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Does Hamlet's Mother, Gertrude, Know that King Claudius has Murdered her Husband?

Updated on November 9, 2018

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare. Playwright and poet, of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire
William Shakespeare. Playwright and poet, of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire | Source

Did Queen Gertrude Know???

Is there any evidence of Gertrude's guilt?

Does Gertrude know that Claudius killed Hamlet's father?

There is evidence, in Gertrude’s behaviour, and her words, that she did not know that Old Hamlet had been murdered by her new husband, Claudius.

In Act 1, scene 5, Hamlet learns of his father’s murder, from the ghost ~ in the guise of old Hamlet. This ghost states that ‘the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.’ And Hamlet replies ‘My uncle!’. Old Hamlet’s ghost does not implicate his widow in the murder and does not want Hamlet to take revenge upon her. He accuses her, not of murder, but of incest, since the royal bed has become ‘a couch for .. damned incest’. He actually describes Claudius ~ that incestuous ..adulterate beast’ ~ stealing into the orchard, where he, the king, was asleep, and pouring deadly poison ~ ‘leperous distilment’ ~ into his ear. There is no mention of Gertrude being with him, though he acknowledges that he had ‘won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen’.

Although Hamlet is disgusted by her behaviour, in marrying quickly and incestuously, Gertrude does seem to care about Hamlet, and it would be surprising if she were to deliberately help kill his father, and then marry the murderer. It would be particularly surprising if she then, apparently genuinely, worried and wondered over Hamlet’s behaviour, wanting him to stay with her at court and hoping that he would look positively on his uncle: ‘let thine eyes look like a friend on Denmark’; ‘let not thy mother lose her prayers.. I pray thee stay with us ...’

In Act 3 scene 1, Claudius first admits that there is a ‘heavy burden’ on his conscience and in Act 3, scene 3, while attempting to pray, he admits that he has committed 'a brother's murder', and speaks of 'stronger guilt' and 'brother's blood'. He mentions the benefits of that murder: 'My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen', but, though he acknowledges that taking Gertrude as his wife was a benefit of the murder, there is no mention of her being an accomplice, and he never discusses the death, or his guilt, with Gertrude ~ thus implicating her.

Gertrude, herself, gives no soliloquies of guilt and, in the lines that she speaks, gives no indication of having been involved in the murder. If she and Claudius had planned the killing together, then one might expect that they would discuss the matter, or, at least, allude to it, in their private conversations, but they do not.

When Hamlet arranges the production of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ he expects that the play ~ paralleling the murder of old Hamlet, as described by the ghost ~ will cause Claudius to respond in a guilty manner, which he does. However, there is no such guilty reaction from Gertrude. Hamlet is expecting her to break, too. When the ‘actress says’ ... Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, if, once a widow, ever I be a wife’, he comments ‘If she should break now.’ He even publicly requests her response: ‘Madam, how like you this play’. At most, she is affronted by the references to widows re-marrying and states that ‘the lady doth protest too much’. It is Claudius who grows ever more uncomfortable and finally walks out ~ confirming his guilt. Indeed, the queen seems to think that it is only her over-speedy marriage to Claudius, after Old Hamlet’s death, that causes Hamlet’s angry behaviour. She comments, in act 2, scene 2, that the cause of Hamlet’s ‘distemper’ is likely to be ‘his father’s dath and our o’er-hasty marriage.’ She seems to have no idea ~ and no reason to think ~ that Hamlet believes that either of them is guilty of his father’s murder.

When, following the ‘Gonzago’ play, Hamlet visits his mother, she refers to him offending ‘his father’. This seems to be said in innocence. If she had known the truth, this would have been a cruel reaction to her son. A little later, after he has killed Polonius, Hamlet says to Gertrude: ’A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother’, Her response is incomprehension: ‘As kill a king?’

Shortly afterwards she asks: ‘What have I done?’ and ‘Ay me, what act that roars so loud ...?’ Hamlet then seems to accuse of her of allowing lust to blind her to her new husband’s evil faults ~ that he is ‘a murderer and a villain’. There is no evidence that she knew Claudius to be a murderer.

There are no guilty outbursts from Gertrude, as there are from Claudius, regarding Old Hamlet’s death. There are no conversations on the subject, nor lone speeches of anguish. It would appear, therefore, that Gertrude was not an accomplice and was, in fact, innocent of all knowledge of Claudius’s guilt.

