Imagine it, while away at college you receive word that your beloved father who had seemed in good health only a short while ago has died leaving your mother and yourself. This situation would be enough to bring great depression to even the strongest of souls but for Hamlet, the fictional prince of Denmark in Shakespeare's play of the same name, this is not his imagination but cruel reality. Not only has his father passed but, as if to mock the very memory of the former king, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother and queen, has married again within two months. This shock is further compounded by the fact the her new husband is none other than her former brother-in-law, Claudius.
Unable to return to the university due to his over whelming despair, Hamlet is trapped by his loving parents and not allowed to leave Denmark until certified well. It is at this time he receives word from his friend Horatio that the spirit of his father has returned and walks the night.
During the Elizabethan period of English literature, man and nature were thought to be linked as part of a 'great chain of being'. To Hamlet, the fact that his father had returned showed that this chain had been disrupted by some evil in the world of man. That he had returned as a ghost could mean only one thing, his death was not an accident. The ghost beseeches Hamlet to avenge him but warns him, 'taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught . . . leave her to heaven'.
This statement by the ghost was left open enough for Hamlet to develop many questions about his mother's actual involvement in his father's death. At first, Hamlet's rage is confined to his uncle Claudius but quickly and violently shifts towards his mother, dwelling upon the horrible thought that she might have been involved. 'Oh most pernicious women!' He screams, 'O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!' Hamlet speaks as though he has temporarily forgotten his promise to his father and has become insane with anger. The insanity through anger is a reoccurring motif throughout the play. After Hamlet has simmered down to the point where he is again lucid, he vows to his friend Horatio that he will take revenge upon Claudius, and he will do so by acting insane until the time is right.
It's clear by what the ghost has said that Claudius is guilty of murder, but what about Gertrude? She clearly disgusts Hamlet due to her hasty marriage. Throughout the play he makes satirical remarks and is generally cold towards her but does not make any direct accusations. This changes in act 3, scene ii after the performing of the 'mouse trap'. Hamlet uses the traveling performers to provoke a response from the king in order to confirm what the ghost has told him. After his suspicions are concerned his confidence is so bolstered that he rushes to accuse his mother of the murder.
Whether or not the queen had any prior knowledge of the murder is never made entirely clear by Shakespeare but he does make clear what it is that Hamlet believes. Now sure that his mission is just, he becomes violent in his accusations to the point that he kills Polonius. As he falls the ground the queen screams, 'O what a rash and bloody deed is this!' To this Hamlet's response is, 'A bloody deed - almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king, and marry with his brother.' This, Gertrude would have us believe, is the first she has known about the murder. ' As kill a king?' Gertrude acts confused and surprised by the accusation but goes on to say, 'O Hamlet, speak no more, Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul, and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct.' Is this statement a realization or an admission of guilt? Gertrude could simply have just seen through Claudius's deception. If indeed she did have a part in the murder, the fact that her son has discovered the plot could have sent her over the edge.
Working on the assumption that Gertrude is truly innocent of the murder, we are left with another unanswerable question, why then, did she choose to marry her former brother-in-law? If guilty, the answer is simple, greed and power. If she did not know about the murder, however, than perhaps Claudius and Gertrude were working independently but for virtually the same goal. Claudius killed for power while Gertrude may have had a much more subtle approach to gaining power, she married it. While at first thought Gertrude may not seem to be as devious as Claudius, marrying the king would be the perfect way to come to power in a society governed by an elected monarchy. The final option is that Gertrude truly is innocent of all knowledge of her husband's crime and is in fact a victim of circumstance. Based upon the literal interpretations this would seem to be the most plausible.
Which interpretation Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote Hamlet we will probably never know, but it is the open ended questions in his works that make them great. Whether or not Gertrude was guilty of a crime the fact that such a thing could be asked served to give not only Gertrude depth as a character but also any character whom came in contact with her in the text. Truly this was the reason behind the ambiguous language of the play, in order to make it eternal and open to individual interpretation.