the nunnery scene, Part One

June 19, 2006

“The nunnery scene” is Ophelia’s confrontation with Hamlet, in which he tells her “get thee to a nunnery.” Polonius and Claudius are listening in — they’re using her in an attempt to determine whether love for Ophelia is the true cause of Hamlet’s madness.

This has been the toughest scene in the play. This morning, we finally nailed down the blocking. In this post, I’m going to attempt to break the whole thing down.

What makes this particular scene so difficult is the sheer number of possible choices it presents to the actors and director. Here are some of the questions that Shakespeare leaves open to interpretation:

-Does Hamlet know that Polonius is spying? Does he figure it out within the scene? How much of what he says is intended to be overheard?

-Why does Ophelia try to return Hamlet’s gifts? Is this part of Polonius’s plotting, or is she doing this on her own accord?

-What is the nature of Hamlet and Ophelia’s previous relationship?

-What are Hamlet and Ophelia actually trying to get from each other over the course of this scene?

Every production of Hamlet can find answers to these questions that are both completely legitimate and vastly different. Here’s a list of the circumstances that we decided on.

-Hamlet and Ophelia knew each other since childhood; Hamlet is several years older.

-They had no romantic entanglements before he first left for school.

-When Hamlet returned for his father’s funeral, he and Ophelia both visited Old Hamlet’s grave at the same time, a day or so after the formal funeral. They got to talking, and kept talking, and began to fall in love.

-Over the next few days, their relationship began. He gave her presents (including a medal that belonged to his father) and wrote her a couple of love letters.

-The night before the beginning of the play (which in our production is Claudius’ first formal address to the court after the coronation), Hamlet and Ophelia had sex. It was late at night, on the spur of the moment, and they did not use any protection.

-They haven’t had a chance to talk since then — the next day (the first day of the play), Polonius commands Ophelia to repel Hamlet’s advances. When he tries to visit her, her servants do not allow him in. His letters are returned. He doesn’t know why, and probably guesses that it is either because they had sex or because her father got wind of it.

-After two months, during which time he has established his act of madness, they finally come face to face again when he confronts her in her chambers. This happens more or less as she describes it to Polonius — he doesn’t say anything, but gives her a couple of very meaningful looks as if to say goodbye. That’s the only contact they’ve had (other than seeing each other across a crowded room at one or two court events) since they had sex.

-Polonius has more or less convinced Ophelia that her rejection is what has driven Hamlet mad.

-Hamlet sees Ophelia’s rejection of him (and her attempt to return his letters during the scene) as the same kind of change that Gertrude has demonstrated in marrying Claudius — a betrayal of love and loyalty. This holds true regardless of the reason for Ophelia’s rejection (even if it was on orders from Polonius).

Polonius hears Hamlet approaching, and the two old men hide just offstage (with Osric as well, in this production). Ophelia is left on one side of the stage as Hamlet enters on the other. He delivers the “to be or not to be” soliloquy — we’ve decided that Hamlet doesn’t yet notice Ophelia, but that she does hear this entire speech. At the end, she makes a noise (a footstep as she moves down a level) and Hamlet notices her.

Again, please forgive the funky formatting necessitated by WordPress.


And lose the name of action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia!

That last is to the audience. He’s standing stage left, she’s several platforms away and a couple of levels lower, all the way down stage right. They look at each other and can’t help but smile; it’s a moment of reconnection. They are still, despite everything, in love. He turns their shared smile into a little friendly joke.

……………………..Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

“Orisons” means prayers, so he’s asking her not to forget to pray for him as well. In the full text, Polonius has given her a book to pretend to read as Hamlet happens upon her, and many productions make this a prayer-book. Sometimes she’s holding it upside-down, and Hamlet turns it around for her as he says this line. I’ve cut that line and the book — in this production, she’s just holding a packet of letters and trinkets he’s given her. She smiles in response to his line, and says

…………………………………Good my lord,
How does your honor for this many a day?

