Hamlet: Get thee to a nunnery

Take him and cut him in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun. (Romeo and Juliet Act 3 Scene 2.)

For Hamlet’s plot till now, see Hamlet So Far.

Act 3 Scene 1 (continued). It’s enough to think the Hamster was a misogynist. This scene sure makes us wonder. No matter how you look at it Hamlet is not treating Ophelia nicely. Why Hamlet’s bad treatment of Ophelia? Could it be that Ophelia is a stand-in for Mom?

For the first time in the play, Hamlet lets loose. We see real emotion from our protagonist. He is no longer thinking. He is feeling. What he is feeling is anger. On top of everything, he knows he is being spied upon and that makes him even madder. How dare his mother, and Ophelia too, act as foils for that villain Claudius. How dare them?

Ophelia smiles and asks, “How are things going?”

Like she doesn’t know. How can she not know that his father is dead? Maybe murdered? How can she not know that the king may be the murderer? It would be like Bathsheba did not know that King David sent Uriah, her husband, off to be killed. Bathsheba knew. So does Ophelia. Women. You just can’t trust them.

“My lord,” Ophelia says, “I have some things of yours. Since we broke up, I need to return them.”

He is thinking, “I didn’t break up with you. Remember you came to me and said, ‘Daddy wouldn’t let you date me.’” Instead he says, “I don’t want them back.”

Ophelia says, “But they are not mine to keep. Please take them. They only cause me pain.”

Well, I’ll show this daughter of Eve. This tool of Satan. “Ha. Are you good or what?”

“What in the name of all that is holy,” Ophelia asks, “are you talking about?”

Our Hamlet is not about to let his mother off the hook. Sure, the words are thrown at Ophelia, but it is Mom that he means to hit. “Get thee to a nunnery,” he throws at Ophelia/Gertrude.

“I am innocent,” Ophelia says. “How can you treat me so evilly? Me whom you professed to love so deeply.”

“Get thee to a nunnery.” Hamlet slams his once-Juliet against the wall. Then he releases her. “Get thee to a nunnery.” At that, he is done with Ophelia. He is done with women. His mother married his uncle within minutes of her husband, his father’s death. Ophelia spies on him for her father and for that Richard III who is king.

This scene also makes us ask if Shakespeare was a misogynist? After all, Hamlet may not be Hamlet in this scene. He may be William Shakespeare. Me, I think not. If we looked at many of his female characters in other plays, we see a variety and sensibility not found in any other writer of that time. And not very often of a male writer since.

Just look at “Romeo and Juliet”. Juliet, not Romeo, is the hero of that play. Then there is Rosalind in “As You Like It”, Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing”, Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”, and Viola in “Twelfth Night”. These are amazing women, fully formed.

No, I think Shakespeare was exhibiting a portion of his grief for his lost son, Hamnet, who died in 1596. He may very well have blamed his wife, Anne Hathaway, for the death. With this play, the anger came to surface and exhibited itself in a way even he had not expected. We will never know. We do know that he will go on to create some of his most memorable women: Rosalind, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, Imogen in “Cymbeline”, and Paulina and Hermione in “A Winter’s Tale”.

With this in mind, I would nix the whole idea that Shakespeare, and Hamlet, were misogynists. They were just human beings. Like most human beings, they were searching for a way to deal with their grief.

***********

Standing in the hall, alone, Ophelia remembers the man she once loved:

Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most dejected and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most solemn reason
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. Oh, woe is me,
T’ have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

Ophelia is not sure how things came to be the way things have come to be. But she deeply feels the loss of her prince. The man that was her Romeo.

Before she can absorb her loss, her father and the king pop out from behind the wall. They have heard everything.

Claudius is the first to speak. “He doesn’t sound crazy. He’s up to something. Something dangerous.”

You’d think Polonius would concern himself with his daughter’s distress. Yet he does not. Instead he responds to the king’s speculation.

Polonius is not convinced “That is indeed someone who is mad with love. For Ophelia. He has been deeply hurt by her rejection. He wants to strike out at her. Maybe we should have the queen examine him. Discover his motives. If she cannot, then send him off to England.”

To England? Why England? The English know what to do with royals that misbehave. They chop off their heads. Just look at Mary, Queen of Scots.

***********

Only Ophelia is left in the hall as the lights dim. Her head bowed with tears. Her arms at her side. She slowly sinks to the floor. The obedient daughter, the loyal girlfriend, realizes her future is looking dimmer and dimmer. It is looking more and more like Ophelia is truly the great tragic figure of “Hamlet”.

She is alone.

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5 thoughts on “Hamlet: Get thee to a nunnery

  1. I enjoyed your more serious treatment of a more serious topic, misogyny, in this week’s Hamlet post. I remember a lively discussion on the same play and topic in a college class I took. The teacher let us air our mainly uninformed opinions, based on a limited knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays, then ended the class by telling us we needed to read the plays containing the women you mentioned and perhaps some of us would rethink our positions. It turned out to be one of the best literature classes I ever took.

  2. I don’t think he is imagining his circumstances. Everyone is conspiring against him. He has right to be angry and suspicious. And he’s seeing his fathers ghost. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

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