Hamlet Extra Credit Assignment #2 - "Gertrude Talks Back"

Hamlet Activity: Margaret Atwood’s “Gertrude Talks Back”

Did it bother you when Hamlet said all kinds of rude things to his mother, Gertrude, in Act 3, Scene 4? If you had a son, would you put up with him speaking to you that way? In "Gertrude Talks Back," Canadian writer Margaret Atwood imagines what Gertrude should have said to Hamlet.

Step 1: Read Margaret Atwood's "Gertrude Talks Back."

Step 2: Answer the following study questions:

  1. What kinds of accusations does Hamlet hurl at his mom in Act 3, Scene 4 of Hamlet? If it helps, retell the lines from the scene using your own words.
  2. Compare and contrast responses of Atwood's Gertrude and Shakespeare's Gertrude.
  3. What's the purpose of Atwood's monologue? Does it offer a critique of the play and/or Hamlet’s character? For example, how does Atwood's monologue help us understand Gertrude's cryptic, mysterious qualities (her ambiguous role in Old King Hamlet's death, etc.)? How does Atwood's piece help us understand Hamlet's obsession with his mother's sexuality?

Step 3: Choose a minor character from the play (someone other than Gertrude) and write a dramatic monologue for that character.















Gertrude Talks Back
By Margaret Atwood

b. 1939, Canadian writer. Piece from Good Bones (1992)


Source: Virago UK 1993, reprinted 2005

About 600 words, 1 page



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 nick-names! And those terrible jokes about pork.


I wanted to call you George.


I am not wringing my hands. I’m drying my nails.


Darling, please stop fidgeting with my mirror. That’ll be the third one you’ve broken.


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 just 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.


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.


The rank sweat of a what? My bed is certainly not enseamed, whatever that might be! A nasty sty, indeed! Not that it’s any of your business, but I change those sheets twice a week, which is more than you do, judging from that student slum pigpen in Wittenberg. I’ll certainly never visit you there again without prior warning! I see that laundry of yours when you bring it home, and not often enough either, by a long shot! Only when you run out of black socks.


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. If you ask me there’s something off about that girl. Borderline. Any little shock could push her right over the edge.


Go get yourself someone more down-to-earth. Have a nice roll in the hay. Then you can talk to me about nasty sties.


No, darling, I am not mad at you. But I must say you’re an awful prig sometimes. Just like your Dad. The Flesh, he’d say. You’d think it was dog dirt. You can excuse that in a young person, they are always intolerant, but in someone his age it was getting, well, very hard to live with, and that’s the understatement of the year.


Some days I think it would have been better for both of us if you hadn’t been an only child. But you realize who you have to thank for that. You have no idea what I used to put up with. And every time I felt like a little, you know, just to warm up my ageing bones, it was like I’d suggested murder.


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 wasn’t Claudius, darling.


It was me.