Frailty, Thy Name is Woman. The depictions of Gertrude and her femininity in Franco Zeffirelli and Gregory Doran’s adaptations of "Hamlet"

Term Paper, 2021

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Gertrude’sAutonomyatCourt
a. Gertrude’s Role as a Woman
b. Gertrude’sRole as a Wife and Widow
c. Gertrude’s Role as aMother

3. Conclusion

4. Works Cited

1. Introduction

When critics discuss the crimes that occur at the court of Elsinore, Gertrude is frequently mentioned as the scapegoat to blame for the events, albeit for her remarriage, the disregard for her recent widowhood, or the incestuous implications of her sexuality:

“Gertrude is seen as the source of the problems which [occur] in Denmark [...]. ‘This belief is so wide that it is often accepted without question, without further inquiry into why exactly Gertrude is understood in this way.’” (Güneng 167)

Even the murder of the late king and Claudius’ seizure of power seem less relevant to the storyline of the play than the deprivation of Gertrude (Güneng 168). The perpetuation of the idea that femininity in itself makes women prone to acts of perversions frames womanhood as a disease that sustains and encourages immorality (Adams 231). Since this assumption is vastly outdated, feminist Shakespearean scholars such as Irene Dash and Janet Adelman focus on the rehabilitation of the mother figure, rejecting preceding interpretations that promote misogynistic views. More recent film adaptions follow suit and reject the negative, one-sided view of womanhood as well as the medieval setting that is authentic to the text. Instead, they modernize the play through a contemporary understanding of femininity and sexuality. Whereas Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990) adheres to the medieval setting and portrays Gertrude as a youthful woman, Gregory Doran’s Hamlet (2009) is set in the modern-day and frames Gertrude as a political and romantic equal to Claudius. However, both adaptations still present Gertrude as a woman controlled by male influence. Hence, both directors reinterpret the character of Gertrude to fit a more contemporary understanding of womanhood whilst considering the play’s misogyny: Zeffirelli's Gertrude represents a glorified woman, objectified by the male gaze and Doran's Gertrude an autonomous woman, who is, however, prone to being manipulated.

2. Gertrude’s Autonomy at Court

With various film adaptations endeavoring to emancipate the Queen from the play’s patriarchal society, the question of why she is often interpreted as the person responsible for the unrest in Denmark emerges. Mesut Güneng proposes that the perception of Gertrude is defined by the expectations and prejudices of the play’s male characters, especially those of Hamlet and the Ghost, rather than by Gertrude’s self­presentation (Güneng 167): Claudius perceives her as a price (Thompson and Taylor, 360, 3.3.55), the Ghost mocks her as a “seeming-virtuous queen” (Thompson and Taylor, 345, 1.5.46), and Hamlet condemns her as a “pernicious woman” (Thompson and Taylor 1.5.105). The expectations of Claudius, the Ghost, and Hamlet intertwine which thrusts Gertrude into the roles of a woman, a queen, a mother, a wife, as well as a widow (Lehmann 18). Therefore, she has the responsibility to perform all of these roles simultaneously which creates a complex dynamic: Gertrude cannot authentically perform the role of a recent widow whilst being newlywed to Claudius.

The male characters of the play hold Gertrude to such a high standard that she cannot conform to all expectations that are projected on her. With Gertrude being “the site for fantasies larger than she is” (Adelman qtd. Novy 236), she cannot accommodate them and has to choose which of the roles she wants to closely pursue. This choice requires a certain amount of agency which, for instance, expresses itself in her decision to marry Claudius despite her responsibility to grieve as a widow. Since Gertrude is expected to perpetually do what is best for her country and in accord with the conventions of the church, she actively chooses to marry Claudius at the price of losing her son’s trust and respect (Shuma 146). Even though Gertrude inherently is a passive and submissive character, every independent choice she makes, for instance, her remarriage, is regarded as disobedience. Moreover, her choice to drink from the poisoned chalice against Claudius’ wishes can be interpreted as an “attempt to transgress the boundaries [which immediately] causes her death” (Özmen 171).

