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Rewriting Canonical Portrayals of Women

Margaret Atwood's Gertrude Talks Back

by Pilar Cuder Dominguez
Universidad de Huelva

In her collection of short stories, Good Bones (O. W. Toad, 1992), Margaret Atwood (1939 - ) has included Gertrude Talks Back, a piece that rewrites the famous closet scene in Shakespeare´s Hamlet. The character of Hamlet´s mother has posed problems of interpretation to readers, critics and performers, past and present, and has been variously or simultaneosly appraised as a symbol of female wantonness, the object of Hamlet´s Oedipus complex, and an example of female submissiveness to the male principle (Hamlet´s as much as Claudius´s). Like other revisionist rewritings produced by women writers in the last few decades, Margaret Atwood´s short story challenges received concepts of the female, and particularly the "Frailty, thy name is woman" notion that has marked so much canonical literature.

Recent developments in the humanities, usually grouped under the common label of "post-structuralist theory," have contributed to making us sensitive to the politics of culture, in general, and of literature, in particular. Much thought has been given in the last few decades to how the literary canon emerges and holds its ground, and to the relations between canonical and non-canonical, between the centre and the margins. Post-colonial theorist Edward Said reminds us that "[t]he power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them" (xiii). Here as in other respects, the political agendas of feminism and post-colonialism overlap; both aim at challenging the canon and at inscribing the experiences of the marginal subject (female and/or post-colonial).

Revisionist rewritings are one of the strategies that can serve that purpose; I need not mention the by now many rewritings of such canonical texts as The Tempest or Robinson Crusoe. As regards the author I am concerned with here, Margaret Atwood, extensive attention has been paid to a recurrent feature of her fiction: her repeated reworking of fairy tales, most importantly the different versions of Bluebeard´s Egg, a re-shaping which culminates in her novel The Robber Bride (1993). I would also point out how what is perhaps her most popular novel to date, The Handmaid´s Tale (1985), thematizes the politics of reading and writing or, as Hutcheon has aptly put it, "the opposition between product and process" (139).

Similar concerns are apparent in the compilation of her short stories under the title Good Bones (1992). If the constructions of womanhood and manhood occupy her in The Female Body and Making a Man, in other stories (There Was Once, Unpopular Gals, etc) it is the literary construction of womanhood that is foregrounded. Thus, one of these tales ends with "Let us now praise stupid women,/ who have given us Literature" (37). In no other story as in Gertrude Talks Back, however, has Atwood engaged the issue so deeply and strikingly.

I say deeply and strikingly because there Atwood goes straight to the heart of the matter. If there is any one author who can be said to have persistently influenced cultural representations in the English-speaking world, we would probably agree that it is William Shakespeare. And if one of his works had to stand for the canon of "English" literature, it would likely be Hamlet. Atwood´s story then engages the very centre of that canon, and through Gertrude she rewrites a canonical text from the very margins of its own discourse.

The author´s endeavour, nevertheless, is fraught with problems. Gertrude is, after all, one of Shakespeare´s most elusive female characters, and one over which criticism (feminist and otherwise) has long debated. The most common representation would see her, as Hamlet and the Ghost do, as a lustful, adulterous and incestuous woman. This portrayal has marked not only critical readings but also film versions of the play, as Rebecca Smith pointed out in her account of Olivier´s (1948), Kozintsev´s (1964) and Richardson´s (1969), a list to which I would add Zeffirelli´s Hamlet (1990), as I would contend that it closely follows those precedents. The keystone for this portrayal is of course the famous closet scene, where "Olivier´s Hamlet brutally hurls Gertrude--the ultimate sexual object--onto her bed, alternating embraces and abuse" (Smith 195).

Feminist criticism of Shakespeare has tried to read the character differently. An early attempt was made in 1957 in the article The Character of Hamlet´s Mother, where Carolyn Heilbrun questioned the influential views of Bradley and Dover Wilson among others, and argued that Gertrude was "intelligent, penetrating, and gifted with a remarkable talent for concise and pithy speech;" she nevertheless had to admit to Gertrude´s being also "passion´s slave" (17). Rebecca Smith went farther. After thoroughly examining the textual evidence, she concluded that

the traditional depiction of Gertrude is a false one, because what her words and actions actually create is a soft, obedient, dependent, unimaginative woman who is caught miserably between "two mighty opposites," her "heart cleft in twain" (III.4.156) by divided loyalties to husband and son. She loves both Claudius and Hamlet, and their conflict leaves her bewildered and unhappy. (194)

More recently, but in a similar vein, Adelman has claimed, again after a close textual reading, that what is seen is "a woman more muddled than actively wicked; even her famous sensuality is less apparent than her conflicted solicitude both for her husband and for her son" (15). Adelman would even suggest that Gertrude´s death could be read as a suicide in order to protect her son, on the grounds that "she shows unusual determination in disobeying Claudius´s command not to drink [the poisoned cup]" (16).

