Monday, May 3, 2010

Hamlet: The Nunnery Scene

Hamlet. What’s your take on the nunnery scene?

There are books that detail famous and influential stage productions of Hamlet and there are videos of decades of film and television versions. Read them and watch them, looking for elements common to all as well as for illustrations of how and why they differ from one another. As with all truly great plays, no one interpretation of Hamlet can account for all its implications and resonances.

Here’s my take on the so-called nunnery scene:

First: What’s the play getting at? (See the previous blog post) Note the title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
It is not only Hamlet’s tragedy, but it’s the tragedy of the entire polity of Denmark.

Find lines that rise above plot and point toward theme:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  (Washington, DC?  Find the world of the play alive in your own world.)
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The rest is silence.

For me Hamlet is about a sane young man of integrity and intellect and compassion thrust into a world mad with corruption and deceit. What must an intelligent, decent, caring young person do to survive in a world where the rules change constantly and from which ethical anchors have disappeared?
What happens to a world that fosters such rottenness?
The play suggests forces exist that ultimately will bring order to the world, but meantime people must suffer.

The elemental conflict of the play, then, is those who live by expedience and corruption versus those who want to right wrongs and to live ethically.

Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, embodies an idealistic belief in integrity and ethics. Upon his father’s death he rightly expects to become King of Denmark. But the court “freely goes along” with giving the crown to the king’s brother. (In my world, the Supreme Court of the United States of America hands the presidency to the guy who didn’t win the election.)
Claudius, the new King of Denmark, embodies the forces of corruption, deceit, and manipulation of the populace. (In my world former Vice President Cheney.)
In Hamlet’s personal life, his mother abandons mourning the death of his father and immediately marries his father’s brother. (The abhorrence Hamlet feels at this we may find in our response to the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. And the Vatican’s method of dealing with abuse is how Hamlet sees Denmark’s response to the marriage.)
Not to mention he discovers his uncle killed his father and his father's ghost commands him to revenge the murder.
There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Who are the Hamlets of today’s social and political worlds?

Ophelia is a young person who lives in ignorance of the corruption around her. She has been brought up with blinders on. She is intelligent and loving, but she knows nothing of the harsh secular realities of her world. She has been taught to seek the counsel of her father whenever she is confronted with big issues.
In the world of Hamlet an innocent unaware of the world’s corruption and deceit can escape the brutalities of that world only by madly floating away into oblivion.

Where do you find Ophelias in contemporary America?

Ophelia relies on Hamlet and her father for her stability. When those two anchors are taken away, she can’t survive. And before she dies, her mind loosens from its moorings. Her ending, I think, suggests where she must needs begin and her initial appearances in the play must point inevitably to her end.
When Hamlet confronts her in her bedroom and does some very weird and frightening stuff, what does she do? She runs immediately to her father for explanation and counsel.
The last words of the first scene she appears in are hers spoken to her father: I shall obey, my lord.
I was in a production of Hamlet in which the actress playing Ophelia created a young woman of fiber and independent spirit who begrudgingly and even resentfully spoke that last line. When it came time for her to appear with lots of flowers in her hands, singing slightly off-key and wandering about the castle in madness, it made no sense. There had been no cumulative experience of the inevitability of this moment, no awareness of what Corruption was snuffing out of the world with Ophelia’s death.

If Ophelia is the embodiment of purity and innocence in a corrupt world, then each of her scenes dramatizes a stage in the spoiling and ultimate wiping out of that purity and innocence. Even in the nunnery scene, it is Ophelia’s relationship to the corruption of the world around her and not her personal romantic relationship with Hamlet that is the focus of what happens to her.
She is told to keep Hamlet here so that her father and the king can observe his behavior. She is given a prayer book to justify her presence in this isolated place. (A nice irony.)
What does she pray for here in this corridor? She hasn’t seen Hamlet since he burst into her closet and her father assured her that he is going crazy. What is she praying for in the moments before he comes in?