She shows no evidence of feeling guilty, until after Hamlet has made her search her soul about sharing an incestuous bed ~ with the person, he claims. has killed his father. When Ophelia, in madness, wants to see her, she speaks of her 'sick soul' and of 'sin's true nature' and worries about whether her guilty conscience will show: 'so full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt.' Until then, she had no such misgivings, because she had no reason, in her mind, to feel guilty.

David Tennant's Hamlet

I went, not too long go, to see Shakespeare's truly amazing play, 'Hamlet', at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon.

David Tennant was young Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and Patrick Stewart was Claudius, the usurping, murderous brother of Old Hamlet. He also played Old Hamlet's ghost!

It was brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

David Tennant simply lit up the stage.

Now the performance has been captured on DVD, so everyone can see it.

And I would definitely recommend it.

If you love 'Hamlet', don't miss it!

Does Gertrude know?

Did Gertrude know that Claudius murdered her husband?

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    • Bushra Iqbal profile image

      Anya Ali 

      8 months ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      Good article - looks at what the text says rather than what the critic would have it say.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      3 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello Glenis. :)

      Thank you for your thoughts.

      Yes, the Branagh version is good - but quite long.

      I have a few video + audio versions. It's interesting to compare them :)

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      Glen Rix 

      3 years ago from UK

      I think that in Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet (which I recommend) there is a visual suggestion that Hamlet witnessed an event which led him to suspect that an elicit relationship between Gertrude and Claudius had been established prior to the death of old Hamlet.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      It isn't Gertrude, who says this; it is the queen, in the play that Hamlet arranges for the court.

      She says: 'Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, if, once a widow, ever I be a wife.'

      The queen is saying: Let me be forever pursued by troubles, both here and in the after life, if, having ever been widowed, I then go on to re-marry and become a wife again.

      It is a message for Gertude from Hamlet. He thinks that his recently widowed mother should be feeling very troubled by her unseemly behaviour ~ having indulged in a hasty re-marriage, with his uncle. Hamlet thinks that she should be mourning (and supporting her son in his grief) and abstaining from sins of the flesh.

    • profile image

      Queen Gertrude in Hamlet 

      8 years ago

      What did Queen Gertrude men in her remark "once a widow, ever I be a wife.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Glad you liked it, Lizzie :)

    • lizzieBoo profile image


      9 years ago from England

      A good idea for a hub. Interesting.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      9 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi MPorter ~ thank you :)

      I think that I once saw something on the RSC website about this aspect of the First Quarto and about how it might possibly help with our understanding of the situation.

      I agree, it is interesting. Indeed, the whole play is fascinating :)

      Thanks again for reading ~ and for your kind words :)

    • mporter profile image


      9 years ago from Chicago and New York

      This was a great read! I've always been intrigued by the dynamics of knowledge and ignorance in Hamlet, as in all of Shakespeare...

      Have you ever read the First Quarto version? For whatever it's worth in analysis, there are several scenes in which The Queen (not called Gertrude) reveals that she did not know anything about the murder at the time it was committed, and actually becomes a more active accomplice of Hamlet's quest than in the Folio or Second Quarto.

      There are various theories about where exactly this text came from though, so it's not the most reliable perspective upon which to base criticism of the later versions...but still interesting as it might be a reflection of the way Gertrude's innocence was perceived by the audience of the day (in the event that the First Quarto was a bootleg, or a written recollection done by members of the original cast many years later), or indeed an insight into Shakespeare's intention (in the event that it was a first draft to the later, fuller versions of Hamlet).

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      10 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello WeakvsFire :)

      Thanks for commenting.

      I think that this is partly why Shakespeare is still so popular. It's not just a case of watching / reading and enjoying, it really is a case of interpreting.

      Gertrude seemed to be totally unaware of anything that was going on around her, to me, but I wonder what Shakespeare was thinking??? She says very littele, so it's difficult to be sure.

    • WeakvsFire profile image


      10 years ago

      It's been awhile since I've read Hamlet, but I recall believing Gertrude didn't have any idea of what Claudius did. The thing about Hamlet though is that there's reading the play and then seeing it acted out. In my Shakespeare class I remember us talking about the issue of seeming vs being. Gertrude does seem to be innocent, especially on paper, but it's been awhile seeing any interpretations on Gertrude. I'm not sure if any of the movies on the play insinuated that Gertrude was going through the motions to appear innocent.


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