Other studies of the character have attempted to place Gertrude in the wider context of gender representation in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, by arguing that deviant behaviour in women is consistently associated with and portrayed as sexual waywardness. Thus, Jardine´s point that "[i]t is the male characters who perceive free choice on the part of the female character as an inevitable sign of irrational lust, and as the inevitable prelude to disorder and disaster" (Still Harping 72) proves rather helpful to understand Shakespeare´s handling of the character.

What lies at the bottom of these disparate readings is precisely the ambiguity of the Shakespearean text. Whereas its main sources, 12th-century Saxo Grammaticus Historiae Danicae and 16th-century Belleforest´s Histoires Tragiques, give a clear account of Gertrude´s knowledge of the plot against the elder Hamlet and/or her adultery before his death, these matters are rather obscure in Shakespeare´s play. Besides, Gertrude remains relatively inarticulate. Even though she is capital to the motivation of others, especially her son, she has few lines for a major character; Gertrude is construed by others rather than by herself:

Virtually silent on her own behalf, . . . [Gertrude's] depth as a protagonist is accumulated out of the responses to her of others. Thus she captures for feminist critics the constructedness of femaleness which has absorbed us for more than a decade. (Jardine, Reading 149)

These ambiguities are the leverage for Atwood´s rewriting of the closet scene (Hamlet 3.4). It should be noted, first of all, that Atwood passes over two of the main moments of this scene in Shakespeare´s text, the accidental murder of Polonius and the apparition of the Ghost, as not being relevant for her purposes, and she focuses instead on the confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude. Atwood´s story, however, does not present an explicit dialogue between both; on the contrary, it is a one-sided dialogue, Gertrude´s voice being the only one we hear/read. Thus Atwood turns the tables and gives Gertrude the articulateness she lacks in the play.

Hamlet´s voice may not be heard, but it is nevertheless there. Shakespeare´s and Atwood´s texts are tied by cross-referential links which are shown even in the very disposition of the latter on the page. The new Gertrude does not produce one continuous speech, but rather a number of utterances separated by pauses, thereby announcing that this is in fact an exchange, part of which has been left out. The elided section would correspond to Hamlet´s words, that is, to the intertext of Shakespeare´s play. Moreover, a closer look to the story will lead us to identify each of Gertrude´s utterances as both a challenging move, and a response to Hamlet´s accusations in the intertext, though muted here.

Putting both texts side by side, as I will be doing here, would then not only serve to reconstruct the whole "dialogue," ie. the connections between text and intertext, but would also render clear the very mechanics of Atwood´s revisionist rewriting. What is then immediately apparent is that Atwood does not follow Shakespeare´s ordering of the scene, but has built her portrayal of Gertrude on a handful of specific moments which have been re-located, hence completely disrupting Hamlet´s/Shakespeare´s discourse.

The story opens with a reference to the name of the implied listener, Hamlet, which together with the very title of the story serves the purpose of placing it in its literary context and identifying the intertext for the reader:

I always thought it was a mistake, calling you Hamlet. I mean, what kind of a name is that for a young boy? It was your father´s idea. Nothing would do but that you had to be called after him. Selfish. The other kids at school used to tease the life out of you. The nicknames! And those terrible jokes about pork.
I wanted to call you George. (Good Bones 15)

But Atwood´s Gertrude´s naming of the listener is at the same time a re-naming that de-sacralizes the figure of Hamlet through a humorous pun ("those terrible jokes about pork") and its re-contextualization in the quotidian ("I wanted to call you George"). This first move would represent a response to Hamlet´s words below and a challenge of their implicit accusation, since by naming Gertrude as "the Queen, your husband´s brother´s wife" Hamlet is accusing her of the unspeakable crime of incest:

GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me?

HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so.
You are the Queen, your husband´s brother´s wife,
And, would it were not so, you are my mother.
(Hamlet 3.4.13-15)

Gertrude´s opening words in Atwood are thus characteristic of what will be the three main lines of attack of this revisionist rewriting of the character: a de-sacralization of Hamlet through both humour and re-contextualization in the quotidian, the dismissal of guilt, and correspondingly, a rejection of his (male) construction of her.

The first of these strategies rests on Gertrude´s alternative construction of Hamlet. In Atwood´s text he is construed as a youngster who moves awkardly ("That´ll be the third [mirror] you´ve broken"), and a student of uncleanly habits who lives in a "slum pigpen" and does not bring laundry home often enough. Even his sombre clothing, so inseparable of the character´s psychological portrait, is parodied through his black socks, which now read simply as one of the many fashions young people are tempted into in contemporary society. What´s more, Hamlet´s very reason of being in Shakespeare´s play, his heart-felt wish to take revenge on Claudius, is deflated in Atwood´s, and their antagonism transformed into the average friction between a grown-up stepson and a newly-acquired stepfather: "By the way, darling, I wish you wouldn´t call your stepdad the bloat king. He does have a slight weight-problem, and it hurts his feelings" (Good Bones 16).

If this new Hamlet has become an unremarkable contemporary young man, he nevertheless retains the faithfulness to "the law of the Father" that marks him in Shakespeare´s play. The de-sacralization of the son aims as well at the figure, quite literally in this scene, standing behind him; the father´s naming his son makes him an imprint and recreates the same flaw: the masculinist code (the elder Hamlet´s "holier-than-thou principle," in Atwood's rendering below) that constrains women´s actions and would particularly control their sexuality. Gertrude clearly states as much in accepting Hamlet´s muted challenge to compare both husbands:

Look here upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow,
Hyperion´s curls, the front of Jove himself,
An eye like Mars to threaten and command,
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man.
This was your husband. Look you now what follows.
Here is your husband, like a mildw´d ear
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed
And batten on this moor? Ha, have you eyes? (Hamlet 3.4.53-67)

Whereas in Shakespeare´s play she responded in no way, here she vindicates Claudius and disparages the elder Hamlet:

Yes, I´ve seen those pictures, thank you very much. I know your father was handsomer than Claudius. High brow, aquiline nose and so on, looked great in uniform. But handsome isn´t everything, especially in a man, and far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but I think it´s about time I pointed out to you that your Dad wasn´t a whole lot of fun. Noble, sure, I grant you. But Claudius, well, he likes a drink now and then. He appreciates a decent meal. He enjoys a laugh, know what I mean? You don´t always have to be tiptoeing around because of some holier-than-thou principle or something. (Good Bones 15-16)

As a result, in Atwood´s story Hamlet´s remaining defining trait (like his father´s before him) is his prudishness. Gertrude´s accusation that he lacks a sexual drive challenges his own of giving way to her animal instincts in 3.4.88-96. This is probably Atwood´s tour-de-force, since it validates Gertrude´s famous lustful nature through an effective reversal of the very notions of normality/abnormality, thus making Gertrude´s acknowledgment of guilt utterly irrelevant:

GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, speak no more,
Thou turn´st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

HAMLET: Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew´d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty!

GERTRUDE: O speak to me no more.
These words like daggers enter my ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.
The rank sweat of a what? My bed is certainly not enseamed, whatever that may be. A nasty sty, indeed!
. . .
Go get yourself someone more down-to-earth. Have a nice roll in the hay. Then you can talk to me about nasty sties. (Good Bones 16-17)

As a matter of fact, the canonical interpretation of guilt as being central to Gertrude´s behaviour is explicitly dismissed earlier in the story with the statement "I am not wringing my hands. I am drying my nails," which gives a humourous lie to Hamlet´s declared intention of wringing her heart in 3.4.34-35 ("Leave wringing of your hands. Peace, sit you down,/And let me wring your heart"). That explicit denial is a necessary step in order to deconstruct the Shakespearean writing of Gertrude as Other, and therefore it immediately precedes a less obvious rejection of the mirror Hamlet sets up before her:

Come, come, and sit you down, you shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you. (Hamlet 3.4.17-19)

Gertrude´s scolding "Darling, please stop fidgeting with my mirror" in Atwood's rewriting implies that the "inmost part" of her that he sees and would have her see is not at all her inmost part. Her rejection of the male gaze thus comes to forestall his unwelcome intrusion, his unwanted meddling in her private affairs. Regarding this issue, it is appropriate to bear in mind that the scene is supposed to take place in Gertrude's closet. According to Jardine, this was the only domestic space over which early modern women exercised total control (Reading 151). Atwood's choice of the closet scene, and of each element in it, is therefore no mere coincidence. Instead, her rendering comes to clarify and highlight what in Shakespeare's play is taken for granted, that the closet encodes Gertrude's body. The control she now displays gives her back her agency.

