Hamlet, Analysis by J.A.S. '01,
Act III, Scene I (Nunnery Scene)

HAMLET

Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember'd.

OPHELIA

Good my lord,

How does your honour for this many a day?

HAMLET

I humbly thank you; well, well, well.

OPHELIA

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,

That I have longed long to re-deliver;

I pray you, now receive them.

HAMLET

No, not I;

I never gave you aught.

OPHELIA

My honour'd lord, you know right well you did;

And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed

As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,

Take these again; for to the noble mind

Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

There, my lord.

HAMLET

Ha, ha! are you honest?

OPHELIA

My lord?

HAMLET

Are you fair?

OPHELIA

What means your lordship?

HAMLET

That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should

admit no discourse to your beauty.

OPHELIA

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than

with honesty?

HAMLET

Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner

transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the

force of honesty can translate beauty into his

likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the

time gives it proof. I did love you once.

OPHELIA

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

HAMLET

You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot

so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of

it: I loved you not.

OPHELIA

I was the more deceived.

HAMLET

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a

breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest;

but yet I could accuse me of such things that it

were better my mother had not borne 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 should 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 no where 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, go: 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

O heavenly powers, restore him!

HAMLET

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God

has given you one face, and you make yourselves

another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and

nick-name 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 more marriages:

those that are married already, all but one, shall

live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a

nunnery, go.

[Exit]


The analysis:

In this famous "nunnery scene," Hamlet converses with Ophelia under the

suspicious watch of Polonius and Claudius. Hamlet acts polite to her, until

she tries to return a gift that he had given her. He denies ever giving it

to her, but Ophelia further insists that he did, and that he knows it. She

tells Hamlet that she cannot keep it because gifts are meaningless "when

givers prove unkind." Hamlet then badgers Ophelia by questioning whether

she is honest and fair-something that can be taken with a double meaning-

and claims that her beauty has corrupted it. He declares that he once loved

her, only to take it back after her blunt reply, "Indeed, my lord, you made

me believe so." Hamlet proceeds to denounce men as "arrant knaves" who are

not to be believed. He interrupts himself to ask where her father is-which

shows that he is aware or at least suspects that they are being watched-

where she promptly lies, "At home, my lord." Hamlet continues to go on to

curse her chastity or any future prospects of marriage and to attack

womankind with their makeup and flirtatious ways. Ophelia is now convinced

that Hamlet is insane, and attempts to call on the heavens to help him.

Hamlet finally makes an unmistakable threat to Claudius before he leaves. "

I say, we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already, all

but one shall live."

As with most of Hamlet's dialogues, his words have different levels of

meaning. In this scene, he says what can be defined with both religious and

sexual connotations. For instance, when Hamlet inquiries Ophelia to whether

she is "honest" or "fair" he states that, "the power of beauty will sooner

transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can

translate beauty into his likeness." In this exchange, honesty and fairness

can go along with Hamlet's whole theme of seeking truth, or it can be looked

at as being chaste, since "a bawd" is someone who acquires women to use for

an immoral purpose. In Shakespeare's time, a "nunnery" was commonly used

mockingly for a brothel, which would help to add to his final speech, "I

have heard of your paintings too, well enough;" This almost goes along with

Claudius' aside before (line 59), "The harlot's cheek beautified with

plast'ring art," but Hamlet goes beyond makeup to insult the way women flirt

and how they excuse their wontonness as ignorance. He declares that, "it

hath made me mad" which might go to show that either he has been putting on

an act, or that it relates to his later mention of his mother's marriage.

When Hamlet ultimately instructs Ophelia "to a nunnery, go," it can be

interpreted in several ways. It can be said because Hamlet still does truly

love Ophelia and wants to protect her, or it can be because he wishes to

send her to a brothel to act as the harlot he deems all of womankind to be.

Look at analyses of other scenes from Hamlet

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