. When Coriolanus accedes to his mother, he is killed for his betrayal towards Aufidius. So, did he die because he listened to his mother?
The tragedy of Hamlet and Coriolanus are results of their maternal love and neglect. Hamlet, imprisoned in his yearning of maternal love, and Coriolanus in his desire to live up to his mother’s expectations and pride, become the men they were. The catastrophe of both the results of the play in the tragic end of the heroes who pursued maternal affection.
Adelman, Janet. Sufforcating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays. Routledge, 2012.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “Hamlet and his problems.” Eliot, TS. The sacred wood: Essays on poetry and criticism. Fb&C Ltd., 1920, pp. 95-103.
Jones, Ernest. “Hamlet and Oedipus.” Berman, Emanuel. Essential Papers on Literature and Psychoanalysis. NYU Press, 1993, pp. 139-149.
Lacan, Jacques, Jacques-Alain Miller and James Hulbert. “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet.” Yale French Studies, vol. 55/56, 1977, pp. 11-52.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Coriolanus. Penguin Books, 1999.