To A Nunnery, Go

Watching bits and pieces of Olivier’s Hamlet this afternoon, just like I said I was going to do. I happened upon the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene.  As I write this I hear “To be or not to be” in the background so I’m forced to assume that Olivier flipped these scenes?


Anyway, back to Ophelia. This is quite possibly my favorite scene of the play, at least as far as dissecting Hamlet’s madness. I once collected every video interpretation of this scene I could find, to see how differently it has been played.  (Unfortunately some of the links in that post have been removed, just so you know.)

What is Hamlet’s relationship to Ophelia at this moment? Is he thinking that she’s turned on him as well? That she’s just a pawn being manipulated by her father? Is he putting on a show for the men behind the curtain, or does he mean what he’s saying? How far do his feelings for his mother at this moment extend toward all women (“Frailty thy name is woman?”) and thus toward Ophelia?

My title comes from the last line of the scene, as Olivier delivers it.  Ophelia is on the floor (where he’s thrown her), weeping inconsolably.  He leans over, kisses her hair, and says “To a nunnery, go,” and exits.  It almost sounds like, “The world is full of horrible horrible people doing horrible things, and you above all others I’d want to protect from that.” That’s most certainly not said for the benefit of Claudius and Polonius, and it doesn’t sound like it’s coming from someone “who loved her not.”

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4 thoughts on “To A Nunnery, Go

  1. "Is he thinking that she's turned on him as well? That she's just a pawn being manipulated by her father? Is he putting on a show for the men behind the curtain, or does he mean what he's saying? How far do his feelings for his mother at this moment extend toward all women ("Frailty thy name is woman?") and thus toward Ophelia?"

    "What is Hamlet's relationship to Ophelia at this moment?"

    –In my opinion, all of what you hit on above–and more. The relationship is *so* much more complex than popular, simplistic analysis would have it, eg. Hamlet is just a cad who dumped his girlfriend for no good reason. I wrote a couple of things on the blog once upon a time over at ShakespearePlace. (It was along about the time you were advising me that my blog posts were "TL;DR") 🙂

    The real Tragedy is, for her, the same as it is for Hamlet–"The Time is out of joint" for them both; caught up in events;*just missing* each other at every turn.

  2. –Another important point. Shakespeare's language here is as all-purpose and technically involved as the situation itself. He keeps hearkening back, linguistically, to other occurrences.; fishmongers can be related to nunneries, etc., etc., all for the purpose of whoever might be listening, geared to sound like what he would want them to hear.

    "…it doesn't sound like it's coming from someone "who loved her not."

    Heartily agree.
    He says: "I loved YOU/once."–It's clearly in the text as a matter of a separated pronunciation. He still loves her. He just doesn't recognize her as the 'you' he once knew. He's totally confused and mangles his message as she does hers. His genius with words, employed brilliantly, fails him nonetheless because he's forced to try do too much at once with it.

    Once again, his 'timing' is off. Circumstances are again the driving force.

  3. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (particularly in this scene) is effected by which text you are looking at. This scene is in the middle of scene 7 in the Q1 text and is 3.1 in Q2. While most consider Q1 to be a "bad Quarto," it offers a very different (and I consider much more attractive) view to the Hamlet/Ophelia relationship. The placement of the nunnery scene within the same scene that Polonius (Corambis) first tells the king and queen of Hamlet's love for Ophelia, speeds up the timetable of their encounter, potentially catching Hamlet off guard.

    When the American Shakespeare Center last did Hamlet in 2011, they decided to run two versions of the play concurrent. They used the same text for both. However, they arranged scenes based on both the Q1 and Q2 ordering and flipped a coin each performance to decide which one to do. The arrangement of the scenes proved very different readings. In Q1, Ophelia's remembrances were really just the one letter that Polonius read to the King and Queen because that was all she had on her. In Q2, it was a whole stack of letters because Polonius had set her there specifically to bait Hamlet.

    In Q2, Hamlet became much more violent and mocking of Ophelia and the King, using the letters to make an arrow on the stage pointing to where the king sat listening.

    In Q1, he seemed genuinely confused about what was happening, and what part Ophelia played. In this version, during the fishmonger scene, Hamlet appeared with a stack of letters (remember Ophelia only returned one of his) and when Polonius asked what he was reading, Hamlet Responded with "words, words, words." This led to the interpretation that Hamlet was looking back over Ophelia's letters to see if she did really love him.

    Both versions were based on the progression of the plot according to the scene's placement in each. The biggest difference is how much Hamlet has managed to figure out about the King and Polonius by the time he runs into Ophelia.

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