Overall, it could be argued that the societal conventions at court leave Gertrude little space for autonomy. Subjected to the medieval expectations of how a decent woman should behave, Gertrude struggles to establish considerable notions of independence and, therefore, obeys the orders of the men in her life, as seen in 3.1.37. Hence, it can be argued that Gertrude has a sense of independence which she acts on to conform to societal conventions, but this autonomy cannot be defined as self­serving.

Since it is difficult to respectfully a&afo Hamlet without being faithful to the original text, film adaptations that aspire to modernize the play face the challenge of finding new ways of emancipating female characters through stylistic and actorial choices.

a. Gertrude's Role as a Woman

Considering one of Hamlef s most famous quotes, “[f]railty, thy name is woman” (Thompson and Taylor 207, 1.2.146), it is of interest to analyze how film adaptations depict womanhood concerning female autonomy. As a Shakespearean female character, Gertrude is woven into the context of the play as an appendix to her male counterparts and their character development. Even though the Queen rarely acts as her own person and, instead, is reduced to an extension of other individuals, male characters "do not need to be considered in relation to a female character for full recognition” (Özmen 159).

In Zeffirelli’s film adaptation, Gertrude is elevated from being an appendix to being the focus of attention. Crowl describes this Gertrude as the “golden girl at the center of a drab masculine world” (Crowl 57), highlighting her physical appearance and her youthful mannerisms as invigorating features of her personality. This change of perspective grants Gertrude the ability to be perceived in a male-dominated world. However, it also subjects her to both the lust of the male gaze and the admiration of the female gaze (Crowl 58). To argue that this is a liberating characterization is daring. Xianfeng Mou states that the physical glorification of Gertrude ignores the side effects of degradation and objectification; This “feminist illusion” (Mou 2) of female glorification emancipates Gertrude on the surface level, giving her a visually prominent role in the film, but also objectifies her through the idealization of youth. Glenn Close as Gertrude strikes the audience as a lively, naive, and vibrant woman whose mannerisms better match the those of a princess than a queen: she skips around the castle as her husband arrives in the courtyard (Zeffirelli 10:08) and shows her affection through unrestrained, passionate kisses (Zeffirelli 09:55, 11:22).

Moreover, her physical appearance - her long blonde hair, elaborate hairstyles, as well as the golden glow of her face - highlight her youthful perception. This youth, however, is taken advantage of by other characters within the film, especially Hamlet, who sexually harasses his mother during the closet scene. Moreover, critics such as Samuel Crowl take her vibrant youth as an argument for her sexual promiscuity, implying that her attractive presence is to blame for the contaminated, sexual thoughts of her son (Crowl 60). The film’s depiction of her character as young and pleasing to the audience’s eye supports Xianfeng Mou’s argument: the “[Degradation of Gertrude camouflaged as enhancement] meets the cultural need of subjecting women to further control” (Mou 3). Consequently, Gertrude’s youthful physical presence and mannerisms make her susceptible to objectification.

Doran’s Gertrude, however, blends into her surroundings, not by being an oppressed, passive character but by asserting her power in harmony with her husband. She does not recoil from taking initiative which encompasses respectfully interrupting Claudius’ speech, for instance, during their meeting with Rosenkranz and Guildenstem (Doran 49:54). Claudius respects and relies on her initiative as he even asks Gertrude for a cue about Hamlet’s university (Doran 12:23). When Claudius exclaims “Sweet Gertrude, leave us too” (Doran 56:42), Gertrude’s obedience from the source material is put into question. Penny Downie as Gertrude pronounces the line “I shall obey you” (Doran 56:54) in a witty manner; hence, this line is transformed from submission into a joke about submission which Patrick Stewart as Claudius smirks at. The exchange accentuates the loving relationship that has been established between Stewart’s Claudius and Downie’s Gertrude. This reinterpretation of the source material is especially remarkable if one considers Güneng’s characterization of Shakespeare’s Queen: “Gertrude has always something to say, but [rarely] speaks” (Güneng 167).

