What does Hamlet suggest that Ophelia do in the conversation that they have in Act III scene 1 of Hamlet?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I hope the question above is the one that you were asking. Your original question referenced a section in the play where Hamlet and Ophelia do not have any conversations, and Act III scene 1 is perhaps the most famous confrontation between them.

Before I answer your question though, let us remember what is happening in Act III scene 1. Claudius and Polonius are basically using Ophelia as bait to try and work out what is wrong with Hamlet. They are eavesdropping on the conversation. Ophelia has been forced into this trick. Now, directors vary as to how they normally stage this scene. Some, like Brannagh in his incredible version, have Hamlet work out that his conversation is being spied upon, and therefore his outburst and tirade that he utters to Ophelia comes as an expression of sadness at his betrayal. Having been betrayed by all those around him, to be betrayed by the woman that he loves makes him furious and deeply sad. Others show that Hamlet's tirade is part of the act of madness that he is trying to maintain, and yet others use Hamlet's anger to suggest he is mad after all. Note what he says to Ophelia:

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.

He goes on to give a "plague" to Ophelia for her dowry. Again, how we read these lines and what they mean depend on subtext and a number of choices about how we would stage the scene. Do we take Hamlet's advice as a symbol of madness? Or merely a sign of how fed up he is with the world and fate? His advice to Ophelia is open to many different interpretations.

drjordan | Student

In Shakespeare's time, women were not allowed to do very much, like get jobs or write or even make it on their own, and families with lots of daughters couldn't afford doweries to marry them off (money paid to the groom's family for getting a girl off their hands). So they sent them to Convents, or nunneries.  However, it was well known that most of the healthy young women did not want to be nuns, and often turned so-called "nunneries" into brothels, or places where they survived by having sex for money.  So when Shakespeare says, "Get thee to a nunnery," especially after making fun of her makeup and female ways (he thinks she is Polonius's spy and feels betrayed by the woman he loved), basically he is calling her a whore.  This is why she is so crushed and confused she ultimately goes mad and commits suicide.