"Hamlet" (1990): The Tragedy of Queen Gertrude and Ophelia

Updated on June 13, 2019
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

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Hamlet is a 1990 drama film based on Shakepeare's play of the same name. It was actually a co-production between the U.S., the U.K., and France, which is probably what served to give the film its authentic feel—unlike Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which looks like it's taking place in L.A. Just my opinion.

Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet is probably my favorite film adaption of Shakespeare's playeven more than The Lion King! I loved it because it features an all-star cast of very talented actors and actresses, such as Helena Bonham Carter, Glenn Close, and Mel Gibson.

Anyone who read my Disney articles knows that I'm not a big fan of Mel Gibson, but I do think he's a good actor. Separating the art from the artist and all that.

But all that aside, let's get down to it, shall we?

Let's analyze the tragedy of Queen Gertrude and Ophelia.

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As far as Queen Gertrude goes, a lot of people consider there to be a bit of purposeful ambiguity surrounding her. I say there's no "ambiguity" at all. Gertrude is pretty innocent, and it's stated that she is in the play itself.

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Queen Gertrude (Glenn Close) was a woman living in a time period where women were often exchanged like chattel through marriage contracts. It's highly unlikely that she was in love with King Hamlet when she married him and far more likely that the marriage was arranged for political reasons.

Maybe Gertrude didn't love King Hamlet initially but became fond of him later. Maybe she was secretly in love with Claudius (Alan Bates) all along.

This seems to be Zeffirelli's interpretation, and having studied this play since I was a teenager (so for decades), I agree with him.

King Hamlet's ghost (Paul Scofield) refers to Gertrude as his "seeming virtuous queen," and yet he tells Hamlet to leave his mother alone because she is innocent in his death.

To me, this indicates that Gertrude wasn't "virtuous" because she was having an emotional affair with her husband's brother. And yet, she had no hand in killing her husband and actually liked the guy.

Now, you could say Gertrude was wrong for having an emotional affair, but that is sort of a gray area. It's not wrong to fall in love with someone else while you're with someone else. But it is wrong to act on those feelings without first breaking off the relationship you're already in.

Even though she loved Claudius, Gertrude chose to stay loyal to her marriage. It's sad that she couldn't follow her heart, but that's the sort of world she lived in.

King Hamlet referring to her as "seeming virtuous" could be his bitterness showing. He was likely bitter that his wife was in love with someone else and snidely questions her virtue because of this.

Or maybe Gertrude was having a physical affair with Claudius but never would have agreed to killing her husband.

Either way, she had no part in the death of King Hamlet. Her only "sin" was loving another man and being forced into a marriage she didn't want by a world that doesn't care about women as autonomous human beings.

You could say that King Hamlet was forced into the marriage too, but that's a bit disingenuous. Men clearly have more social and political power. No one was going to burn King Hamlet at the stake, for instance, if he slept with some women on the side.

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I also believe this is the reason why Queen Gertrude had such great affection for Ophelia: she saw herself in the young woman.

Ophelia (Helena Bonham Carter), like all women of the time, is ruled by the whims of men. She has no control over her own destiny. When her father tells her that she must break things off with Hamlet (Mel Gibson), she is forced to obey or else go live in the street.

What's worse, she has both her father, Polonius (Ian Holm), and her brother, Laertes (Nathaniel Parker), constantly in her ear, telling her that Hamlet is just toying with her and will never marry her because of her station.

Why wouldn't she trust her brother and father, two men she loves dearly and who just want to protect her?

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I can't help but compare Ophelia to Juliet from Shakepeare's play Romeo and Juliet. I am thinking of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet in particular.

Juliet's father is controlling and overbearing, while her mother hates her because she is jealous of her. Just like Queen Gertrude, Juliet's mother was forced to marry a man she didn't love -- a man who beat her and treated her like a trophy.

In the film, we can clearly see that Juliet's mother is jealous of her because Juliet's suitor, Paris, is ten times nicer (and better looking) than Juliet's father. He is such a good match that Juliet's mother appears to want him for herself and can be seen kissing him all over his face during the party where Juliet meets Romeo.

Because her mother is jealous of her and resents her, Juliet has to turn to her nurse for guidance. But even the nurse tells her to forget Romeo and just marry Paris -- likely because the nurse is old enough to know that any other option ends in death.

Unlike Ophelia, when Juliet's father gives her a command to marry a man she doesn't love, she graciously stands up to her father, giving him what amounts to a polite, "No, thank you."

In the film, Juliet's father reacts with a frightening amount of violence, grabbing his daughter and throwing her down -- even striking her mother when she tries to intervene. He then tells Juliet to get her ass to church next Thursday or go and die, starve, beg in the streets, because he will not be embarrassed by her refusal to obey ("I'll not be forsworn!!!").

Those were Juliet's options: marry someone she didn't love or die.

Juliet bravely decides to defy her father by running away with Romeo, and how does the movie end? With her death.

It seems women were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. Following ones heart in those times just wasn't an option.

