“Get thee to a nunnery. Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”

Hamlet

Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams

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“Action” is a word that, while used a great deal throughout the play, and is thought over and riddled over by Hamlet extensively, is a word that Hamlet seems to understand differently from nearly everyone else in the play.  In an obvious sense, it is Claudius, not his nephew who is the real doer of Hamlet:  it is he who kills the King, married the wife, incessantly works behind the scenes for Hamlet’s removal from Denmark and the plot.  Hamlet’s own deeds, by contrast are strictly second hand:  he stabs Polonius only after mistaking his identity, sentences his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death by rewriting Claudius’s commission to England. Even Hamlet’s death is scripted for him (or, one could say, his part is written) by his uncle, who arranges a duel with Laertes in which the swords and Hamlet’s wine are both “envenomed” with poison.  Hamlet’s two great “acts” (or action) in the play – his “antic disposition” of madness and the play he puts on to test his uncle’s conscience – are revealing (I think), for they show “acting” as theatrical display rather than a purposeful achievement.

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From Bloom:

“Between Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy and his Shakespeare-like instructing of the players, we are given the prince’s astonishingly brutal verbal assault upon Ophelia, which far surpasses his need to persuade the concealed Claudius of his nephew’s supposed madness.  What broader ambivalence Hamlet harbors toward Ophelia, Shakespeare will not tell us, but neither Polonius’s exploitation of his daughter as unwitting spy, nor Hamlet’s association of Ophelia with Gertrude, can account for the vehemence of this denunciation:

Hamlet:

Get thee to a nunnery.  Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?  I am myself Hamlet-and-Ophelia-hamlet-2646622-300-400indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it was better my mother had not born me.  I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What would such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?  We are arrant knaves all, believe none of us.  Go thy ways to a nunnery.  Where’s your father?

Ophelia:

At home, my lord.

Hamlet:

Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house. Farewell.

Ophelia:

O help him, you sweet heavens.

Hamlet:

If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.  Get thee to a nunnery, farewell.  Or if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go – and quickly too.  Farewell.

Ophelia:

Heavenly powers, restore him.

Hamlet:

I have heard of your paintings well enough.  God hath given you one face and you make yourself another.  You jib and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance.  Go to, I’ll no more on’t, it hath made me mad.  I say we will have no marriage.  Those that are married already – all but one – shall live; the rest shall keep as they are.  To a nunnery, go.

There are overtones here of the slang meaning of ‘nunnery’ as ‘whorehouse,’ but primarily Hamlet consigns Ophelia to a life of pious chastity.  Yet in effect, he is murdering Ophelia, and starting her on the path to suicide.  One hesitates to say this is Hamlet’s least sympathetic moment in the play.  His blithe unconcern after slaughtering Polonius (‘I’ll lug the guts into the neighbour room’) would be another candidate, as would his gratuitous destruction of those interchangeable scamps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

Horatio:

So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to’t.

Hamlet:

Why, man, they did make love to this employment.

They are not near my conscience, their defeat

Does by their own insinuation grow.

‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

Between the pass and fell incensed points

Of mighty opposites.

Horatio presumably expresses shock, and some regret, but Hamlet shrugs off the pragmatic murder of his two school chums. Polonius is an old meddler, and Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are confidence men at best, but the fragile and lovely Ophelia is quite another matter, and Hamlet is monstrous to torment her into true madness.”

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The question is:  The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia.  Bradley goes into it in detail:

The actor who plays the part of Hamlet must make up his mind as to the interpretation of every word and deed of the character. Even if at some point he feels no certainty as to which of two interpretations is right, he must still choose one or the other. The mere critic is not obliged to do this. Where he remains in doubt he may say so, and, if the matter is of importance, he ought to say so.

This is the position in which I find myself in regard to Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. I am unable to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of some of his words and deeds, and I hamlet48question whether from the mere text of the play a sure interpretation of them can be drawn. For this reason I have reserved the subject for separate treatment, and have, so far as possible, kept it out of the general discussion of Hamlet’s character.

On two points no reasonable doubt can, I think, be felt. Hamlet was at one time sincerely and ardently in love with Ophelia. For she herself says that he had importuned her with love in honourable fashion, and had given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven (I. iii. 110 f.). When, at Ophelia’s grave, he declared,

I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum,

he must have spoken sincerely; and, further, we may take it for granted that he used the past tense, ‘loved,’ merely because Ophelia was dead, and not to imply that he had once loved her but no longer did so.

