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Interpreting Gertrude’s Guilt and Suicide through a Sartrean Perspective


Mirrorless Guilt?

The question of culpability, by action or inaction, applies to all the characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet, foremost among them is that of Queen Gertrude. Critic Robert Smith posits that "she is innocent…. of the murder of Hamlet's father" yet, she is still guilty of the "sin of adultery" (Smith 91, 88). She remains guilty by the nature of her marriage to Claudius, and when this guilt is directed inward, she experiences a profound, existential anguish that stimulates her agency and relieves the pain of her guilt.

Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother is one of the first instances that Gertrude's guilt is genuinely revealed, rather than merely mentioned by Hamlet or the Ghost. When Hamlet confronts Gertrude about her actions in the wake of his father's death, he turns a "glass" on her so that she may view the "inmost part" of herself (3.4.20-21). The glass, or mirror, to which Hamlet refers does not exist in the physical world, but is in fact, the gaze of Hamlet himself; Gertrude is forced to accept herself as Hamlet sees her. At this moment, she implores Hamlet to "speak no more" as she is gripped by psychological pain, the same torturous anguish that Sartre's three characters are subjected to in the Second Empire-style room of Huis Clos with "no mirrors" (3.4.92, Sartre 15). Seeing the "black and grained spots" in her soul, Gertrude is pained, experiencing the expiating "pangs of conscience" to which Smith referred, which feel like "daggers" in her ears (3.4.93, 3.4.98).

Her painful guilt is deepened by her inaction, which results from her blind faith in Claudius. While not entirely powerless, Gertrude is confined by the gendered conventions of her era and position. Claudius exhibits a form of control over her vis-à-vis his role as King and her husband, evidenced by frequent and repeated orders, "come away" (1.2.128). In a Sartrean sense, she exists in the eye of the Other and thus is acting in bad faith by not utilizing her freedom to live authentically. Her actions are not hers to define, but rather are defined for her by the rules of broader society and the dictums of the King. However, Gertrude reclaims her agency through her suicide, thereby also effecting a quasi-redemption. In her final moments, she defies the order of the King‒"Gertrude, do not drink”‒and acts on her own beliefs by drinking from the poisoned cup and revealing Claudius's treacherous plan to her son (5.2.278). Her death is her own deliberate action, as evidenced by her statement, "I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me" (5.2.279). Further, by the reclamation of her free agency, she has cast off the guilt-ridden anguish.


Gertrude's redemption rests solely upon an existentialist interpretation of her death, as her suicide, in religious contexts would not end her anguish. Viewing Gertrude's guilt through an existentialist lens provides further analysis of her understanding of her guilt and her decision to drink from the poisoned cup. Thus, it is the restoration of Gertrude's agency after experiencing anguish that is critical and fulfills her character arc by giving meaning to her death.


Sartre, Jean-Paul. Huis Clos suivi de Les Mouches [No Exit followed by The Flies]. Gallimard, 1947.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Norton Anthology of Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Portable 13th ed., 2020. pp. 907-1004.

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Smith, Robert M. “Hamlet and Gertrude, or The Conscience of the Queen.” The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, vol. 11, no. 2, Folger Shakespeare Library, 1936, pp. 84–92,

© 2022 Lucas Delille

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