Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Why does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go "to a nunnery" and what does he give as his reason?

Hamlet is directing all his misogyny—which partly stems from his issues with his mother—toward Ophelia. She has just given him back all his tokens of love, and he feels betrayed. In his anger, he curses the fickleness of all women and tells Ophelia to "get thee to a nunnery." If Hamlet really means "nunnery," then he is saying that Ophelia should become a nun in order to preserve her chastity and avoid bearing children that are "sinners." If, however, Hamlet means "brothel" ("nunnery" was Elizabethan slang for this), then he is criticizing Ophelia for not being chaste enough.

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dwankan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hamlet has lost faith in humanity at the point when he meets Ophelia in this scene. His uncle has allegedly murdered his father. His mother has married his uncle. His old friends have come, supposedly to see him, but he has already figured out they were "sent for" by Claudius to scope out Hamlet's state of mind. And now, here comes Ophelia, the girl he is deeply in love with, to give him back the letters he has given her.

The dialogue also implies that Hamlet knows he's being listened to, and if he has figured that out, by the time he utters the line "Get thee to a nunnery" toward the end of the scene, he probably suspects that Ophelia has taken part in the plot against him.

Everybody looks pretty bad from Hamlet's perspective. So why should Ophelia get married and have children, or, in other words, make more people like Claudius, Polonius, his mother, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Ophelia?

Hamlet wants her to shut herself off from the rest of the world—which, in a convent, she would have to do. However, you could argue he still loves her and is saying this out of jealousy: if she's a nun, no other guy will be able to pursue her. Either way, he wants her to be punished for breaking his heart and being the tool of Claudius.

On a small side note, the word "convent" or "nunnery," in Elizabethan England, was a slang term for a house of prostitution. So, Hamlet may be calling her a rude name for breaking up with him (while at the same time expressing a deep-seated misanthropy).

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William Delaney eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Hamlet has turned against women because of his mother's behavior. He still loves Ophelia but decides against marrying her. When he tells her to get to a nunnery, he is revealing his love for her. He doesn't want to marry her, but he doesn't want her to marry anybody else. His behavior at Ophelia's funeral in Act 5, Scene 1shows how deeply he loved her--more than "forty thousand brothers" could love her.

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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When he states "get thee to a nunnery" to Ophelia, he is expressing pent-up anger towards his mother, who he feels has been unfaithful and incestuous when she married his uncle.  At the beginning of the play itself, we see a brooding Hamlet who seems almost more upset by his mother's marriage than by his father's death.  He speaks of it with such bitter disgust:  "She married, O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" (I.ii.156-7) and is so upset with his mother that he pronounces a curse on ALL women, not just her:  "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (I.ii.147).  So, that curse includes Ophelia, and from that point on, he avoids her.  Then, when she confronts him, he lets out a huge rant on all women in general-it is a way to indirectly vent his rage at his mother, since he suspects she is listening.

So, think of a nunnery.  There, women cannot marry at all; they cannot be under the influence of any men, or influence men in any way.  Hamlet feels that is where a woman has a best chance at being faithful, and where she will cause the least amount of damage.  After all, as he tells Ophelia also, "why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?"; in a nunnery, she won't have children and bear wicked men-like his uncle-that do awful things.  A nunnery will keep her from marrying, but if she were to marry, Hamlet says, "be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow...[or] marry a fool" who doesn't know "what monsters you make of them" (III.i.122-146).

I hope that explanation helps a bit!  Good luck!

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cathynj0429 | Student

Hamlet tells Ophelia to "Get thee to a nunnery" several times in Act III scene 1, but the intention and underlying meaning of the phrase changes drastically as the realization of her "betrayal" becomes apparent. The scene between Hamlet and Ophelia begins in a very relatable way. Ophelia is returning "remembrances" of Hamlets after their "break up"...she's returning his stuff. Hamlet swears that he never gave her anything.."I never gave you aught" to which she replies "you know right well you did and with them words of so sweet breath composed..." As is common in most of Hamlet there is a secondary conversation happening. Hamlet is referring to promises...he almost feels bad for the way things are happening between them, and maybe a little guilty. He tells her that he never gave her anything....he's not referring to the remembrances that she is holding, but the promises that come with such gifts. She disagrees....she said those gifts did come with promises that neither could keep.

This is where the nunnery comes in....Hamlet tells her initially to "get the to a nunnery...why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners..." He tells her she should not have believed him when he told her he loved her and men are all "arrant knaves." He's trying to protect her from all of the evil of the world and the evils that he knows men must do when ambition and obligation enter the picture. At this point, he is referring to a convent. A place where she is protected from men and sins they bring with them.

Then something shifts. Hamlet realizes that she is setting him up. Hamlet realizes that they are not alone and she is part of a spying plot against him. Many stage or movie versions have this clue come to Hamlet in a movement, a noise or a shadow. Whichever way it comes, he becomes aware of the treachery. He gives her one chance. He needs her to be honest: "Where is your father?" She replies: "At home my Lord." She lies. He knows it. This is where everything, including the context of the word "nunnery" shifts.

