The queens in Hamlet and Macbeth play a pivotal role in the life of the heroes of the play. Gertrude in Hamlet and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth are both queens who played a pivotal role in making their husbands the king. Lady Macbeth with her shrewdness and cunning advices Macbeth to kill Duncan, so that he could become the king while Gertrude married Claudius to make him the king. Both of them are married to dishonorable men who want to usurp the throne by deceit.
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Her ambition and ascendancy drives Macbeth to commit heinous crimes and turns him into a monster. This resulted in the demise of their relationship and eventually Lady Macbeth’s death. Gertrude, static and passive, is torn between the love of her son and her second husband. However, when she realizes the monstrous nature of Claudius, she resigns to passivity, with little will or ability to make amends. Gertrude acts as a passive aid to Claudius’s agenda to become the king, while Lady Macbeth is the plotting mind behind the murderous Macbeth.
Their similarity ends as far as their role as queen and kingmaker goes, but their inherent natures are so starkly different that they come out to become two different people altogether. I believe their difference lies in their temperament and personality. In Hamlet, Gertrude is weak, passive, and static while in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is independent, strong, and proactive.
Lady Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s most villainous female characters, is assertive, independent, and intelligent. The masculine traits of the female character in Macbeth are evident. In the first act, we witness Lady Macbeth’s assertive nature opposed to her husband’s gentle character. When she is informed of the witches’ prophecy she immediately expresses her fear that her husband may not be able to seize the opportunity as he was too weak to finish what he’s supposed to do: “Yet I do fear thy nature. It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness” (1.5.16-17).
Evidently, Lady Macbeth compares her husband to a woman and believes that despite his valor in battlefield, he will not be able to murder Duncan. By associating him with the feminine task of nurturing, Lady Macbeth projects herself as the masculine ‘other’. The realization of her husband’s inefficiencies makes her assume the role of the ‘man’ in the relationship. This unsexing of Lady Macbeth’s character becomes evident with expressions like “take my milk for gall” that shows a classic suppression of her femininity and motherhood (1.5.51-52).
Nowhere in the play do we see Macbeth as a feminine or weak character, but Lady Macbeth believes that her husband’s scruples would prevent him from achieving his ambitions of becoming a king. Therefore, she uses her emotional domination over her husband to persuade him to murder Duncan in order to become the king. Once she comes to know of the witches’ prophecy, she immediately feels that it will come true “I feel now / the future in the instant” (1.5.57-58).
She is convinced that Duncan will not be able to leave their castle alive she says, “O! never / Shall sin that morrow see!” (1.5.60-61). Her politically agile mind comes alive as she instructs the novice in the Machiavellian game: “To beguile the time, / Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue: look like th’ innocent flower, / But be the serpent under’t” (1.5.63-66). Lady Macbeth is confident and shrewd. She is skillful in hiding her true emotions behind her feminine innocence (Sadowski 286). The strength of her character becomes more evident when the reader finds Macbeth incapable of taking a decision on his own and relying on his wife’s judgment.
She derides Macbeth when he tries to dissuade her to pursue their plan: “Art thou afread / To be the same in thine own act and valor, / As though act in desire?” (1.7.39-41) Her determination to get the throne becomes apparent when she takes control of the situation realizing her husband’s effeminate nature. She is the planner, while her husband becomes the executor: “Leave all the rest to me” (1.5.73). She leaves her feminine side aside due to her resolve to throne her husband as the king. Macbeth is just the enactor of the actions designed by his wife and no more.
Gertrude, on the other hand, is the static queen. As Sadwoski points out, “she has no hidden agenda” (141). While others like Loberg believe that, she was the passive aggressor (60). Being weak and passive, she silently goes along the decisions of Claudius or Polonius. She is portrayed as a mother who, in her awareness of Hamlet’s crisis, feels guilty and is reluctant to confront the unpleasant situation in front of her.
Thus, she resorts to forget the problems as she refuses to emotionally cope with the awkward memory of her disloyalty towards her husband. In the beginning of the court scene Gertrude resounds the king’s sermon about normalcy of natural death, but aware of her own son’s stubbornness not to accept his father’s death due to natural causes, feels genuine concern (Sadowski 141). She was quick to remarry after her first husband’s death, thus disconnecting her past and her present. Claudius seduced her before her first husband died, which indicates her static passivity in front of her more dynamic male protagonists.
Apparently, Gertrude is ignorant that her present husband is a murderer and the only “thorns” on her conscience is her infidelity (1.5.87-88). She shows her concern for Hamlet’s emotional instability, accusing herself for his unhinged state: “it is no other but the main, / His father’s death and out o’er-hasty marriage” (2.2.56-57). Gertrude is unaware of the regicide committed by Claudius, which become apparent in the scenes when they are alone, unlike Lady Macbeth.
