Literature

A Short Analysis of Hamlet’s ‘Get Thee to a Nunnery’ Speech

Hamlet’s ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ speech to Ophelia is a memorable moment in a play full of memorable moments. Before we analyse his speech, here’s a reminder of the relevant section of the play, which is found in Act 3 Scene 1, not long after Hamlet’s famous ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy.

HAMLET:

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. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves – believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father?

OPHELIA:

At home, my lord.

HAMLET:

Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house. Farewell.

OPHELIA [aside]:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

HAMLET:

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. Get thee to a nunnery. Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery go, and quickly too. Farewell.

OPHELIA [aside]:

Heavenly powers restore him.

HAMLET:

I have heard of your paintings well enough. God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t. It hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already – all but one – shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go!

Exit

After Hamlet has left the stage, Ophelia laments the fact that Hamlet’s ‘noble mind’ has been ‘overthrown’ by madness. Or so it seems: he has, in reality, resolved ‘to put an antic disposition on’, as he confided to Horatio in Act 1 Scene 5, and is only pretending to be mad. Or is he? Does he, in fact, go genuinely mad during the course of the play? It becomes harder to tell. Nevertheless, Hamlet’s madness (real or feigned at this point) is important context for the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ speech.

With that in mind, let’s go through the speech more closely and summarise – and analyse – its meaning.

HAMLET:

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.

Let’s start with that opening instruction, ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’ Hamlet tells Ophelia – with whom he has previously been romantically involved – to go to a convent and become a nun, swearing off men, marriage, and bearing children. After all, all women who give birth to men are breeders of ‘sinners’, because all men are sinners.

Hamlet extends this accusation to himself: he tells us he is reasonably virtuous (‘indifferent honest’), yet even he could be accused (by himself) of things which are objectionable enough to make his mother wish she’d never given birth to him.

It has been suggested that Hamlet is using ‘nunnery’ here as (ironic) slang for ‘brothel’, and there is some evidence for ‘nunnery’ being in use at the time with this meaning. The more immediate problem with such an interpretation, in relation to ‘Get thee to a nunnery’, is that Hamlet is trying to persuade Ophelia not to breed, so taking ‘nunnery’ at face value as ‘convent’ here makes more sense.

I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.

Hamlet continues by listing some of his ‘sins’ or faults: he is proud, revengeful (true enough: he’s in the process of seeking revenge against his uncle for the killing of his father), ambitious (well, he has ambitions to avenge his father!), and has other ‘offences’ at his ‘beck’ (i.e. summons; compare the modern phrase ‘at my beck and call’): too many, in fact, to think about, or for his mind to shape into suitable schemes. And there aren’t enough hours in the day for him to put all of these sinful thoughts into practice!

What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves – believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where’s your father?

Hamlet then asks a rhetorical question: what’s the point of someone like him, ‘crawling’ (like a wretch, rather than a noble man) between earth and heaven? (Hamlet’s phrase ‘between earth and heaven’ seems rather odd, but may be suggested by his encounter with the Ghost in Act 1; he is thinking about his father, who is dead but not yet welcomed into Heaven, instead dwelling in Purgatory while he waits for his soul to be cleansed.)

Hamlet’s ‘We are arrant knaves’ is sometimes rendered as ‘arrant knaves all’ (in the first printing of the play, the First Quarto, ‘all’ follows ‘knaves’): he means that all men are downright scoundrels, a ‘knave’ being a dishonest or unscrupulous man. So Ophelia should believe none of the promises men make her: they are not to be trusted. (Since Hamlet has already included himself in this denunciation of all men, his statement ‘believe none of us’ verges on a double bind, or a variation on the Cretan liar paradox: if all men are knaves and Hamlet is a knave too, and no knaves should be believed, should Ophelia believe Hamlet when he tells her they are all knaves? But we get his gist …

OPHELIA:

At home, my lord.

Hamlet asks Ophelia where her father is. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, is spying on Hamlet, and it may be that Hamlet suspects as much. But his question here more immediately relates to what follows: he is asking her where her father is so he can deliver his quip about men staying home to be fools in their own house.

HAMLET:

Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house. Farewell.

There we have it! Hamlet’s question to Ophelia was the setup to this punchline. Sure enough, Polonius is a fool, par excellence. Hamlet’s point is that men are better off staying at home so nobody else besides their nearest and dearest witness their folly.

