Friday, November 2, 2012

An Atypical Mother/Son Relationship

I wanted to approach this blog post differently.  Usually, I consider the characterization of female characters, and question Shakespeare’s attitude toward a patriarchal society.  However, Professor Mulready’s post inspired me to analyze the text from a different angle this time.  As I read through the first three acts of Hamlet, I found the relationship between Hamlet and his mother extremely interesting.  I decided that the connection between son and mother that is illustrated in this play is atypical, and there is something especially strange regarding Hamlet’s behavior toward his mother.  Did Shakespeare’s audience feel the same way?  In other words, was it normal for a son to display such outrage and contempt toward his own mother in Shakespeare’s society?  I am inclined to believe that it would have been even more disrespectful for a child to mistreat his or her parent during Shakespeare’s time versus our modern society.  Therefore, I think his audience would have been shocked to witness Hamlet’s harsh, angry behavior toward his mother, Gertrude.  With that said, he certainly has a few reasons to be furious with her!

First of all, the fact that Gertrude marries her brother-in-law, Claudius, is certainly disturbing.  Based on how repulsed Hamlet is by this marriage, I presume that this was not a typical nuptial act in Shakespeare’s society.  As Hamlet comments about the wedding, “She married.  O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!  It is not, nor it cannot come to good” (1.2.156-158).  Thus, Hamlet feels as though his mother remarried much too quickly after her husband’s death (within two months).  He views her hastiness as a sign of disrespect toward his deceased father.  According to Hamlet, “a beast that wants discourse of reason would have mourned longer!” (1.2.150-151). Due to Gertrude’s hasty wedding to Claudius, Hamlet expresses feelings of disgust concerning his mother.  Additionally, it is important to note Hamlet’s use of the word “incestuous,” which hints that he views the union as unnatural and nauseating. 
Hamlet actually confronts his mother about how unhappy he is with her in Act III.  When he enters her chamber, he immediately displays the reason for his discontent, “Mother, you have my father much offended” (3.4.10).  He further orders, “Come, come, and sit you down.  You shall not budge.  You go not till I set you up a glass” (3.4.18-19).  Hamlet does not hold back his frustration toward Gertrude, and wants her to face the profundity of her sin.  In fact, he is so vicious that she fears for her life.  Gertrude asks Hamlet, “What wilt thou do?  Thou wilt not murder me?  Help, help, ho!” (3.4.21-22). Therefore, she is so alarmed by Hamlet’s uncharacteristic rage that she thinks her life is in danger.  I cannot help but wonder whether the majority of Shakespeare’s original audience sympathized with Hamlet or Gertrude in this particular scene.  It is certainly a tricky question to answer, especially considering the circumstances of the situation.  Which was worse, or more sinful, during Shakespeare’s time….an incestuous marriage, or a disrespectful child?  I have to say, as a contemporary reader, that I take Hamlet’s side.  I think Gertrude should be ashamed of her actions, and she deserves Hamlet’s confrontation!            


Cyrus Mulready said...

I really appreciate your careful consideration of the dynamics between Gertrude and Hamlet, Krystal, and think that it is important, as you show, that we consider the lack of decorum in his treatment of his mother. This is a violation of propo social behavior that I think characterizes the world of this play, and it is interesting to think of other examples (see for instance how Hamlet treats Polonius's body after he kills him). We might even say that some of the tragedy of the play comes from these social breakdowns--wouldn't you agree?

Krystal Haight said...

I definitely agree! I think that many of the play's tragic aspects come from these social breakdowns. As you mention, the way that Hamlet treats Polinius's body after he kills him significantly contributes to the tragedy. Poor, innocent Polinius gets dragged around like a piece of garbage! To make matters worse, he does not even get a proper funeral.