…as an honest question. It has been many days since they last spoke, and this becomes a reference to all that has passed between them. At this point, both of them are caught up in the moment of really talking to the person they love at last, and they’ve each temporarily forgotten all the plots and politics of the court. He makes the long cross towards her as he says

I humbly thank you, well, well, well.

The repeated “well,” which could be used as part of the act of madness, or to mock Ophelia in one way or another, we’re playing as another reference to all the time that has passed and how complicated everything has become — as if he’s saying, “There’s so much to talk about, but all in all I can’t complain, especially now that I’m talking to you again.” Their happiness to be together builds as he moves towards her, but at the last second she remembers her father and the King. As he reaches for her, she holds his letters and gifts up towards him, warding him off, keeping him at arms’ length, and says

My lord, I have remembrances of yours
That I have longed long to redeliver.

I believe that this is a lie. She has not “longed long” to return his gifts, nor does she want to now. Returning the gifts is a ploy devised by Polonius to get a reaction out of Hamlet. If he freaks out, Polonius will have proof that Ophelia’s rejection caused Hamlet’s madness. Also, though, Ophelia is upset with Hamlet for his behavior towards her in her chambers just the day before, so there may be some desire in her to punish him for that, or at least to make him understand that he can’t treat her that way. She continues

I pray you now receive them.

I love that line because the “now” can work either with “I pray you” or with “receive them.” Either it’s “I’m now asking you to do this,” or it’s “I’m asking you to do this now.”

……………………………………No, not I.
I never gave you aught.

This is also a lie, though it can’t be intended to deceive — they both know he did give her the letters and presents. (Unless she has fabricated the whole remembrances thing as a way to pass him a secret note without Polonius knowing what’s really going on — an idea I like for the strength it implies in Ophelia, but that is ultimately too obscure and complicated).

Why would Hamlet say this? It could be part of his act of madness, but I like the idea that he’s more just playing off of what he’s getting from her. “Oh, you longed long to redeliver these? Well then, I never even gave them to you. Top that!” It could be playful, gently teasing her for her lie. Or he could be trying to hurt her feelings in return for hurting his. With all of this, I think his intent is to get her to reveal what she’s really thinking and feeling here.

My honour’d lord, you know right well you did,

It may be that she takes literally what Hamlet intended as a joke. More interesting, to my mind, is that she is calling him out, telling him that she wasn’t joking and that she wants him to take her as seriously as she is now taking him. Her language then gets a little lofty, with a little alliteration and a bit of imagery:

And with them words of so sweet breath compos’d
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.

In other words, these gifts really meant something to me, but your recent behavior (the perfume that was the sweet breath of his words having dissipated) has made me re-evaluate everything that has happened between us. The rhymed couplet reinforces the formality of her poetic language here; she’s using it as a wall to keep him out.

She holds the remembrances out; he looks at her, trying to see what she’s really up to. He’s not buying this.

There, my lord.

That’s a partial line, or a shift into prose from very formal verse. She again holds the packet out at arms’ length. He grabs her arm instead, though, and pulls her close, looking into her eyes.

Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Lines like “Ha, ha!” can be fantastic opportunities or big stumbling blocks for actors. I usually find that they should be read as indicating a non-verbal grunt or vocalization of some kind, not necessarily directly pronouncing the letters spelled out on the page. Regardless, it’s a sign of some kind of shift or realization on Hamlet’s part, and we’re playing “Are you honest?” as meaning, “Am I really talking to the Ophelia I know and trust or are you acting on Polonius’ orders right now?”

Continued in Part Two.


2 Responses to “the nunnery scene, Part One”

  1. […] At the risk of starting another Part One without a Part Two, here’s the first in a series of posts about what I learned on this production. My original plan for tonight was to just post a list, but I think I’d prefer to take these one at a time and go into a little more depth. […]

  2. […] We left off with Hamlet asking Ophelia whether she is honest — which, in this production, means whether she is returning his love letters on her own volition or because her father told her to. She has held out the letters, and he has grabbed her arm instead, pulling her in for a closer look. Ophelia breaks eye contact, unable to give him a direct answer. OPHELIA: My lord? […]

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