Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The problem with Gertrude

A few notes on the online Hamlet course I'm taking…

The Argumentative Old Git had a good post on the three different versions of Hamlet. We took a closer look at the First Quarto (Q1) and despite all its deficiencies the order of its scenes resolve some issues raised in the Second Quarto and First Folio. But I wanted to focus on a scene in Q1 that isn't in the other two versions. Horatio informs the Queen that Hamlet has returned safe from his English voyage. A copy of Q1 is available online, although this excerpt updates the spelling:
Enter Horatio and the Queen.

Madam, your son is safe arrived in Denmark.
This letter I even now received of him,
Whereas he writes how he escaped the danger
And subtle treason that the King had plotted.
Being crossed by the contention of the winds,
He found the packet sent to the King of England,
Wherein he saw himself betrayed to death,
As, at his next convers’ion with your grace,
He will relate the circumstance at full.

Then I perceive there’s treason in his looks
That seemed to sugar o’er his villany.
But I will soothe and please him for a time,
For murderous minds are always jealous.
But know not you, Horatio, where he is?

Yes, madam, and he hath appointed me
To meet him on the east side of the city
Tomorrow morning.

Oh, fail not, good Horatio, and withal commend me
A mother’s care to him. Bid him awhile
Be wary of his presence, lest that he
Fail in that he goes about.

Madam, never make doubt of that.
I think by this the news be come to court:
He is arrived. Observe the King, and you shall
Quickly find, Hamlet being here,
Things fell not to his mind.

But what become of Gilderstone and Rossencraft?

He being set ashore, they went for England,
And in the packet there writ down that doom
To be performed on them ‘pointed for him.
And by great chance he had his father’s seal,
So all was done without discovery.

Thanks be to heaven for blessing of the Prince!
Horatio, once again I take my leave,
With thousand mother’s blessings to my son.

Madam, adieu. [Exeunt.]

A question we had to address—if we were staging Hamlet would we include this scene? Many students wanted to include it because they believed it adds to Gertrude's characterization, demonstrating mettle in dealing with Claudius and showing concern for her son. I'm not convinced it paints her completely in a positive light, especially where she thanks heaven when hearing of G & R's death sentence.

So would you include it?
To me it depends on how you plan on portraying Gertrude. Is she weak-willed, easily pushed around, overwhelmed by the death of her husband and the seeming madness of her son? Or is she a strong character, doing what she wants regardless of what others think (and maybe having an affair with her brother-in-law)? Or somewhere in between. I prefer a strong Gertrude who's focusing mostly on herself (even if the text doesn't always support that reading) and the scene doesn't really fit for me if you go in that direction. But then that's my preference.
What's yours?


scott g.f.bailey said...

I don't think you could have both this scene and the later scene with Hamlet confronting Gertrude in her bedroom. The two queens are not the same person. Though I like that this shows how much Horatio is in the direct employ of the royal couple and that Hamlet's claims that Horatio is his best pal are based purely on Hamlet's wishes and not on reality. Horatio always keeps his distance--emotionally--from Hamlet despite Hamlet's insistence that they're good friends. Anyway, I'd leave this out if I were mounting a production.

Though maybe not. I might cut something later instead...

Dwight said...

On each reading/viewing I like Horatio more and more.

Are you talking about the closet scene (bedroom is too Freudian *lol*) between Gertrude and Hamlet. That is earlier since he has to remind her he's going to England. Timing-wise this would replace IV, 6 where Horatio reads Hamlet's letter.

It's not the same queen between the two scenes, is it? Although I can see where Gertrude would be a little rattled in the closet scene. In front of her Hamlet kills Polonius, excoriates her, and then talks to the ghost. That's enough to rattle anyone. You could still pull off 'forgetting' he's going to England if she is played haughty and self-centered, though.

scott g.f.bailey said...

That's right: he's sent to England because he kills Polonius, who has powerful enemies at court, and while the king can't try Hamlet for murder, he has to punish him somehow. Though he goes on to write the "Dear England, please chop off this boy's head" letter behind Gertrude's back.

My understanding is that "closet" means "bedroom" in Elizabethan English.

Rereading this exchange between Horation and Gertrude, it's not clear just where the queen's loyalties are; they seem to shift from moment to moment. Which I like, actually. She'd be torn between her husband and her son (who might be insane, after all). Maybe I would include this scene, and edit down Hamlet's later explanation to Horatio of his escape.

Horatio is a curious character in the play. He obeys every order given him, but he never declares any particular loyalty except at the end, when Hamlet's dying.

Dwight said...

There have been some big differences between how Horatio reads on the page and how he appears on stage. I'm think I'm currently influenced by the 2009 film version with David Tennant as Hamlet…I'll have to see who plays Horatio but he was really good.

I could be wrong, but my understanding on "closet" was that it was (usually) an attached room to the bedroom…more like a small room for sewing, reading, illicit encounters, etc.

The 1948 film version with John Gielgud was supposedly the first version (film, at least) with a bed in the closet scene, but then he played up the Freudian angle to the hilt (thanks to Ernest Jones).

The Q1 scene is tantalizing if you're going to portray Gertrude certain ways. I'll have to revisit my notes on why some of the Q1 chronology makes more sense than the Q2 or Folio versions and will be happy to post on it if you're interested.

Dwight said...

The last paragraph should say "Q1 scene order is tantalizing."

scott g.f.bailey said...

C.T. Onions tells me that "closet" means a private working room, an office. Apparently I misread a footnote in sixth grade and have misunderstood that scene for decades. Huh. Funny.

I've never read the "bad quarto" so I need to have a look at it. I had no idea the text was so different from the First Folio. I'm intrigued now.

Horatio is usually played flat, forgettable, an extra. He's really an interesting character if he's given a bit of room to breathe.

I'd like to see your notes on the different scene orders, yes. Please.

Dwight said...

Scott, it turns out all my notes on the Q1 (differences in order, difference in # of years Yorick's skull has been in the ground, etc.) aren't supported by my copy of Q1. I'm going to have to look into things further (later) and if I find any major differences I'll post about it.

I'm surprised the claims aren't supported, but it easily could be I'm misreading things.

scott g.f.bailey said...

My difficulty with "Hamlet" is that I've written so many variations of it, and toyed around with ideas from versions of the story that predate Shakespeare, that I no longer can be sure which version I'm thinking of when people talk about the play. "The version where Hamlet is the young son of an industrialist in upstate New York in 1860? Where he plays with lead soldiers--a gift from his uncle--in the attic of the house? That's not the one Shakespeare wrote? Really?"