OPHELIA [aside]:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

There is a pattern and rhythm to this final section of the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene: Hamlet bids Ophelia farewell several times, while she utters a private aside to the heavens several times, in the hope that some help can be found for Hamlet’s apparent madness.

HAMLET:

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. Get thee to a nunnery. Farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery go, and quickly too. Farewell.

Hamlet conflates the role of the father (who usually provides the woman’s dowry when she marries) and the fiancé (he was, after all, romantically involved with Ophelia himself), and tells her that if she does get married, he will provide her with a ‘plague’ or curse for her dowry: the curse is that no matter how chaste and pure she is, she will not avoid being slandered.

So, Ophelia should go to a nunnery and resolve not to marry. Or, if she insists on marrying a man, marry a foolish one, because wise men know that women make ‘monsters’ of them – ‘monsters’ here usually analysed as a synonym for ‘cuckolds’, i.e. women cuckold their husbands by sleeping with other men. Cuckolds were depicted as men with horns, so this explains Hamlet’s choice of word.

OPHELIA [aside]:

Heavenly powers restore him.

HAMLET:

I have heard of your paintings well enough. God has given you one face and you make yourselves another. You jig and amble and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t. It hath made me mad. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already – all but one – shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go!

By ‘paintings’ Hamlet is referring to women’s make-up: God, or nature, gives them one face, but they insist on falsifying that one by creating a false face through the use of cosmetics.

Even the way women move seems to annoy Hamlet, or the way they affect certain habits of speech (‘lisp’). It’s less clear why giving nicknames to ‘God’s creatures’ should offend Hamlet so much. It’s been suggested (e.g. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor in their notes glossing this section of the play, in the excellent edition Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)) that Shakespeare is adding such a trivial ‘charge’ to the list of women’s other offences in order to make Hamlet sound ridiculous.

Certainly, since he has now gone into full-blown misogynistic mode (before, his main problem with women was that they bred men, who are the real ‘knaves’; now, he attacks women for being false among other things), it’s fitting that he should be mocked.

Another interpretation is that this is Hamlet deliberately trying to wrongfoot Ophelia, and convince her that he is really mad: such a nonsensical criticism of all women amongst his others (which, however objectionable, nevertheless make sense in terms of his argument) makes him sound unstable or confused.

Hamlet then says that women use ignorance as an excuse for wanton behaviour (i.e. lewdness or unfaithfulness). When Hamlet said that all this ‘hath made me mad’, we have to wonder how far he means mad in the true sense (rather than simply ‘very angry’). And if he does mean mad as in ‘insane’, does he mean it? We’re back to the Cretan liar paradox again: if a man says he has been driven mad, is he then not mad, because he has the self-awareness to make such a statement, whereas a true madman would not realise he was mad? Well, you get the idea …

Hamlet ends by saying that marriage as an institution should be abolished altogether. Nobody else should get married in future, though all of those who are currently married can remain alive (how generous of him!). Or rather, ‘all but one’: namely Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (whose ‘o’er-hasty marriage’ to her dead husband’s brother has really prompted Hamlet’s ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ outburst, rather than poor Ophelia).

You can read our analysis of the play Hamlet here.

5 Comments

  1. Just on the word ‘mad’. I’m confident it means insane here as the other definition (angry) is an Americanism and therefore far too modern to have been in Shakespeare’s vocabulary.

  2. Ophelia is a vulnerable woman and a dutiful daughter. As her erstwhile lover, Hamlet should know her well enough to empathise with her situation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a different matter; they invite punishment, though an indefinite spell in an English gaol would have been sufficient.

  3. Hmm, Polonius is using Ophelia for his own purposes and profits from her work. So it makes sense Hamlet suggests she go to a brothel/nunnery. Isn’t fishmonger slang for a “procurer” and Hamlet tosses that label out to Polonius. Lots of undercurrent and ambiguity in this go round.

  4. Polonius contrived this encounter to demonstrate to Claud and Gert that Hamlet is mad for love. Previously he has ordered his daughter to lock herself away from him, suspecting his motives: he is “a prince out of your star”; she is too lowly to expect an offer of honourable marriage. Ophelia’s pretext for talking to him now is to return his love letters. Hamlet smells a rat and takes out his rage on this helpless instrument of Polonius’s guile, rahter than on the author of the deception. Not one of his best moments.

    • Given all that’s happened, especially the visitation of his father’s ghost, evidence that Hamlet actually does (or did) love Ophelia, and his certain knowledge that Ophelia is serving as her father’s instrument, I can’t join you in finding much fault with the prince.