Her son was mad.
She had been certain of it since the cursed night when he turned the players’ play against her husband, killed old Polonius in her chamber, bespoke his father’s ghost, and at last set off for England. The courtiers still whispered behind their hands in all directions, spreading dark rumors of Polonius’ purpose in her bedchamber, of Hamlet’s, of formal duel and backstabbing murder, plot and counterplot. Her husband Claudius muttered into his beard and watched for dispatches from England. His eyes shifted whenever people spoke of young Hamlet’s madness, though he made haste to agree in mournful tones.
None of them knew the truth. Only Claudius might believe it, for he had had more chance than any to see the private monster behind his elder brother’s public face. But she could not speak the whole to Claudius, not after what Hamlet had shown her. Had made her understand.
“See what grace was seated on this brow,” he had said, thrusting his father’s portrait into her face. And she, looking in terror at her son and not the painting, had seen his father’s image indeed–the same cruel intensity, the same fearful menace, the same threat of violence hovering just beneath the surface, ready to explode at the first hint of disagreement. Her son, her sweet, beloved boy, the one good thing she thought she had salvaged from all the long, suffering years of marriage–her son was not her image, but his father’s.
Thirty years with his father had practiced her in the only safe response. She agreed with all Hamlet’s accusations, while her tears fell, not in repentance, but in grief for the child she had borne and for what he had become.
And then the ghost had come, in the same armor in which he had been buried. It had taken all her strength to hold to the pretense that she did not see him, but it was all the eggshell safety she could find. From that fragile shelter, she had seen him don his noble, public face; she had heard the words, fierce and tender, with which he drew her son further into his own dark world and threatened the happiness that she had found since his death.
As the ghost left the chamber, the candle shone through him, haloed in poisonous green. Poison–she sobbed again as the recent play, Hamlet’s ranting, and the ghost’s words came together in her mind, and she knew what her second husband had done to free her from her first.
Later, Claudius had calmed her, soothed her, as he always did, and sent young Hamlet away. She clung to him in the weeks that followed, while her new knowledge lay like a bruise constantly squeezed between her heart and soul. Claudius had done foul murder in secret for her sake, yet still they had not escaped her first husband. His ghost walked, thirsting for vengeance, and her own son was the weapon he would use against them both.
Now, just as she had begun to think she might find peace and a sense of safety, Hamlet had returned. Her mother’s eye marked the changes in him, both superficial and deep–the sea-bleached hair and tanned skin, the new hardness and grief. Her heart broke once more; just so had his father looked when he came back from the Polish wars, when his true nature first began to show itself to her. Something more had happened in young Hamlet’s absence, more than the accidental deaths of Polonius and Ophelia, to set this madness so firmly in his soul.
Claudius saw it, too. “Good Gertrude, set some watch over your son,” he told her as Horatio and his friends led Hamlet away from Ophelia’s grave.
With every nerve alight, she hurried to comply, while the thought beat in her brain: My son is mad, as his father was mad. Thanks be unto God that Claudius my husband has escaped this family curse.
She looked first in Hamlet’s chambers, expecting that his friend Horatio would have taken him there, but found only a tumble of baggage hastily returned. As she turned to leave the room, she heard their voices through the window. She started forward, to call to him, then froze motionless as his words reached her. “–I found, Horatio–Ah, royal knavery! –an exact command …my head should be struck off.”
Her hand crept to the little cross she wore while she fought to absorb this new, double blow. Her loving husband, who had killed for her sake, had commanded her son’s death; her sweet son stood below the window and gloated over the cleverness that had sent his dearest friends to the headsman in his place. Had Claudius, too, seen the madness growing in young Hamlet, and thought to protect her with this horrible stratagem? She wanted to believe it, but she could not quite convince herself. Yet what other reason could he have had?
“Madam,” said the courteous voice of a servant behind her, and she set her thoughts aside, as she had done so often before in the face of duty. But this time, the more she pushed them away, the more they came rushing back, so that she heard the servant’s words through a fog. It pleased the King that Hamlet and Laertes should display their skills at swordplay before the court; he had made a magnificent wager on Hamlet’s skill, and the Queen was summoned to join him.
She shuddered, and drew on royal dignity like a mourning veil, that she might not shame her husband or her son with her foolishness. Claudius waited for her outside the hall doors. His smile comforted her. No reproachful looks here for delaying his grand entrance, no quick frowns to make her spend the evening in fear of the punishment that awaited in private. Claudius was nothing like his brother. She laid her hand on his, and they entered the hall.
As they took their seats, she saw the glance that Claudius exchanged with Laertes, and all her unease returned. Yet if Claudius had sent her son away for her protection, he surely would not plan harm to Hamlet before her very eyes. And what mischief could Laertes do with the whole court looking on?
The fencing foils were chosen; the watered wine laid by to refresh the fencers between bouts. The combatants saluted. Their swords clashed, and her head pounded in time with them. Hamlet scored the first hit. The King toasted him and dropped a pearl in Hamlet’s cup to mark his favor. Her fears seemed suddenly foolish.
The second bout began. Hamlet scored once more, though he was breathing heavily by the end. A smile touched her lips as she regarded his disheveled hair and fierce intensity. This was her son, as she best remembered and loved him. The madness was gone, for now. Perhaps Claudius had been wiser than she, to give these two a mock combat in which to vent their anger. Still smiling, she reached out to Hamlet’s untouched cup. “The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet!” she said almost merrily as she lifted it.
“Gertrude!” Her husband’s voice, sharp with fear, brought her head around. Her eyes met his unguarded ones, and she saw in them the truth she had denied for months.
Her husband, her dear, kind Claudius, was as mad as his elder brother had been. She had only thought him better because he had hidden his treacherous cruelty in private, as well as in public. He had not dared to face his brother in combat, so he had used poison–the coward’s weapon–to gain the crown. He did not dare to face her son….
“Do not drink,” Claudius said, almost pleading. The words confirmed her bitter knowledge. She held his eyes, and saw his expression change as he in turn read truth in the mirror of her face. He shrank back, his eyes on the cup she held, and his lips soundlessly shaped the words once more–do not drink.
Do not drink, she thought. How easy. Make some brief jest and set the cup aside untasted, and live as a silent accomplice to the murder of her own son. Or raise the cup too fast, and spill the poison harmlessly across the floor in seeming accident, and live with a constant fear that would be greater than her fear of his brother’s blows had ever been. Or accuse her husband in plain words here and now, before the court, as she had never had the courage to accuse his brother, and live to watch the madness that cursed this family take her son as well as both her husbands. Do not drink, and live, knowing that she was as mad as the three men she had most loved, because she knew the depths of the madness in them all, and loved them still.
“I will, my lord,” she said, and added softly. “I pray you, pardon me.”
Then, with clear eyes and a steady hand, she raised the poisoned cup, and drank.