What are some of the stylistic devices used by Shakespeare in the "nunnery scene" of Hamlet (Act III, scene 1)?

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Doug Stuva | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Act 3.1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in the nunnery scene as you call it, Shakespeare uses a paradox  (he uses other devices, as well, but I'll stick to this one:  the others are admirably covered above).

Hamlet says in lines 113-115:

Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner tansform 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.

Hamlet says that beauty can turn honesty, or chastity, into a pimp or a whore, more quickly than honesty, or chastity, can change beauty into a virgin.  Beauty can turn a woman into a bawd, but honesty or chastity cannot change a beautiful woman into a virgin. 

Hamlet is indirectly condemning Ophelia for the role she is playing for Claudius and her father, Polonius--the role of spy.  She has been hired, so to speak, to return Hamlet's gifts and pretend she doesn't love him, in order to see how he reacts, and to help determine the cause of his madness.  

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mstultz72 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Hamlet Act III, scene i, Hamlet switches from poetry to prose, playing the "crazy Hamlet" version of himself.  He begins the inquisition of his witness with rhetorical questions: "Ha, ha! are you honest?" and "Are you fair?"

Remember, Hamlet's really talking through Ophelia to his mother:

...but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me...

So Hamlet's advice is very direct dialogue meant to be delivered to an audience not present, Gertrude.  In this way, his words are both satire and a kind of apostrophe.

The main speech has many dualities: "breeder of sinners" vs. "honest" and "fair."

It's fraught with religious imagery: "nunnery," "offences," "sinners," "heaven."

It's full of metaphors and analogies:

What should such fellows as I do crawling
between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us.


Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the
fool no where but in's own house.

It's full of cause-effect rhetoric:

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.

It's got anaphora: "Go" and "go to" and "you jig, you amble, and you lisp..."

And lots of verbal irony (sarcasm).  I love it when Hamlet speaks like he's king:

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.

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