And I'll be honest: sometimes it's still not an option. But let's not get into such pesky things as marital homicide rates and domestic violence.

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What's more, Hamlet knows that Ophelia is powerless in her situation, that she is helpless to the whims of her father. This is why Hamlet is shown to have a great deal of hatred and disdain for Polonius.

But he also takes his anger out on Ophelia and refuses to consider her situation with compassion. Instead, he seems bitter against Gertrude and Ophelia for not standing up to the world like Juliet, even though it would mean their deaths.

It isn't surprising. Hamlet is someone who fears death and yet isn't afraid to stand up for what he believes: of course he would expect the women he loves to be the same.

I'm not excusing Hamlet's unfortunate mistreatment of Ophelia. I'm just explaining it.

Hamlet is willingly going to his death, striving against all odds, even his own paranoia and insanity, in order to exact revenge for his father. The famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy makes this clear.

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Ironically enough, Hamlet wants Ophelia to disobey her father, and yet the entire play is about him doing what his father's ghost tells him.

Maybe King Hamlet deserved to die. No one ever stops to consider that. Maybe he was a bad man and a shitty king. He even tells Hamlet he is doomed to return to Hell at dawn each day for his sins. What did he do to wind up in Hell? It had to be more than simply forgetting to confess that time he lied about eating his peas.

King Hamlet could have been as evil as Claudius, and yet, Hamlet is dutifully, loyally ready to kill for his father.

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Apparently, loyalty is a big thing in Denmark. The second he learns his father has been killed, Laertes returns home from France, ready to kill the king himself, and Claudius commends him for this.

But we can't even say Gertrude and Ophelia weren't loyal. They just weren't loyal to Hamlet, and that's why he's pissed.

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Queen Gertrude finally chose to be loyal to her heart, while Ophelia chose to be loyal to her father.

Just like Juliet, Ophelia doesn't have a mother who can give her advice. She doesn't seem brave enough to go to the queen, though it's obvious there is great affection between the two of them.

When Ophelia later goes mad and lets herself drown, Queen Gertrude says that she wished Ophelia could have married Hamlet and been her daughter.

Hamlet's madness ultimately drove Ophelia mad.

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People often mistake Hamlet for a hero when he's more of an anti-hero. Throughout the play, he is violent and emotionally unstable. Sometimes it's directed at people who deserve it -- like his traitorous "friends" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Other times, he takes it out on innocent people, like Polonius, Ophelia, and Queen Gertrude.

Sure, Polonius was annoying but he didn't deserve to die. And yet, Hamlet -- in his feverish paranoia -- plunges his sword through the tapestry behind which Polonius is hiding without so much as blinking. He never hesitates.

Hamlet's paranoia is understandable. There are enemies all around him: Claudius seems to suspect that Hamlet is aware of the murder, his own friends are spying on him, his own girlfriend is spying on him. It caused him to become the mad person he was initially only pretending to be.

Because of the danger, Hamlet has become dangerous -- despite his father's warnings that he should not let events poison his heart and mind.

In the end, Hamlet becomes no different than King Claudius, in that he kills innocent people in order to achieve his own selfish goals -- those of revenge.

Revenge is selfish because innocent people are always hurt in the crossfire, while justice would have seen that Claudius alone paid for his crimes.

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Instead, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, and Queen Gertrude all died thanks to Hamlet's hellbent revenge.

There's an on-going argument about whether or not Gertrude knew the chalice was poisoned. Some people think she committed suicide, but again, the text in the play indicates otherwise. After she has unwittingly drank the poison, Gertrude cries out in surprise and tries to warn Hamlet,

"O my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink! I am poisoned!"

Why would she express surprise if she knew the cup was poisoned? Why wouldn't she warn Hamlet sooner?

By this point, Gertrude suspects that Claudius killed her husband and she is now a little cold and defiant toward the king. To me, this is largely the reason why she handwaves Claudius when he warns her away from drinking and drinks anyway,

"I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me."

Queen Gertrude unwittingly drinking poison is supposed to make her more tragic than she already is. The play presents her as innocent and because it's a tragedy, it's supposed to be tragic that she is caught in the crossfire of the fires of men.

The same can be said for Ophelia. These women didn't stand a chance, surrounded as they were by violence and intrigue, while being pulled every which way, constantly punished for following the script of loyalty to husband and father that they were handed at birth, never allowed to steer their own course and make their own choices like the men in the play.

Laetres dies because he chooses to side with Claudius and avenge his family. He is not socially blackmailed with the threat of living on the streets or being beaten or killed. He has agency. He drives his own story. And as he is dying, he is at least mature enough to take responsibility for his own actions and seek Hamlet's forgiveness,

"He is justly served.It is a poison tempered by himself. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me."

In the end, the women in Hamlet (all two of them) are helpless and innocent victims caught up in the intrigues of men. Compared to more proactive characters like Juliet and Lady MacBeth, it makes them a little tragic in more ways than one.

Hamlet (1990) (DVD)
Hamlet (1990) (DVD)

Own this epic tragedy now!

 

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    © 2019 Ash

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