Hamlet turns on her and women in general cursing her with a plague for her dowry and claiming that women are manipulative, deceptive and make monsters of men. He then tells her to "To a nunnery, go." In this instance he is no longer referring to the Holy convent...he is instead referring to a nunnery as the slang term for a brothel or whorehouse. He no longer sees the good in her or the pure in her...he sees what he sees in Gertrude....a woman so weak that she allows her beauty to corrupt her purity.

iridawn | Student

Hamlet is full on crazed by this time since he believes that all women in fact are double faced including his mother. When he understands that he is being spied on, he believes Ophelia is behind all this and turns from loving her into spurning her, thinking she is just using him as another excuse as his mother did as well. Since he is extremely angry at this he tells her to go to a nunnery. 

zumba96 | Student

He relates Ophelia to his mom who has entered the marriage with his uncle and believes it to be a sin. He believes that Ophelia is like his mom, two-timing, and then changes from almost loving to almost craze and madness. He rants about his anger towards his mother and towards the fair Ophelia and turns that into insanity. 

ybrant6712 | Student

Both the sources from which we get the tale of Hamlet- Saxo Grammaticus's "Historica Danica" and Belleforest's French translation of it, Ophelia is employed as a decoy by the King and his officials. This speech shows a moralistic Hamlet preaching the doctrine that man is an inherent Sinner.

It is from the beginning that Hamlet's misogynist views already hold sway over his mind. Due to his mother's hasty marriage, considered incestuous by religious standards, Hamlet condemns women in general for he sees that they are more susceptible to the carnal pleasures and are at times mislead by honeyed words.

It is not only Hamlet who holds this opinion. Laertus also cautions his sister in Act I. Hamlet's opinion is further supported by Polonius. Shakespeare shows Polonius's true colours when he agrees to use his daughter as a pawn in unraveling the cause of Hamlet's madness. doing so is also a way of furthering his favor with the King. It is this duplicity in Polonius that makes Hamlet call him a "fishmonger."

Hamlet assumes that Ophelia and Polonius are hand in glove, plotting against him together, still he admires her before berating her. On her return of his love letters and trinkets, he further denigrates women ironically for not being able to decide (his own weakness). To a maddened, spurned lover the best place for a woman to be is in the "nunnery."

The pretense of chastity can be dropped in a brothel because deceit and the "paintings" are a part of a wanton woman's life. This speech shows a moralistic Hamlet preaching the doctrine that man is an inherent Sinner.

drolmstead | Student

Hamlet feels betrayed on all sides.  When he knows Polonius and Claudius are eavesdropping on his conversation with Ophelia, he point blank asks her "Where is your father?"  To which Ophelia replies, "At home, my lord."  Enranged, Hamlet now tells her to get to a nunnery so as not to breed sin.  The verbal irony here is that "nunnery" in Elizabethan England was a slang term for a brothel.  Hamlet may be protecting Ophelia, wanting her to get away from all the sin in the rotton State of Denmark; however, mist critics agree that he is transfering his anger from his mother, Gertrude, onto all women.  He turns misogynistic, seeing all women as dependent, sexual beings.  None are to be trusted.

cuteness | Student

"Get thee to a nunnery" : a place where Ophelia can remain chaste and not continue the procreation of wicked sinful creatures. Even the most ordinary men are full of sins. Hamlet enumerates his.

anujumairah | Student

Presumably, Hamlet might be referring to a convent, where Ophelia will be cleansed of her sins and to be far away from the 'rotten' state of Denmark. On the other hand, "nunnery" was a euphemism for "brothel" in Elizabethan time, probably Hamlet was underscoring that, because beforehand, he calls Polonius a "fishmonger" which is de facto a slang term for agent of prostitutes.

katrynagilson1 | Student

"Get thee to a nunnery" is a play on words. Although a nunnery is a place for pure women who give themselves body and soles to God, a nunnery also means a whore house. Nunnery has a double meaning. Essentially, Hamlet is telling Ophelia that she is both pure and impure.

purplepandaress | Student

It is possible that Hamlet tells Ophelia to 'get thee to a nunnery' as a gesture of protection. He may feel that a nunnery would keep her away from the afflications and dangers of this world. However, it is also likely that Hamlet is referring to the nunnery as a brothel in which it shows his disgust for her. Hamlet is an ambigious character <3

clooless | Student

In my opinion Hamlet tells Ophelia to 'get thee to a nunnery' as he believes all women are deceitful. In particular he is basing his knowledge on his mothers actions- She remarried after one month of his fathers death to his brother. His fury and anger are taken out on Ophelia as she tries to give Hamlet back some 'remembrances'. He berates Ophelia and cruelly tells her not to have children because she would be a

breeder of sinners

This scene is one of the few times we see Hamlet loose his composure. It indeed is dramatic and compelling as it serves a catalyst for much of the plays subsequent action.

tenrii | Student

Hamlet is stunned by Ophelia's "duplicity", and already being horrified by his mother's own treachery, sees Ophelia as a typical  "two faced woman". So in a rage he denounces her and all of womankind.

 

Hope that helps.

jillyfish | Student

Hamlet suspects Ophelia has betrayed him by being willing 'bait' for her father's spytrap. 

A few minutes before, Hamlet was very close to killing himself, so think about his emotional state, he's feeling a total fragile wreck. Then along comes Ophelia, his much-loved girlfriend. ... and she finishes with him. She returns his love-letters and poems and gifts. Ouch! That's not good timing.

Then, Hamlet realises they are being spyed on. He suddenly suspects Ophelia is a willing accomplice to this covert operation and that she's cheerfully dumped him in public to get a reaction.

He does what many love-sick, unhappy, rejected ex-boyfriends do when they can't have the girl they love. He rages. For some reason, we reserve the worst insults for the ones we love. He calls her names and tries to hurt her feelings.

Also, he may be 'playing to the gallery', aware that they are being spied on, he may be exagerating his 'madness'. But considering he was moments from suicide and his girlfriend just dumped him, he probably didn't need to act too hard.