The unsuspecting Gertrude is not inclined to know the truth and the king in his love for his wife, protects her from the ugly truth. The scene that plays the theatre of a king’s death at the hands of the queen’s lover, Gertrude remains calm and composed, while Claudius was ready to flee. When Hamlet asked her how she liked the play, she replies, “The lady protests too much, methinks” (3.2.210). Her guiltlessness is apparent, as she did not want to flee Hamlet’s peering eyes like Claudius.
In the closet scene, Gertrude’s ignorance becomes apparent when she is genuinely shocked when Hamlet tells her that his brother and her present husband murdered his father. Hamlet accuses his mother of adultery and derides her for her incestuous relation. Hamlet must have believed that Gertrude, who ruined his chances to the throne, was party to his father’s mother (Wallenfels 95). She, blinded in love, wanted to be at her lover’s side, and plotted the king’s death with him. This realization may have enraged Hamlet even more. However, her shock when confronted about his father’s murder, her son brands her an adulteress and a whore.
Some scholars like Ferguson believe that Gertrude and Lady Macbeth are both alike in their character as they both set out flouting the feminine discourse of the Elizabethan era but in the end compromising with it and falling into their feminine role (Ferguson 70).
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However, I believe that both the characters, though apparently similar, are actually different. Gertrude is innocent of regicide. The only guilt she feels is in her disloyalty towards her son. She was the widowed queen after the king’s death and her son was the rightful heir to the throne. However, she married Claudius almost immediately, ruining her son’s claim to the throne. This shows her as a scheming character with little regard for her own son’s future. She appears to be self-centered. However, as the play progresses, she is nothing more than an adornment to Claudius.
Gertrude seems to be the adulterer who unwittingly was the cause of her husband’s death. However, one cannot discount her loving and caring nature when which makes her different from Lady Macbeth who is cold and calculating. Gertrude had both Hamlet and Claudius at her mercy. She could have made either of them king. It was her decision to marry Claudius that made him king and took away Hamlet’s throne. She appears to be the one who is in need of a male partner to support her and that may explain her quick remarriage to Claudius. She, in the end, embraces death under the pressure of an overemotional son who refuses to forgive her for her sins.
Lady Macbeth and Gertrude are different from one another in many ways, but most prominent difference apparent to the readers is their inherent difference in nature. The former is violently independent, shrewd, and ambitious when it comes to gaining power and control. She plays the part of the planner of Duncan’s murder in the hands of her husband, while Gertrude is an ignorant bystander who is seduced by the wrong man and becomes the adulteress queen mother to her son.
Gertrude’s actions are directed to please Claudius while Lady Macbeth’s mind is independent of her husband’s thoughts. Gertrude is overcome with guilt at the thought that she was the cause of her son’s mental state, but Lady Macbeth is the one who pushed Macbeth to become the monster he ultimately turns out to be. Lady Macbeth is the man in the relation, breaking the feminine discourse of frailty, passivity, compassion, and love. She denounces all her feminine aspects to pursue her desire for power through her effeminate husband, who she motivates to become the unforgiving rebel. However, Gertrude is the guilty mother, followed by the remorse of her sin of an adulterer and a failed mother.
Gertrude is a widowed queen, who remarries quickly to become the wife of another king. She is the shadow that follows one partner to the other, in search of male protection and support, while Lady Macbeth is the one who steers the career of her husband. She is the decision maker and the one who show traits that are more masculine than feminine. Even though much appears similar between the character of Lady Macbeth in Macbeth and Gertrude in Hamlet, but both are intrinsically different as the former is strong, resolute, and shrewd while the latter is weak, passive, and docile.
Lady Macbeth is the conniving wife who pushes her husband to murder a man to become the king but Gertrude is the culpable and weak queen who marries her lover in order to remain at his side. The former shows her distinct penchant for power while the latter acts on behest of love. Even though apparently similar, Gertrude and Lady Macbeth’s characters are far apart as the former is not devoid of compassion and love which are traits almost absent in the latter’s character.
Ferguson, Lisa. “Lady Macbeth and Gertrude: A Study in Gender.” 2002. Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Web.
Loberg, Harmonie. “Queen Gertrude: Monarch, Mother, Murderer.” Atenea 24 (2004): 59-71. Print.
Sadowski, Piotr. Dynamism of Character in Shakespeare’s Mature Tragedies. Danvers, MA: University of Delaware Press, 2003. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. London: N. Trubner and Co., 1869. Print.
—. Macbeth. London: D.A. Theime, 1867. Print.
Wallenfels, Immy. “Gertrude as a Character of Intersection in Hamlet.” Journal of the Wooden O Symposium 6 (2006): 90-99. Print.