The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

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.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Rachel Pearce on March 28, 2018 at 9:39 am

    I have to confess that until you mentioned it I had never even considered that nunnery meant anything other than nunnery. I have never studied the play and had never picked up on any hint of this secondary meaning in performances I have seen (admittedly only a handful).

    Reply

    • In that case, the post above was probably a rant to no good purpose! 🙂

      Both in this post, and in the one a few weeks earlier on Ophelia, I was trying to think why so many productions I see of “Hamlet” neither matches what I have in mind, nor satisfies with an alternative interpretation. I have long felt that Ophelia’s tragedy rarely registers as it should, and my previous post was an attempt to try to figure out why.

      In the post above, I was trying to work out why it is that this confrontation between Hamlet and Ophelia so rarely seems to satisfy. When I read it, there seems to be all kinds of things happening to these characters – all kinds of complexities and subtleties. Yet, in performance, it all too often becomes a case of Hamlet ranting and raving. Admittedly, this ranting and raving is very theatrical, but the pain and the poignancy of this scene is rarely apparent.

      I am sure I shall be returning to this scene, as it is among Shakespeare’s most complex, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Charley on March 29, 2018 at 2:47 am

    You sell yourself short there. I’ve never found your musings to be to no purpose. Yes, this is the most complex of scenes; but we bring to these scenes what has happened in our own lives.

    In my own case it was the suicide of a friend in recent months. I’ll never ever understand what drove him to this last despairing act. I just never will.

    Shortly afterwards I came across an interview with the actor Mickey Rourke, where he said that his early life was so awful (and it was) that if he had to go through it again, he would rather never have been born. When you watch his face, you do not for one second doubt his sincerity. Sound familiar?

    But even before this I always found the fate of Ophelia profoundly heartbreaking.

    You say that it doesn’t match what is in your mind. That ‘s it, really, isn’t it? Always is , with any of us. I went to see ‘Mary Magdalene’ during the week and was blown away by it. It was one of those rare occasions where I got a real sense of what they ate, how they lived, the dry dusty washed-out landscapes that these people moved through 2,000 years ago. Needless to say it has been dismissed as boring, since we now seem to have ‘evolved’ to the point where we have the attention span of an insect.

    But because of angry looking Phoenix playing Jesus, I wanted that moment when he goes into the Temple to be him going absolutely ape-shit, clearing the whole place out and giving a few badly needed whacks around the head to the moneylenders. I NEEDED that catharsis, because of the unfocussed anger I’m still feeling over my friend’s suicide. And I didn’t get it.

    That’s my fault, not the fault of the film makers.

    As I say, we bring ourselves to all Art. And that’s — I hope — not being pretentious, just realistic.

    Reply

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