In contrast to Zeffirelli’s Gertrude, Doran’s wears her hair in elegant, modest updos and dresses in women’s suits which highlight her maturity. Her presentation matches that of Claudius as they both, politically as well as romantically, treat each other as equals. During the closet scene, Doran’s Gertrude lays off her elegant but modest appearance which, incidentally, also marks her most vulnerable moment. Here, Gertrude is presented as a disheveled woman - taking off her hair extensions, smoking a cigarette, and drinking whiskey. Instead of receiving Hamlet in her evening gown, she shows herself at her most natural. This presentation makes her appear as a more realistic woman but also as a vulnerable target to the male gaze.

Another vital point for Gertrude’s character development in Doran’s adaptation occurs immediately after the argument between her and Hamlet: Gertrude’s demeanor towards Claudius changes. Her previously consolidated confidence is destabilized, at first by Hamlet’s accusations against Claudius and then again by Claudius declaring Hamlet as a threat to both himself and Gertrude (Doran 02:07:25). The King’s attempt to patronize her and demonize her son stages Claudius as manipulative and Gertrude as confused and manipulated. Therefore, one could argue that Doran’s Gertrude tries to establish herself as an influential and respectable woman through her relationship with Claudius as well as her self-presentation; however, she is nevertheless prone to being emotionally controlled by the men in her life.

b. Gertrude’s Role as a Wife and Widow

Another one of Gertrude’s core conflicts is the matter of her identity as a romantic partner. Being stuck in both the role of a grieving widow and the role of a newlywed wife, the ambiguity surrounding her relationships to Old Hamlet and Claudius render the question of loyalty within her marriages insoluble. Since the Ghost calls Claudius an “adulterate beast” (1.5.42), it could be argued that Gertrude and Claudius’ liaison predates the death of the late king, potentiallyjustifying Hamlet’s mistrust of Gertrude. However, the royal couple does not specify the conditions under which they agreed to marry nor confirm the legitimacy of the accusations. Hence, the act of infidelity is unproven. As Gertrude does not speak of her feelings towards her dead husband, it remains uncertain whether their relationship was one-sided. In asking Hamlet to move on from his father, since death is an inevitable truth (Thompson and Taylor 1.2.68-73), Gertrude proves that she either has successfully moved on from her husband’s death or fails to reflect on the importance of their relationship. The ambiguity over Gertrude’s feelings complicates the reflection on her romantic relationships; It incites speculation and, consequently, different cinematic depictions of her wife- and widowhood.

The relationship between Zeffirelli’s Gertrude and Claudius is a loving one that resembles that of young lovers: exclaiming each other’s names, running towards, and kissing each other passionately (Zeffirelli 06:35). Crowl argues that “[Zeffirelli’s] Claudius has murdered more for lust than power, but [...] appears shy and almost overwhelmed by his prize rather than proudly possessive” (Crowl 58). The phrasing of this characterization implies that Gertrude is seen as a prize, a precious object, rather than a political and romantic equal to Claudius. Zeffirelli’s Ghost, however, appears frail and desperate. His initial frightening presence diminishes quickly on top of the castle, where he exhaustedly sits down and rocks his head against the wall (Zeffirelli 26:38). It appears that the King’s Ghost is frustrated over Gertrude’s hasty remarriage and her unawareness of his presence, judging from his reluctant behavior and his distressed expression (Zeffirelli 29:20). Even though he is aware of not being perceived by his queen, the Ghost does not attempt to make himself seen. Since he seems both sympathetic and pitiable to the audience, Gertrude can appear ignorant and disloyal. Judging from the Ghost’s accusations and the youthful nature of the royal couple’s relationship that implies promiscuity, some audiences might interpret Gertrude to be unfaithful and uncommitted.

