Type of Culminating Activity
Master of Arts in English, Literature
Matthew C. Hansen
Hamlet has over 4,000 lines, and Gertrude speaks less than 200 of those lines (about 4% of the entire play), but her roles as a widow, wife, and mother drive much of the play’s action. This document brings together scholarship surrounding Gertrude’s roles within the play and new research into the historical cultural milieu of early modern England focused on working women to learn more about the cultural patterns influencing the creation of this character. What results is the assertion that analogues to Gertrude and her situation in Hamlet can be found in early modern widows who worked as printers and brewsters.
At first glance, Gertrude’s political role as queen consort suggests parallels with royal widows or monarchs, and certainly these do exist. When we look to Shakespeare’s own life, though, it seems more likely for Shakespeare to have had knowledge of the lives of brewsters and printers than of royal widows. Shakespeare’s friend Richard Field married a widowed printer and brewing was such a widespread phenomenon that women’s presence in the industry was largely recognized on a cultural level. Using Greenblatt’s circulation of social energy, I argue that Shakespeare would have been influenced by working women and that we see as much in Gertrude’s situation in the play.
Analogues to working class widows lie in the ambiguous nature of public and private in early modern England. This thesis illuminates similarities between the intersection of domestic and economic duties for women printers and brewsters and Gertrude’s overlapping political and familial obligations. I also engage with the stereotypes that resulted from the transgression of the public/private boundaries. As women involved in male-dominated trades, female printers and brewsters were often saddled with all of the anxieties surrounding their vocations, resulting in typecasts that depicted these women as greedy, deceitful, and lewd. Gertrude both adheres to and breaks these traditional stereotypes. In her marriage to Claudius, however, Gertrude differs from working class widows, though some similarities do exist.
This document poses the argument that Gertrude’s position in Hamlet reflects the cultural significance of women’s work. It utilizes research about the lives of women who printed and brewed alongside primary works like ballads and court cases as a lens through which to view Gertrude’s role in the play. In doing so, this thesis crafts a new interpretation of Gertrude as an analogue to working widows, the situations they faced, and their power position in early modern England.
Lehmann, Erin Elizabeth, "Pois'ned Ale: Gertrude's Power Position in Hamlet" (2013). Boise State University Theses and Dissertations. 632.