Such a mama, such a mom, such a mother moment. Here’s Hamlet, sweaty from the fight – she’s given him her “napkin” already but still, he has not wiped his face to her satisfaction.
Some Hamlets will acquiesce to this moment easily, even eagerly – happy to receive an affectionate face wipe from his mother. Others will resist – just the way almost every teen squirms under the moist thumb of his mother.
What happens here depends a lot on the Hamlet and a lot on the Gertrude and whatever relationship they have forged through the rest of the play.
Note that formal “you” sneaking in there like that. If she weren’t about to be dead, Claudius would have some relationship stuff to work out later. Did it just get real cold in here? She may be saying “pardon me” but she’s probably really meaning “pardon you, you bossy bastard.”
In a few minutes, she will be dead. So – Claudius has, at least, avoided a relationship chat later in the night, and he’s only got a few more minutes than she does so….it’s too late for pardons for all of them.
I love that Gertrude’s last act is one of defiance. It’s a good way to end – by not doing as you’re told. I mean, surely it would be better to live than die – but to die because you refused to do as you were told? Heroic death, in my view.
I just finished reading Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded (which I enjoyed very much, btw) and the girls in that book are all taught to be “shamefast and biddable.” Their deportment is more important than all their magical skill. Doing as one has been told, especially by a man, is the highest good in that world. And, of course, the heroine discovers her inner rebel. She sets aside all obedience and gets a lot done. It’s very satisfying. Also there’s a dragon.
There really wasn’t much carousing among women back in the old days – or at least not in the classical literature. We have a lot of carousing men. We have Sir Toby Belch, Falstaff and Claudius here in this play but even when women are around in these scenes, they don’t really get to do any carousing themselves. They usually bring the drinks. One of the things I love about Gertrude is this choice to carouse to her son, when carousing is not women’s usual way.
I love that she chooses to do it and that she refuses to yield to Claudius’ order that she not. I mean, sure, it kills her but I love that her last act is one of rebellion. She bucks her gender role twice. One, to carouse in the first place and two, to refuse to obey her husband and her king.
Now a woman carousing has become fairly commonplace. Girls have gone wild at bachelorette parties, showers and brunches and as much as most of those gatherings are repugnant to me, it does signal that a girl CAN get away with carousing now. Carousing is no longer out of our gender lane.
It is of note that Gertrude uses the plural of brow here.
Usually – the brow is the forehead and the most likely part of the body to dab with a handkerchief if one is sweating.
But she says “brows” plural. And the word brows, when it is this plural, usually suggests the eyebrows – as in “that model has her brows done at the local salon.”
Is Gertrude telling Hamlet to rub his eyebrows? Or is she speaking to both fighters suddenly – wishing for Laertes to rub his brow as well?
I doubt that.
It is most likely that she means brow.
And according to my friend ETYMOLOGY online – we get the word brow for forhead from the eyebrows – that brow meant eyebrow first and expanded to cover the entire forehead in around 1200.
So maybe Gertrude is just a 1200 girl with her “brows.” Also – I’ve just realized as I wrote these words how weird English is – because browse sounds exactly like brows and means something entirely different.
While the word “napkin” apparently came from the French, the French themselves abandoned it in exchange for the much classier sounding “serviette.” This was a good decision as far as I’m concerned , as serviette is a much sexier word than the flatfooted napkin.
Interestingly, though I’ve almost always seen this instance of the word “napkin” here as a synonym for handkerchief, the etymology site does not mention the word’s period as a handkerchief.
Shakespeare seems to almost always use napkin in this sense. Even the very most famous handkerchief in the canon is called a napkin. (I’m talking about Desdemona’s “napkin” here.)
One of the origins of the word relates to the material so that it basically means little linen. (“Kin” being a diminiutive.) I wonder if, in Shakespeare’s time, a napkin like you use at dinner was actually the same as a handkerchief. Like, were they both just little squares of linen?
Much has been made of Hamlet’s fatness. Is he or isn’t he? There are those who say “fat” here means “sweaty” or “full.” But, as Isaac Butler pointed out in his essay on this topic a few years ago, given how fat is used in the rest of this play, fat probably means fat. But what I find interesting is an assumption that Gertrude calling Hamlet fat means that Hamlet is fat, as if no mother ever called her son fat, even though he was not. As if no mother ever had body dysmorphia that she projected onto her children.
I’m very happy for Hamlet to have any type of body. In general, I believe all bodies are good bodies and that Hamlet should be able to be played by any one of them – male, sure but also female, trans, non-binary and questioning. He could be fat, thin, muscular, weedy – but also disabled and non-disabled.
So whether or not the character is written to be fat means nothing to me, really. Gertrude calls him fat because sometimes mothers do that sort of thing. Especially in a time that was perhaps not quite as fat phobic as the times we live in now. Even in our own time, there are cultures that find fatness much less taboo – that might call someone fat with affection and/or love. Maybe that’s what Gertrude is doing here. That’s how I played it when I played the part. Who knows if it read – but it helped me to say what I felt was an insult at the time. After a lot of exposure to fat activism, I’d feel less worried about it. It’s fine if Hamlet is fat. It’s fine if his mother calls him so. Even if he’s not.
I have just gone rather a lot deeper into facts on doves than I might have on another day. I’m just trying to work out what’s going on in this simile.
Patience, I get. Female doves are patient nesters apparently – but funnily enough, so are the male doves. They mate for life and take turns on the eggs.
The female dove DOES lay the eggs – usually in pairs – so a couplet makes sense.
And a couplet in a verse play has a lovely sense of doubled-ness. But a dove’s eggs are white, not golden.
And why are the eggs being disclosed?
Doves don’t leave their eggs alone for disclosure. So…is this dove in this analogy abandoning her eggs? And her partner suffers in silence? Or somehow Hamlet is the one whose silence will sit drooping?
Is it that a dove is drooping in silence after revealing her precious eggs? And so will Hamlet?
This is some fuzzy analogizing here from the Queen of Denmark.
The fit that works ON him is rather much better than a lot of the ways our language talks about this now.
The agency is in the fit. The fit is happening to him, it is working on him.
He is not the fit. The fit is on him like a leech that will eventually have taken its fill and leave him.
Now we’d say he’s having a fit. The active element is HE.
We might, if we’re careful, not say fit. We might say “an episode” of some kind. But we’d still say HAVING.
And I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have an uncontrollable brain disease myself, but I don’t so much feel as though I am having a migraine attack so much as the migraine is on me, drinking up my life force until it is through.
The original meaning of mere was pure, true. And Gertrude is probably using it that way – as in, this is real madness. This is pure madness. This is true madness.
Our contemporary sense of mere is almost its opposite. We read a line like this as “This is only madness. This is just madness. This is inconsequential madness.”
I think I said it this way when I played this part. But its original sense makes much more sense.
And apparently both meanings sat side by side for a while before the true, pure sense faded away.
And it seems there was a sort of middle ground meaning as well – or a bridge. Maybe it’s how the word came to mean almost opposite things. Apparently, it also meant glimmering and shimmering, which is easily connected to fairy gold and glamouring. That is, something that appears to be true but isn’t, really.