Another such mirror is rejected in Ophelia. It will be remembered that Hamlet´s mistreatment of Ophelia is commonly understood as being caused by Ophelia´s taking on or participating of Gertrude´s inherently lustful nature. But Ophelia is erased in Atwood´s story; whereas Hamlet is re-named, Ophelia is de-named: she is simply referred to as "that pasty-faced what´s-her-name." Like Hamlet, she is transformed into the abnormal, the exception rather than the rule, and the margin to Gertrude´s centre:

And let me tell you, everyone sweats at a time like that, as you´d find out very soon if you ever gave it a try. A real girlfriend would do you a heap of good. Not like that pasty-faced what´s-her-name, all trussed up like a prize turkey in those touch-me-not corsets of hers. Borderline. Any little shock could push her right over the edge. (Good Bones 17)

Actually, the "Go get yourself someone more down-to-earth" Gertrude utters earlier can read as Atwood´s rebuke to Hamlet´s expletive to Ophelia in 3.1.121 ("Get thee to a nunnery"). Neither is Ophelia here an innocent victim; indeed, her tragic end is comically anticipated as resulting from that very abnormality. Once more, Atwood's interpretation of Ophelia makes clear that the Shakespearean character is shaped by patriarchal specularization.

All the same, Gertrude is guilty of some crime here too. Atwood´s Gertrude may not confess to pangs of conscience, but she does own up to the murder of her first husband, the elder Hamlet:

Oh! You think what? You think Claudius murdered your Dad? Well, no wonder you´ve been so rude to him at the dinner table!
If I´d known that, I could have put you straight in no time flat.
It wasnt´Claudius, darling.
It was me. (Good Bones 18)

In that sense, yes, she is guilty. Atwood works on the dark areas of the Shakespearean text in order to re-inscribe her own Gertrude: one that takes responsibility for her actions and that unambiguously asserts her right to choose. What she is claiming for herself is agency; what she re-appropriates is her sexuality. Therefore, her refusal to acknowledge Ophelia as a mirror implies as well refusing to be victimized.

It must be noted, however, that Atwood rewrites Gertrude by building on the standard reading of the character. Unlike some feminist critics, she does not vindicate Gertrude by recasting her as a humble, soft, dependent woman (cf. Smith´s reading). On the contrary, she writes a non-canonical revision of the canonical reading of the text. She simply forces us to re-consider the very values that lie at the heart of that reading. In a way, she is asserting Gertrude´s right to be lustful, and denying Hamlet/Shakespeare the power to pass judgement on her. She has rewritten him/them as Other.

Finally, we should bear in mind that Atwood is a Canadian author daring to challenge the very foundation of the English literary canon. She is not only re-inscribing the female subject; she is also writing the post-colonial mind as she dislodges the centre from its throne. "Gertrude Talks Back" represents not just a dialogue between Gertrude and Hamlet, between Atwood and Shakespeare, but also indisputably a dialogue between Canadian literature and English literature, and one where the former (Gertrude/Atwood/Canada) get the upper hand. Atwood´s story exemplifies how Canadian culture assimilates and resists.

Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers. London: Routledge, 1992.
Atwood, Margaret. "Gertrude Talks Back." Good Bones 15-18.
---. Good Bones. Toronto: Coach House, 1992.
Heilbrun, Carolyn G. Hamlet´s Mother and Other Women. London: The Women´s Press, 1990.
---. "The Character of Hamlet´s Mother." Hamlet´s Mother 9-17.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1988.
Jardine, Lisa. Reading Shakespeare Historically. London: Routledge, 1996.
---. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1983.
Lenz, Carolyn Ruth Swift, et al., eds. The Woman´s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Methuen, 1982.
Smith, Rebecca. "`A Heart Cleft in Twain:´ The Dilemma of Shakespeare´s Gertrude." Lenz 194-210.

1 An earlier draft of this paper was delivered at the 5th International Conference on Canadian Studies (Madrid, November 1994).

© Pilar Cuder Dominguez, October 2003