Gertrude’s Knowledge of Claudius’s Guilt

There are several questions about the backstory of Hamlet, one being the extent of Gertrude’s knowledge, or indeed any character’s actual knowledge, of the circumstances of elder Hamlet’s death. Gertrude is the most crucial for Hamlet’s dilemma, which I interpret as how he might avenge his father’s death without punishing his mother’s culpability in it. This is his external dilemma, one most concerned with the story and plot. There is a deeper dilemma, one of character that Hamlet faces. More on it later.

First to Gertrude. It is she that he damns first in his monologue following the revelation of the Ghost:

Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter: yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!

“O villain” is a return to the calumny of Claudius, but Hamlet’s first expression of ire is telling. He will literally turn away from killing Claudius to go resolve the issue with his mother in Act 3. No matter his rationalization for his delay – it is only because he must deal with his mother’s guilt before he unleashes the swelling currents of vengeance. How else can he be sure to stay his hand in obedience to his dead father’s will?

Indeed, he almost kills her there in her bedroom, despite his pleading after the play for temperance. Polonius falls by his sword, and only the revelation of his identity shocks the joy of killing back into its place for Hamlet. It is a vital question for Hamlet, and for us the audience. Shakespeare understands that, and since his motive is the provocation of cathartic tragedy, he answers that question for us (but not for Hamlet).

Polonius comes to petition King Claudius with news: he has learned a possible motive for Hamlet’s recent madness, and since it propels Polonius to center stage, it is a fact as far as he is concerned. Polonius has told his daughter to stop seeing Hamlet, almost accusing her of being a stupid slut in a callous nobleman’s hands. Shakespeare has shown us the hypocrisy that gives Polonius cause for concern – it is behavior he expects and encourages from his son, and thus from any unmarried male member of nobility. Yet Hamlet has often shown his disdain of Polonius, and so Polonius wrapped in his narcissism believes Hamlet’s attentions to be about the two of them. When Ophelia describes a recent startling encounter between Hamlet and her, Polonius is stunned – Hamlet was actually in love with his daughter! And off he runs with his news.

And it is in the telling that all secrets come out. After Polonius has finished his rhetorical flourishes, there’s a slight pause in which Claudius digests this less-than-satisfying news:

KING CLAUDIUS
Do you think ’tis this?

QUEEN GERTRUDE
It may be, very likely.

LORD POLONIUS
Hath there been such a time–I’d fain know that–
That I have positively said ‘Tis so,’
When it proved otherwise?

KING CLAUDIUS
Not that I know.

LORD POLONIUS
[Pointing to his head and shoulder]
Take this from this, if this be otherwise:
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.

Shakespeare has not confirmed Claudius’s guilt yet. Hamlet believes it with all his heart, and we should be extremely suspicious of the man. Claudius betrays himself here for us. “Do you think ‘tis this?” Claudius doesn’t wish to offend the old man, but he’s had far more opportunity to observe the mad Hamlet, and it never seems to be about spurned love whenever they are together. Yet Gertrude is surprisingly supportive (considering her treatment of Polonius earlier in the scene) and Polonius then springs his ace.

“Hath there been such a time – I’d fain know that –
That I have positively said ‘Tis so,’
When it proved otherwise?”

It’s far more dramatic to interpret this not as an old man puffing and preening, but as a crafty old man nailing Claudius to the ground with his knowledge of Claudius’s guilt. It is a dangerous game that both are playing here, and the stakes can only be one thing: Gertrude’s discovery of Claudius’s guilt.

How polite they are to each other here! And after the comedy, the audience will be drawn into this sudden snake fight. It is only our suspicion of Claudius that gives us the true import of the conversation. Gertrude’s innocence keeps her from seeing it in any other way but the preening old man.

So many inner world reveal themselves. Earlier, Gertrude ascribes her son’s madness to “his father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.” This third blow to her son is seen through a loving mother’s eyes, and becomes the final link in her flattering unction. She will forever support Ophelia throughout the rest of the play, even admitting her wish for their marriage over her grave.

The circumstances of elder Hamlet’s death emerge clearly – Claudius acted alone, and Polonius discovered the truth (whether through inference or by his favorite method of fact gathering, concealment behind a curtain). Polonius confronted Claudius with this knowledge, and forever ensured his place in King Claudius’s court.

And Gertrude knows nothing untoward about the death of her husband. We as an audience learn this unreservedly at this point. It is knowledge we have that Hamlet does not, and because of it we can follow him down the path of vengeance while building up the emotions to be discharged in catharsis. We can watch him in his mother’s bedroom, drawing his sword yet again while he watches her observing her repentance, ready to send her to heaven – at once purging his desire to punish her and yet honoring his father’s wish. There only the reappearance of his father can stop him, and when Gertrude shows she is not haunted by his death (for those haunted by a death in Shakespeare will always see the ghost of their victim), Hamlet finally can accept that Gertrude had no knowing part in his father’s death and can relent. She has been tried, and she has passed her test. Only the circumstances unleashed by the death of Polonius can keep Hamlet from his vengeance now, and every step Hamlet takes from then on is one that brings him closer to a position in which he can take his vengeance and keep his kingdom from falling apart.

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The Ugly American

Reuters today tells us of a guide to overcome the stereotype of the ugly American. It's distributed by Business for Diplomatic Action, a non-profit founded to help overcome a single contributing factor of increasing anti-Americanism: our "collective personality" abroad.

