Interpretations of Act III, Scene ii, of Hamlet: "The Mousetrap"

In 1957 Sir John Gielgud, the British actor renowned for his portrayal of Hamlet, wrote:

I am constantly receiving letters asking me whether the Queen was an accomplice of her husband's murder. This is, I suppose, because the actresses who have played the part recently--Martita Hunt and Luara Cowie in London, and Judith Anderson in New York--have played her with real fire and sensuality, whereas in the old days as I have said she was played as the heavy woman--nothing more. It seems obvious to me, and I should have thought to everyone else (but one is never done with speculation in Hamlet), that Shakespeare meant her to be an adulteress, shallow, handsome, but not in the least wicked in the sense of being a murderess. Mrs. Campbell said to me, "The point about Gertrude in the closet scene is not that she didn't know Claudius was a murderer, but that she doted on him so much that she wouldn't have minded if he had been." This seems to me feminine and shrewd (Leavenworth, 166).

The letters concerning Gertrude's possible guilt should not have surprised Gielgud, because the question is open and critics and directors have supplied varied answers. In a modern context the problem is this: What did Gertrude know and when did she know it? There is no smoking gun in Hamlet, but the text allows interpretations ranging from complete, almost simple-minded innocence to a guilty complicity and active hand in the murder.

Daniel Maclise implies Gertrude's innocence in his painting The Play Scene in "Hamlet" (1842). Despite Hamlet's furrowed brow and his intent glare at Claudius, the painting of Cain and Abel behind her, the monstrous, demonic shadow on the wall, and Claudius's sour reaction to the play depicting the murder of a king--all elements to arouse alarm and fear in a complicitous Gertrude--she sits serenely, expressionless and hands folded, quietly watching the play. Maclise portrays an innocent Gertrude who apparently has no inkling of Claudius's guilt or even of the murder itself. But other interpretations, in both stage productions and paintings, suggest Gertrude's guilty knowledge of the murder, and Hamlet suspects her as well as Claudius; Hamlet's "mousetrap" therefore sets out to capture the conscience of a king and a queen.

In the compendious study The Masks of Hamlet (1992) Marvin Rosenberg lists some of the ways that actors have played Act III, scene ii. Take, for example, how a single line can affect the interplay between Hamlet and Gertrude; when Ophelia observes that the prologue to Gonzago is brief, Hamlet answers, "As a woman's love." In an 186l production of Hamlet, Charles Fichter said the line to Claudius rather than Ophelia, but he looked at Gertrude. Sir Henry Irving (1878) directed the line to both Claudius and Gertrude. John Gielgud (1930) passed by Gertrude and "dropped the words into her ear." Richard Burton (1953) pointed at Gertrude as he spoke the line, and Derek Jacobi spoke the line to Ophelia, but he obviously meant Gertrude to hear it (Rosenberg, 580).

Laurence Olivier, in the most famous film version of the play, holds the moment of suspicion until almost the end of the scene; as the court flees from the room, Gertrude looks angrily at Hamlet, and Olivier watches her leave the room "in surprise, as if realizing for the first time that she might have been an accomplice" (Mills 245). But whenever the moment of realization comes, most actors play the scene with Hamlet conscious of not only Claudius but Gertrude as well, until finally, "Gertrude, awakened to the present" and the significance of the play she is watching, responds in various ways from "pretended indifference, to defiant laughter, to signs of guilt, to outright anger" (Rosenberg 588). Depending on how one interprets Hamlet's mother, she can be played many ways, and none of these Gertrudes does violence to the text of the play.

The scene ends with Hamlet off to see his mother in her chamber, but not before he says, "Let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom"; Nero killed his mother and, according to some sources, tore open her womb to see where he had come from. Does Hamlet suspect Gertrude of having had a hand in the murder of Old Hamlet, and must he therefore deliberately drive from his mind all thoughts of matricide, as some critics suggest?

Edwin Austin Abbey, another painter who rendered this scene from Hamlet, sees a Gertrude unlike the serene woman in Maclise's The Play Scene from "Hamlet." In his Hamlet (1897) we see a much different composition than Maclise's. The characters look out of the painting towards us, the viewers, so the play within the play, as Lucy Oakley suggests, must be sharing our space, somewhere outside the frame of the canvas. In this painting, Gertrude shrinks from Claudius and huddles in the corner of the settle, pulling her black veil tight against her face, partially concealing it. Whether she is herself guilty, her reaction to Claudius and the distance she attempts to put between herself and her husband (with the serpentine figure emblazoned on his cloak) suggests a realization of the dark meaning of the play she witnesses. Abbey indeed leaves us wondering just how much Gertrude knows and at what point she began to know it.