So much being assumed, we come to what is doubtful, and I will begin by stating what is probably the most popular view. According to this view, Hamlet’s love for Ophelia never changed. On the revelation made by the Ghost, however, he felt that he must put aside all thoughts of it; and it also seemed to him necessary to convince Ophelia, as well as others, that he was insane, and so to destroy her hopes of any happy issue to their love. This was the purpose of his appearance in her chamber, though he was probably influenced also by a longing to see her and bid her a silent farewell, and possibly by a faint hope that he might safely entrust his secret to her. If he entertained any such hope his study of her face dispelled it; and thereafter, as in the Nunnery-scene (III. i.) and again at the play-scene, he not only feigned madness, but, to convince her that he had quite lost his love for her, he also addressed her in bitter and insulting language. In all this he was acting a part intensely painful to himself; the very violence of his language in the Nunnery-scene arose from this pain; and so the actor should make him show, in that scene, occasional signs of a tenderness which with all his efforts he cannot wholly conceal. Finally, over her grave the truth bursts from him in the declaration quoted just now, though it is still impossible for him to explain to others why he who loved her so profoundly was forced to wring her heart.

Now this theory, if the view of Hamlet’s character which I have taken is anywhere near the truth, is certainly wrong at one point, viz., in so far as it supposes that Hamlet’s bitterness to Ophelia was a mere pretence forced on him by his design of feigning to be insane; and I proceed to call attention to certain facts and considerations, of which the theory seems to take no account.

1. How is it that in his first soliloquy Hamlet makes no reference whatever to Ophelia?

2. How is it that in his second soliloquy, on the departure of the Ghost, he again says nothing about her? When the lover is feeling that he must make a complete break with his past, why does it not occur to him at once that he must give up his hopes of happiness in love?

3. Hamlet does not, as the popular theory supposes, break with Ophelia directly after the Ghost appears to him; on the contrary, he tries to see her and sends letters to her (II. i. 109). What really happens is that Ophelia suddenly repels his visits and letters. Now, we know that she is simply obeying her father’s order; but how would her action appear to Hamlet, already sick at heart because of his mother’s frailty, and now finding that, the moment fortune has turned against him, the woman who had welcomed his love turns against him too? Even if he divined (as his insults to Polonius suggest) that her father was concerned in this change, would he not still, in that morbid condition of mind, certainly suspect her of being less simple than she had appeared to him? Even if he remained free from this suspicion, and merely thought her deplorably weak, would he not probably feel anger against her, an anger like that of the hero of Locksley Hall against his Amy?

4. When Hamlet made his way into Ophelia’s room, why did he go in the garb, the conventionally recognised garb, of the distracted lover? If it was necessary to convince Ophelia of his insanity, how was it necessary to convince her that disappointment in love was the cause of his insanity? His main object in the visit appears to have been to convince others, through her, that his insanity was not due to any mysterious unknown cause, but to this disappointment, and so to allay the suspicions of the King. But if his feeling for her had been simply that of love, however unhappy, and had not been in any degree that of suspicion or resentment, would he have adopted a plan which must involve her in so much suffering?

5. In what way are Hamlet’s insults to Ophelia at the play-scene necessary either to his purpose of convincing her of his insanity or to his purpose of revenge? And, even if he did regard them as somehow means to these ends, is it conceivable that he would have uttered them, if his feeling for her were one of hopeless but unmingled love?

6. How is it that neither when he kills Polonius, nor afterwards, does he appear to reflect that he has killed Ophelia’s father, or what the effect on Ophelia is likely to be?

7. We have seen that there is no reference to Ophelia in the soliloquies of the First Act. Neither is there the faintest allusion to her in any one of the soliloquies of the subsequent Acts, unless possibly in the words (III. i. 72) ‘the pangs of despised love.’ If the popular theory is true, is not this an astounding fact?

8. Considering this fact, is there no significance in the further fact (which, by itself, would present no difficulty) that in speaking to Horatio Hamlet never alludes to Ophelia, and that at his death he says nothing of her?

9. If the popular theory is true, how is it that neither in the Nunnery-scene nor at the play-scene does Shakespeare insert anything to make the truth plain? Four words like Othello’s ‘O hardness to dissemble’ would have sufficed.

These considerations, coupled with others as to Hamlet’s state of mind, seem to point to two conclusions. They suggest, first, that Hamlet’s love, though never lost, was, after Ophelia’s apparent rejection of him, mingled with suspicion and resentment, and that his treatment of her was due in part to this cause. And I find it impossible to resist this conclusion. But the question how much of his harshness is meant to be real, and how much assumed, seems to me impossible in some places to answer. For example, his behaviour at the play-scene seems to me to show an intention to hurt and insult; but in the Nunnery-scene (which cannot be discussed briefly) he is evidently acting a part and suffering acutely, while at the same time his invective, however exaggerated, seems to spring from real feelings; and what is pretence, and what sincerity, appears to me an insoluble problem. Something depends here on the further question whether or no Hamlet suspects or detects the presence of listeners; but, in the absence of an authentic stage tradition, this question too seems to be unanswerable.