We are seen as loud, arrogant and completely self-absorbed," said Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the advertising agency DDB Worldwide. "People see in us the ultimate arrogance — assuming that everybody wants to be like us."

This is a worthy project, yet a look at some of the principles shows an obstacle. Talk slower and lower: fast talking is seen as aggressive and threatening. Listen at least as much as you talk; talk about America and your life, but ask about their country and their lives. Dress more conservatively. These are the stuff of common courtesy. It seems that we can overcome the stigma of the ugly American by not being ugly Americans.

It's not that easy to do. The savvy business people among us have used their hardcore personalities to get to where they are. Business is business, and why should they change for anyone? Better others should change for them. That involves no loss of personal pride; that keeps the other folks on the defensive, which is how you advance your goals. Acting in a polite, respectful manner puts us in the defensive. We set ourselves up as chumps and easy marks.

Ever since I visited the pyramids of Giza, I've thought that any aspiring sales company would do well to take their sales force there. The hawkers and moneygrubing on display is a tribute to the mechanics of the deal. Speak low, ask about their families, and you will pay through the nose.

It didn't help that I had a hangover. The magnificent thrill of actually being in this spot had almost balanced out the difficulties of the trip. We'd driven an hour and a half from Alexandria to Cairo. The bus was barely airconditioned, and the sun through the windows had put half of us down for the count. But now we were here. These buildings had been constructed over three thousand years ago. It was a sight many on Earth never see but in photographs, and we were here.

We drove up the hill to the gate. There stood the Great Pyramid. We waited while the tickets were purchased and then wound our way past the pyramids to a parking lot back behind them. This, we were told, was the best place for a panoramic view of the spectacle.

As we got off, we saw many things. The pyramids, backed by the city of Cairo. A huge amphitheater, built for the opera Aida, waiting for the season to reopen. A long row of vendors, running along the back end of the lot. And as we disembarked, the vendors swarmed to us as we tried desperately to escape.

"Hello! Welcome to Egypt!" "Welcome to the Pyramids, my friend, what is your name?" "Hello!" "Excuse me, sir, hello? Hello?"

One man focused completely on me. I found this to be a pattern in many places. I'm in my thirties, I dress nicely, and I have a nice digital camera on my arm. To the sharks of this world, this evidently means wealthy more than not. For myself, it means I've spent all my money on clothes and cameras. It's not an easy place to be in.

"Hello, sir? Hello, welcome to Egypt, hello? My name is Mohammed. (Every person in a Middle East country that ever attached themselves to me was named Mohammed) Hello? I wish to show you the site, welcome to Egypt!"

I can see the pyramids fine. I don't have any money.

"No money! No money! Please, hello!"

He was late forties, white turban, tan colored robe. He had his security badge prominently displayed. I kept walking towards the line of tourists taking pictures. He followed doggedly.

"Hello? My name is Mohammed. What is your name?"

Mine is Joseph, I say. He gets it – Joseph in Egypt. "That is a good name, a very good name. It is one of the prophets!"

I stop to get my camera ready. He remains by my side, though I do my best to ignore him completely. He offers me his hand. I react – I don't want to buy anything, I say.

He is wounded. His hand is empty. He turns it over to show me so. "You will not shake my hand?"

And there it is. The fisherman sets the hook. You are the rude ugly American I've heard so much about. A lifetime of snatching a dollar or two from this pack of ingrates who flock here day after day, it has weathered this man but he still possesses the ability to express his wounded pride. I look at him across the cultural gap, knowing exactly what he is doing. He has no real concern for this transaction. For whatever reason, I appear to be an easy mark, flush with cash, and he's not letting me close him. He is going to close me.

I shake his hand. It's rough, but the hand doesn't grip mine tightly. Every chance to display weakness, that's his strong point.

I surprise him then. "Ma'salaami." I turn and move closer to an unobstructed view. I hear him say "Ma'salaami" as well, but he's turning over his next approach in his mind. It's not usual for the tourist to have any kind of Arabic. He follows me. I suppose he considered that learning any part of his native language means I want to talk – i.e., I'm still the weaker party.

He makes a pest of himself. He asks to take a picture of me. I refuse; I have friends that will do it for free. He's frustrated. "No money! I am proud of my heritage! I show you the site." He wants me to take his picture. He moves down, blocking what view I have. "Please! No money! No money! You take my picture."

Finally I relent. The picture is taken. On the instant, he moves up, thumb moving across his fingers in the universal sign. And I am undone. "Please," he says, "please, a gift for my family."

The heat is splitting me open, the moment of being with the pyramids alone is rapidly escaping, and the never disguised sales tactic reminds me of past jobs. I lay into the man. "I told you I have no money, you said no money, and now you are ASKING FOR MONEY!" I hit Review and began to erase the picture. "You see, I'm erasing the picture. It's deleted. It's gone. I owe you nothing." And I cut through the crowd again, the ugly American, what can you say, they're all like that.

I move to another place. I get my pictures. I sit staring out at those massive structures. For a few minutes I am there.

Another vendor approaches me. This one is in his late teens. He smiles. "Welcome to Egypt! My name is Mohammed. Will you shake my hand?"

I look at him calmly. "I've already shaken the hand."

He gets it. He moves on. He'll learn.