Worst Mothers in Literature


8. Gertrude from Hamlet by Shakespeare

The fact that she marries her brother in law, who killed her husband, is proof that she’s nuts but what really makes Gertrude a certifiable psycho is that despite all the adultery and killing she tries a little too hard to show compassion to Hamlet giving the kid a serious Oedipus complex.

Mostly blogging this one because Gertrude’s on the list.  I’m not sure I even agree.  I tend to have more sympathy for Gertrude.  She certainly never says “Screw what my son thinks, I’m doing what’s right for me.”  Maybe she was in an unhappy marriage with Hamlet’s dad and is glad to be free of it.  Maybe she was having an affair with Claudius right along.  Maybe she’s just still in mourning over her husband so deeply that she doesn’t even fully recognize what she’s done.  I’m leaving out the Oedipus stuff, since that’s all baggage that Freud brought to the table well after Shakespeare put words to paper. What do we Shakespeare geeks think?  Should she be higher, lower?  Is there a better mother to put on the list?

13 thoughts on “Worst Mothers in Literature

  1. What about Lady Macbeth? Even though no child appears in the play, she tells Macbeth: "I have given suck, and know / How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face,
    Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
    Have done to this."

    Um, yikes.

  2. How the original list missed Medea is beyond me, but back to Shakespeare.

    The title "Worst Mother in Shakespeare" is tricky, since mothers are rarely seen, and even the evil mothers are often motivated to do their evil on behalf of their children's best interests.

    How about Lady Capulet?

  3. Lady M as mom has always interested me because there's so little to work with. Its like, one line, "Ok I've had a baby, and I would smash it's head in."

    Clearly the baby's not around anymore, so perhaps while she "knows how tender 'tis", maybe she's forgotten more than she thinks. If the baby was still in the picture maybe it'd be a different story with her?

  4. Lady Capulet isn't too bad, as she really thinks that she is doing the best for her family. (Then again, the road to Hell…) Anyway, I'd say one of the worst mothers has to be Tamora, from Titus. Aside from a few issues, she could make Machiavelli blush with her actions.

  5. Glad you flagged this one Duane. The statement you quoted is a perfect instance of how mis-information is perpetuated, and impressions get skewed.

    The statement:"The FACT that she marries her brother in law, who killed her husband, is proof that she's nuts…"
    is anything but FACT. IN FACT, it's a question in our minds, and more importantly, Hamlet's mind, as to whether or not Gertrude knew anything at all about how her former husband "died". It's a question that's been debated forever because it has no definitive answer.

  6. I tend to prefer the interpretations that suggest she really has no idea. I've heard this explained as more of a truly deep level of denial, rather than outright ignorance – she probably does have a hunch, so she chooses (however subconsciously) to never ask herself the question.

  7. Tamora is actually one of the mothers I was thinking about who are evil to others in protection of their own children. She doesn't actually do anything evil to them.

    Well, she eats them, but that shouldn't count.

    Lady Capulet is not evil, but I don't think she's a particularly good mother either. She has no idea what's going on with her daughter. The Nurse is much more of a mother figure to Juliet.

    So I guess we should make a distinction between the worst person in Shakespeare who is a mother, and the worst mother in Shakespeare.

    Lady Macbeth doesn't work for me, because she's speaking rhetorically to make a point about commitment. She wants to impress upon Macbeth the importance of following through with his promises, and she chooses the worst thing she can imagine that she says she would do if she had promised to. At no point is there any indication that Lady Macbeth would actually dash out her child's brains, or even that she would take such an action lightly.

  8. Generally I feel Gertrude new of the killing of the elder Hamlet by her new husband because she is very happy in her new marriage. At the least she is not sadden by King Hamlet’s death. I tend to think that Claudius is Hamlet’s true father.

  9. Brian, I think that's where my "deep denial" argument comes from as well, even though there's no direct connection between the two. Just because she's not all that sad about her first husband's death doesn't mean she knows Claudius did it, but it does suggest that maybe she's not allowing herself to go there.

    Claudius as Hamlet's dad? Wow, that'd be a great reveal right at the end, huh? Shakespeare didn't really play like that, though.

  10. "So excellent a king, that was to this Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother/That he might not beteem the winds of Heaven/Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth,/Must I remember? Why she would hang on him/As if increase of appetite had grown
    By what it fed on, and yet within a month" 1.2.139-45

    "A little month, or ere those shoes were old/With which she followed my poor father's body,/Like Niobe, all tears:…" 1.2.146-49

    So to seduce? Won to this shamefull Lust/The will of my most seeming vertuous Queene:/O Hamlet, what a falling off was there,/ From me, whose love was of that dignity/That it went hand in hand even with the Vow/I made to her in Marriage,and to decline/Upon a wretch,…" 1.5.50-56

    To have faked it the whole time she was an adulterer with Claudius, and to leave the impression she did on both Hamlet and his father. One thing's pretty obvious about her–she must be quite the Actress.

  11. I know there's a point at which we've completely diverged from what the text gave us to work with, but I suppose we could argue that Hamlet's simply adjusting his memories accordingly – he wants to remember a mom and dad who were actually happily married. Just like there's nothing in Lady M's "I'd smash it's head in" that indicates she would really do that, I'm not so sure that Hamlet saying "She'd hang on him…" guarantees that she was madly in love with her husband, either.

    Like I said, though, we've strayed well away from the text and into psychology at that point, and it certainly becomes impossible to prove one point over another.

  12. That's possible. No guarantee of exactly what she was doing. But I have a strong tendency to take Hamlet at his word–especially when it comes to observation. He's not easily fooled. Coupled with King Hamlet's: "…my most seeming virtuous Queen", even if she wasn't happily married, it might indicate some sort of rather convincing play-acting show from Mom. (She seems adept at "playing along" with whatever Claudius (speaking of "Actors") wants; seems to be the happily deferring newlywed.(Which leads me to believe–as Duane has mentioned–that she knew nothing of Claudius' regicide)

    But, even in terms of pure textual analysis it's still unclear– King Hamlet could simply be revealing to Hamlet NOW, something he never let on about in his life.

    Which brings up an interesting question: When do we think King Hamlet found out about the "incestuous relationship"? I'm not quite sure of what to think; that he knew of it before or if it was somehow "revealed" to him, after he "died" (revealed along with many other things we don't know until…we visit the bourne from which no traveler returns) The answer to that would lead to more answers about Gertrude.

  13. Duane It is fun to make assumption about characters. You are right about the Claudius as Hamlet’s father. I have read the play and read it and looked for some line or hint that my theory is correct but to no avail. I believe that Shakespeare would have known the Oedipus story from Sophocles so it is possible that it is a conceit of the play. Or maybe it is because I am a strict Feuding and I blame all male action on unfilled oedipal issues.

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