But something further seems to follow from the considerations adduced. Hamlet’s love, they seem to show, was not only mingled with bitterness, it was also, like all his healthy jude-law-hamlet-first-lookfeelings, weakened and deadened by his melancholy. It was far from being extinguished; probably it was one of the causes which drove him to force his way to Ophelia; whenever he saw Ophelia, it awoke and, the circumstances being what they were, tormented him. But it was not an absorbing passion; it did not habitually occupy his thoughts; and when he declared that it was such a love as forty thousand brothers could not equal, he spoke sincerely indeed but not truly. What he said was true, if I may put it thus, of the inner healthy self which doubtless in time would have fully reasserted itself; but it was only partly true of the Hamlet whom we see in the play. And the morbid influence of his melancholy on his love is the cause of those strange facts, that he never alludes to her in his soliloquies, and that he appears not to realise how the death of her father must affect her.

The facts seem almost to force this idea on us. That it is less ‘romantic’ than the popular view is no argument against it. And psychologically it is quite sound, for a frequent symptom of such melancholy as Hamlet’s is a more or less complete paralysis, or even perversion, of the emotion of love. And yet, while feeling no doubt that up to a certain point it is true, I confess I am not satisfied that the explanation of Hamlet’s silence regarding Ophelia lies in it. And the reason of this uncertainty is that scarcely any spectators or readers of Hamlet notice this silence at all; that I never noticed it myself till I began to try to solve the problem of Hamlet’s relation to Ophelia; and that even now, when I read the play through without pausing to consider particular questions, it scarcely strikes me. Now Shakespeare wrote primarily for the theatre and not for students, and therefore great weight should be attached to the immediate impressions made by his works. And so it seems at least possible that the explanation of Hamlet’s silence may be that Shakespeare, having already a very difficult task to perform in the soliloquies – that of showing the state of mind which caused Hamlet to delay his vengeance – did not choose to make his task more difficult by introducing matter which would not only add to the complexity of the subject but might, from its ‘sentimental’ interest, distract attention from the main point; while, from his theatrical experience, he knew that the audience would not observe how unnatural it was that a man deeply in love, and forced not only to renounce but to wound the woman he loved, should not think of her when he was alone. But, as this explanation is no more completely convincing to me than the other, I am driven to suspend judgment, and also to suspect that the text admits of no sure interpretation. [This paragraph states my view imperfectly.]

This result may seem to imply a serious accusation against Shakespeare. But it must be remembered that if we could see a contemporary representation of Hamlet, our doubts would probably disappear. The actor, instructed by the author, would make it clear to us by looks, tones, gestures, and by-play how far Hamlet’s feigned harshness to Ophelia was mingled with real bitterness, and again how far his melancholy had deadened his love.

As we have seen, all the persons in Hamlet except the hero are minor characters, who fail to rise to the tragic level. They are not less interesting on that account, but the hero has occupied us so long that I shall refer only to those in regard to whom Shakespeare’s intention appears to be not seldom misunderstood or overlooked.

It may seem strange that Ophelia should be one of these; and yet Shakespearean literature and the experience of teachers show that there is much difference of opinion regarding her, and in particular that a large number of readers feel a kind of personal irritation against her. They seem unable to forgive her for not having been a heroine, and they fancy her much weaker than she was. They think she ought to have been able to help Hamlet to fulfil his task. And they betray, it appears to me, the strangest misconceptions as to what she actually did.

Now it was essential to Shakespeare’s purpose that too great an interest should not be aroused in the love-story; essential, therefore, that Ophelia should be merely one of the subordinate characters; and necessary, accordingly, that she should not be the equal, in spirit, power or intelligence, of his famous heroines. If she had been an Imogen, a Cordelia, even a Portia or a Juliet, the story must have taken another shape. Hamlet would either have been stimulated to do his duty, or (which is more likely) he would have gone mad, or (which is likeliest) he would have killed himself in despair. Ophelia, therefore, was made a character who could not help Hamlet, and for whom on the other hand he would not naturally feel a passion so vehement or profound as to interfere with the main motive of the play. And in the love and the fate of Ophelia herself there was introduced an element, not of deep tragedy but of pathetic beauty, which makes the analysis of her character seem almost a desecration.

Ophelia is plainly quite young and inexperienced. She has lost her mother, and has only a father and a brother, affectionate but worldly, to take care of her. Everyone in the drama who has any heart is drawn to her. To the persons in the play, as to the readers of it, she brings the thought of flowers. ‘Rose of May’ Laertes names her.

Lay her in the earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring!