Zeffirelli’s adaptation accepts the physical and emotional divide between Old Hamlet and Gertrude; Doran’s, however, tries to reduce the distance. The emotional separation of the two characters is visualized by their physical separation: as the Dead King gently strokes his widow’s head and orders Hamlet to console her, Gertrude does not notice the Ghost’s presence and caress. The choice to incorporate physical touch into this scene implies that Old Hamlet’s feelings towards his widow have not disappeared, though she seems to have forgotten about him. The choice to cast Patrick Stewart in the roles of the Ghost and Claudius accentuates the differences and similarities between the brothers: both are loving towards their queen, whereas Claudius’ maliciousness is concealed by his charismatic nature. As Godwin argues, the connection between Doran’s Gertrude and Claudius is “affectionate and close, though not overtly sexual” (Godwin 124). In emphasizing the words “our son” (12:38) and exchanging adoring glances throughout the coronation scene, Stewart’s Claudius and Downie’s Gertrude recognize their shared parental responsibility towards Hamlet. Moreover, the two characters are frequently shot at the same eye level, once again, indicating their respect for each other. Thus, Doran’s Claudius perceives his queen as an emotional and political equal whereas Zeffirelli’s considers her a prize.

c. Gertrude's Role as a Mother

Hamlet’s textual hostility against his mother is defined by her violation of the societal conventions of a mother and widow. Subtextually, however, Hamlet could additionally feel threatened by the possibility of a new line of succession (Jardine qtd. Güneng 169). Gertrude’s choice to remarry disrupts the patriarchal power structure that inherently established Hamlet as the successor to the throne. Hence, the Queen’s limited agency grants her the “possibility to alter the heritage of the authority in Denmark” (Güneng 169). In an attempt to reclaim his authority and mother figure, Hamlet demonizes, mocks, and harasses her to gain control. In both film adaptations, this harassment is expanded upon by the implied incestuous, sexual attraction between the two characters and the sexual humiliation of the objectified female body.

The objectification of the “sexualized maternal body” (Crowl 60) that applies to both Zeffirelli and Doran’s Gertrude, expresses itself most evidently during the closet scene in which Hamlet and Gertrude have their most significant interaction. As explained by Güneng, Gertrude grants her son access to her most personal space, her bed chamber, choosing to be vulnerable to conflict, attack, and escalation (Güneng 170). Once again, this invitation is proof of her attempt to express autonomy and compassion, addressing her complaints directly to Hamlet as a maternal authority figure. Alana Shuma states that Gertrude tries to gain power by demonstrating her willpower to her son through direct confrontation; however, due to Gertrude’s will of self-preservation and medieval, societal conventions that threaten her, she is easily manipulated, does not dare to defend herself, and is doomed to remain an obedient member of the family (Shuma 147).

The focus of Zeffirelli’s film is much less on the destruction of Claudius and his claim to the throne but rather on the presence of Gertrude: “[Zeffirelli’s] solution to the Oedipal conflict [...] is not to destroy the father but to glorify the mother” (Crowl 59). The glorification of Zeffirelli’s Gertrude in the eyes of Hamlet sounds like a positive development. However, its manifestation could be a result of female idealization and objectification - dismissing her personality, relationships, self-will, and, instead, idealizing her motherhood to fit his unrealistic expectations. In emphatically ordering his stunned mother to let him “wring [her] heart [...] If it be made of penetrable stuff” (Zeffirelli 01:16:20), Hamlet alludes to the incestuous acts that ensue seconds later in the form of a passionate kiss and a brutal rape; the authenticity of the latter, whether Hamlet simulates or performs it, is questionable, though Gertrude’s cries disclose its non-consensual nature. Crowl’s interpretation of Gertrude’s implied rape does not criticize the objectification of the maternal body but rather endorses it as an essential part ofHamlet’s character development:

“[T]he rape of Gertrude [has] allowed [Hamlet] a perspective from which, finally, to understand and share his mother’s flawed humanity [...] allowing the expression of his own incestuous desires to finally obliterate Gertrude’s, so that they can both be [...] capable of redeeming one another.” (Crowl 60)


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Frailty, Thy Name is Woman. The depictions of Gertrude and her femininity in Franco Zeffirelli and Gregory Doran’s adaptations of "Hamlet"
Hamlet - Text and Film
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Hamlet, Gertrude, Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Franco Zeffirelli, Gregory Doran, David Tennant, Penny Downie, womanhood, femininity
Quote paper
Laura Kraus (Author), 2021, Frailty, Thy Name is Woman. The depictions of Gertrude and her femininity in Franco Zeffirelli and Gregory Doran’s adaptations of "Hamlet", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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