When I read Hamlet, I often ask myself ‘Why?’. There is the big why: Why does Hamlet remain in inaction for so long? And the whys that defy reason: Why does Hamlet hesitate to kill Claudius? Why does Hamlet so easily slay Polonius? Why is Hamlet so cruel to Ophelia? Etc.
This time, as I read the play, I have a whole new collection of whys: Why does Gertrude marry Claudius, and why so soon after the death of King Hamlet? Why does Gertrude reject her motherly identity? Why does Gertrude agree to banish her own son? In short, why is Gertrude so confusing?
In The Spiritual Shakespeare, “Spectres of Hamlet,” Richard Kearney describes Hamlet as “a story about the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of stories. Ophelia cannot tell her story until she goes mad (when she tells everything but is no longer herself: ‘Here’s rosemary for remembrance’); Claudius cannot tell his story, even in the confessional, until it is forced from him by the play within the play; Gertrude cannot tell her story because she is ignorant of it (she does not know that Claudius killed the King); Polonius and his fellow courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Osric, cannot tell their stories since they say only what pleases or deceives. Even Prince Hamlet cannot tell his story for as long as conscience makes a coward of him: not until, dying of a fatal wound, he begs his friend Horatio: ‘absent thee from felicity awhile to tell my story’.Which means that this is a play where no one actually tells their story, no one truly remembers, until Prince Fortinbras arrives too late on the scene, and announces: ‘I have some rights of memoryin this kingdom / Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me’” (Kearney 159-60).
Now, as an actor, the most important question I ask myself is ‘How do I tell the story?’ – A question negated by the inability of Gertrude to remember the past and plan for the future. Perhaps this explains my frustrations from last night.
If I consider the closet scene, Act III, scene iv, I am filled with more and more uncertainty. This pivotal scene presents a great deal of action and insight into the characters of Hamlet and Gertrude, but it also begs the answers to additional questions: Does Gertrude know of Claudius’ involvement in King Hamlet’s murder? Is Gertrude guilty of infidelity prior to the death of Hamlet, Sr.? Does Hamlet truly win Gertrude over to his side? These are questions that must be answered by me, the actor – It is clear I have a lot of work to do…