Friday, November 11, 2011

III.i. The Nunnery Scene

The last section of Act III Scene 1 is Hamlet's staged encounter with Ophelia, in which he may or may not discover that he's being spied upon by Claudius and Polonius, who close out the scene after Hamlet leaves with important consequences for the prince. Over the course of the next few articles, we'll look at how different directors staged this sequence, and how different actors played it, but first we'll look at the text itself. Shakespeare is in italics, while my comments are not:

OPHELIA: Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?
HAMLET: I humbly thank you; well, well, well.

I love Hamlet's triple repetitions because the actors can play around with them so much. As with the previous "Words, words, words" and "Except my life", actors can take each of the tripled meme and give it its own reading, or find a way to say all three with the same intent.

OPHELIA: My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver;
I pray you, now receive them.

There is something quite touching about the use of the word "remembrances" here. Ophelia is not just returning tokens or gifts, but the memories associated with those objects. Memory plays a big part in this section of the text, as Hamlet then makes like he doesn't remember having given her anything. Hamlet's demeanor has changed and he has, in effect, become someone else, changing the meaning of Ophelia's memories. There is no doubt an interesting thesis to be gleaned from how people's perceptions of one another change, and in turn change their memories of one another, throughout the play. There's the revelation that Claudius is a murderer, of course, which is made to both Hamlet and Gertrude. False friends revealed, lovers lost, princes mistrusted, Norway's intentions, and ultimately, Hamlet's own new understanding of himself.

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's harshness may be born of a mirroring effect. Though Ophelia is betraying his trust here, playing a part in her father's scheme, it's not clear whether Hamlet knows about it or not. So why so harsh? If he knows about the spies, it could all be part of the act, a tug of war between what he really feels and the act he's putting on for Claudius and Polonius. His cruelty towards Ophelia is a necessary evil. However, if he doesn't know he's being spied upon (at least until he asks where her father is), it may be more true to say that he's actually talking to his mother. Ophelia did not betray him, but Gertrude did betray his father. Hamlet indicts the entire sex, in a run of motivated misogyny. Women, being attractive to men as they are, make men lose their reason and betray themselves. The solution Hamlet proposes is to lock away women before they cause more men to do so.

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?

In these lines, Hamlet blamed his mother not just for betraying his father, but for his own birth. Motivated by present circumstances, an Oedipal impulse (though you know I hate that Freudian interpretation of the play) or his religious beliefs, Hamlet has put all the sins of the world on his mother. His father is dead because Claudius killed him to get her. He must now avenge his father because he exists thanks to his mother. In this sequence, Shakespeare reveals that at least part of the reason Hamlet has been delaying action is that he's been moved to take revenge on the wrong person. Claudius is at fault, sure, and Hamlet hates him. However, the Ghost's warning not to hurt Gertrude is what rankles, and it all comes out in Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia in this scene. We should also mention how "nunnery" is an ironic term for a whorehouse. Just as in an earlier scene, Hamlet called Polonius a "fishmonger" (a colloquialism that can mean "pimp"), Hamlet can again be seen as treating Ophelia/Getrude/women as whores. Nun or whore, neither is meant to be a mother.

The line also holds a few actorly double-entendres, from the concepts of imagination and acting out offences, to the request not to believe the actor's words. It plays on multiple levels, since the actors on stage are not really their characters, and Hamlet is play-acting his madness, though it's still ambiguous.

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!

Shakespeare doesn't give many stage directions. They're suggested by the text itself. Ophelia's invocation to God here indicates Hamlet is acting strangely, losing himself in madness. His words don't really suggest it, so it's up to the director and actors to figure it out. We'll see how different adaptations dealt with it.

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.

I love the line "the rest shall keep as they are", a fabulously clever continuation of the rot theme of the play. Those that are married already are Gertrude and Claudius. One shall live (Gertrude) and the other shall keep as he is (Claudius). Not "die", but "keep". The idea is that he's dead and rotting already. An image of corruption or of a fate that can no longer be delayed. Note that the other married man in the play is Hamlet Sr., another character that is "kept as he is", preserved by the special state of the undead. Hamlet once again puts up a mirror to the two Kings and in this case, finds them equivalent.


OPHELIA: O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck'd the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Ophelia''s little soliloquy paints a portrait of Hamlet before he went mad, at least through her eyes. Even after all this, she has not stopped loving him. The perfume has not been lost, we could say. Note how Ophelia feels sorry for herself for having had a particular experience, again a play on memory. If ignorance is bliss, then Ophelia would have rather stayed ignorant. I don't think I've ever come across it, but a director could theoretically use the past tense on that last line to involve Ophelia in the murder of Hamlet Sr. What she sees now is Hamlet's madness. What she has seen in the past could be a secret she's keeping from Hamlet even now, the cause and not just the result of his madness. Just more reasons for her mind to break.


KING CLAUDIUS: Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger: which for to prevent,
I have in quick determination
Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England,

Another mirror: If Hamlet cannot touch Gertrude for his father's sake, then Claudius cannot touch Hamlet for his wife's sake. Both men are prevented from taking the action they want by love for another. Claudius chooses exile for Hamlet (though this will change).

For the demand of our neglected tribute
Haply the seas and countries different
With variable objects shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself. What think you on't?
LORD POLONIUS: It shall do well: but yet do I believe
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love. How now, Ophelia!
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said;
We heard it all. My lord, do as you please;
But, if you hold it fit, after the play
Let his queen mother all alone entreat him
To show his grief: let her be round with him;
And I'll be placed, so please you, in the ear
Of all their conference. If she find him not,
To England send him, or confine him where
Your wisdom best shall think.

Here, Polonius seals his own fate. The way his particular hubris manifests is in his stubbornness that prevents him from accepting he is wrong (as they play shows, he almost invariably is). Claudius is convinced Hamlet is neither mad nor acting from neglected love. Polonius still disagrees and sets up yet another encounter, this time between Hamlet and his mother, during which Hamlet should admit to being mad for love. And it is spying on this encounter of his own making that gets him killed.

KING CLAUDIUS: It shall be so:
Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go.


The pregnancy theory
None of the plays examined by Hyperion to a Satyr make use of the idea that Ophelia is pregnant, but if someone were to do so, this is where the most irony could be drawn from the idea. Ophelia would already be a breeder of sinners, and any injury (both psychic and physical) would be all the more violent for it. If a nunnery is a whorehouse, that may be a clue that Hamlet and Ophelia have been sexually active which plays into the pregnancy theory. Directors who entertain this notion may wish to reveal Ophelia's belly in her madness scenes (adding to the pathos), or have this particular sequence cause her to lose the baby (further motivating her madness).


snell said...

A staging clue, perhaps: Polonius says "We heard it all." And since he's always wrong, they didn't hear it all...suggesting that "To be or not to be" is out of their earshot. That could certainly add strength to Claudius' claim that he heard no madness in Hamlet.

And it's fairly stunning how quickly Polonius leaps from one eavesdropping plot immediately into the next, with barely a breath between them. He really is quite the voyeur.

Siskoid said...

Yes, good thought. If you're going to accentuate the irony of Polonius' errors, you could also make Hamlet whisper some of the key lines in the encounter.

Ero said...

One note about the line: "shall keep as they are". I think it refers to marital status. No more marriages, those already married will continue to be married, all but one, Claudius that must (according to Hamlet's plan) die. The rest, that are not already married will remain unmarried. Hamlet and Ophelia shall not marry.

Siskoid said...

By that logic, Gertrude shall keep as she is, which is to say, married... to Hamlet Sr.