– so he prays at her burial. ‘Sweets to the sweet’ the Queen murmurs, as she scatters flowers on the grave; and the flowers which Ophelia herself gathered – those which she gave to others, and those which floated about her in the brook – glimmer in the picture of the mind. Her affection for her brother is shown in two or three delicate strokes. Her love for her father is deep, though mingled with fear. For Hamlet she has, some say, no deep love – and perhaps she is so near childhood that old affections have still the strongest hold; but certainly she has given to Hamlet all the love of which her nature is as yet capable. Beyond these three beloved ones she seems to have eyes and ears for no one. The Queen is fond of her, but there is no sign of her returning the Queen’s affection. Her existence is wrapped up in these three.

On this childlike nature and on Ophelia’s inexperience everything depends. The knowledge that ‘there’s tricks in the world’ has reached her only as a vague report. Her father and brother are jealously anxious for her because of her ignorance and innocence; and we resent their anxiety chiefly because we know Hamlet better than they. Her whole character is that of simple unselfish affection. Naturally she is incapable of understanding Hamlet’s mind, though she can feel its beauty. Naturally, too, she obeys her father when she is forbidden to receive Hamlet’s visits and letters. If we remember not what we know but what she knows of her lover and her father; if we remember that she had not, like Juliet, confessed her love; and if we remember that she was much below her suitor in station, her compliance surely must seem perfectly natural, apart from the fact that the standard of obedience to a father was in Shakespeare’s day higher than in ours.

‘But she does more than obey,’ we are told; ‘she runs off frightened to report to her father Hamlet’s strange visit and behaviour; she shows to her father one of Hamlet’s letters, and tells him the whole story of the courtship; and she joins in a plot to win Hamlet’s secret from him.’ One must remember, however, that she had never read the tragedy. Consider for a moment how matters looked to her. She knows nothing about the Ghost and its disclosures. She has undergone for some time the pain of repelling her lover and appearing to have turned against him. She sees him, or hears of him, sinking daily into deeper gloom, and so transformed from what he was that he is considered to be out of his mind. She hears the question constantly discussed what the cause of this sad change can be; and her heart tells her – how can it fail to tell her? – that her unkindness is the chief cause. Suddenly Hamlet forces his way into her chamber; and his appearance and his behaviour are those of a man crazed with love. She is frightened – why not? She is not Lady Macbeth. Rosalind would have been frightened. Which of her censors would be wholly unmoved if his room were invaded by a lunatic? She is frightened, then; frightened, if you will, like a child. Yes, but, observe, her one idea is to help Hamlet. She goes, therefore, at once to her father. To whom else should she go? Her brother is away. Her father, whom she saw with her own gibsonnunneryeyes and not with Shakespeare’s, is kind, and the wisest of men, and concerned about Hamlet’s state. Her father finds, in her report, the solution of the mystery: Hamlet is mad because she has repulsed him. Why should she not tell her father the whole story and give him an old letter which may help to convince the King and the Queen? Nay, why should she not allow herself to be used as a ‘decoy’ to settle the question why Hamlet is mad? It is all-important that it should be settled, in order that he may be cured; all her seniors are simply and solely anxious for his welfare; and, if her unkindness is the cause of his sad state, they will permit her to restore him by kindness (III. i. 40). Was she to refuse to play a part just because it would be painful to her to do so? I find in her joining the ‘plot’ (as it is absurdly called) a sign not of weakness, but of unselfishness and strength.

‘But she practised deception; she even told a lie. Hamlet asked her where her father was, and she said he was at home, when he was really listening behind a curtain.’ Poor Ophelia! It is considered angelic in Desdemona to say untruly that she killed herself, but most immoral or pusillanimous in Ophelia to tell her lie. I will not discuss these casuistical problems; but, if ever an angry lunatic asks me a question which I cannot answer truly without great danger to him and to one of my relations, I hope that grace may be given me to imitate Ophelia. Seriously, at such a terrible moment was it weak, was it not rather heroic, in a simple girl not to lose her presence of mind and not to flinch, but to go through her task for Hamlet’s sake and her father’s? And, finally, is it really a thing to be taken as matter of course, and no matter for admiration, in this girl that, from beginning to end, and after a storm of utterly unjust reproach, not a thought of resentment should even cross her mind?”

Thoughts?

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8 Responses to “Get thee to a nunnery. Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?”

  1. sylvia519 says:

    I’m beginning to think of Hamlet as a misogynist egoist. He is preoccupied with the chastity of women (his mother, his fiancee) while not crediting them with having minds of their own. No wonder Ophelia takes the only way out.

    • You wouldn’t be the first person to think that. But…his feelings of disgust towards his mother might, given that her marriage to his father was considered more incestuous than it is today, might be reasonable, while it’s admittedly unfair that he’s projecting those feelings on to Ophelia (assuming that’s what he’s doing, and not just his disgust with EVERYTHING in Denmark), I’d suggest that you hold off final judgments until Act Five. 🙂

  2. Which text are you using, please? I have never before read ‘why, wouldn’t thou be a breeder of sinners?’, which is rather different from what I know (‘why would’st thou be a breeder of sinners?’).

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