The tragedy is Hamlet’s not Ophelia’s and so our focus, and our greatest sympathies, must be with him. His fight to the death is with the corruption of the world—even in this encounter with Ophelia.
The last time we saw him is only one scene earlier, when he bounds out at an energized highpoint: The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.  
And then, he is sent for.
Surely he comes bounding into this corridor energized for a major confrontation with the King of Corruption. 
And what does he confront?
An empty hall, perhaps a sputtering candle in a wall sconce. Shadows.
What this provokes in him isn’t just a soliloquy of intellectual abstraction. Nor is it just emotional turmoil. It’s a profound still moment of thought leading to a grave, even tragic, realization for so young a life. It comes from deep in his soul, it unfolds in his mind, and through his voice it extends far out into the cosmos. His thoughts must be verbalized because they must reach out far enough to give him the perspective he needs to understand objectively what his thinking is leading to.
We all know the exhilarating relief, especially in our youth, of discovering finally what we can do to overcome a monumental impasse in our lives.
And then the world throws its indifference or its hostility at us and we are slammed back to ask the question: Why do I bother? What’s the point? Who cares anyway? What difference does it make?
‘To beee (sustain it)’ is not simply ‘to exist’.‘To be’ is ‘to live’ and ‘to live’ is to do, to act, to take continued challenging action throughout a productive constructive life.
‘To BE’ is to engage in enterprises of great pith and moment.
Early in my teaching life I found myself walking along the lakefront near campus so that my thoughts might lift out over the lake and reach up into the far night sky. I was struggling with the question: To continue doing this or to walk away from it. To BE (to teach, to teach the way I knew I must) or not to BE (to cease agonizing over it, perhaps even to abandon it). That was the question. To do whatever it takes to push the limits of my teaching and my learning, to struggle against the forces of indifference, even hostility, and by opposing, end them; or to sit back and to settle in, to resign myself to the way things were; and thus to be content until retirement.
To die; to sleep. No more.
At that moment of youthful tumult, it really was a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Hamlet closes in on a tragic conclusion to his thinking, comes near to making a tragic decision about what to do.
And then he sees Ophelia.  ohmygod, how long has it been?
What exactly does he see?
Is she kneeling? walking? Is there a halo of candlelight in her hair? Her head is bowed over her prayer book. Delicate fingers turn a page. It’s a stirring image: the entire world isn’t a corrupt pigsty. There still exist grace and purity and beauty.
It just might save his soul.
Nymph, and she looks up, her huge eyes teary with care, with prayer, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.
What does he need her to say? to do? What does his tormented soul hope she’ll say and do? Perhaps her hand will reach out and touch his; perhaps her voice, the voice of her heart, will touch his heart with understanding of his torment.
What does he get?
A perfectly trained, convent-educated (fold your hands, walk slowly, lower you eyes), Polonius-taught (a modest young lady answers the Prince with civility not familiarity) little clear tinkling bell of a voice speaking the polite platitudes of civil discourse: Good my lord, how does your honor for this many a day?
She might as well slap his face.
And he would like to shout: I’ll tell you how your honor has been doing for this many a day: he’s hit bottom so hard he was thinking he might just as well kill himself, but, hell, why go into all that!
Instead, he answers even more civilly, more formally, than she: I humbly thank you. Well, well, well and he turns to leave.  (I think the well, well, well is as if your girlfriend, having not seen you for days and days--actually having refused to see you for days--instead of saying, Oh God, what’s been going on? They’re saying you’re crazy, I’ve been worried sick, says, [Your Name], Oh, good afternoon, how have you been?, and you feel such a scalding fury that after a cold Thank you for asking, there’s still enough hot energy in you to spit out, Fine, fine, fine, before you turn on your heel and walk away.)

Panic hits Ophelia. And he's being deliberately curt and cruel. And her task is to keep him here. What to do? Perhaps an unconscious look toward the arras—Father, help!—before, hardly thinking, she reaches for—are they letters? were they in the prayerbook? on her person somewhere? or perhaps it’s a locket she’s wearing?—she hears herself saying, partly to answer his curt jabs, partly in panic to keep him here, My Lord, I have remembrances of yours that I have longed long to redeliver.
The word ‘remembrances’, flooding through his brain, pulls him back to face her. And he answers sharply, Not me, I never gave you a damn thing, and turns again to leave.
Poor Ophelia. She’s not used to thinking on her feet, to making decisions and taking action on her own without checking with her father. Yes, you did! she says. Her heart racing, she can’t believe what Hamlet has said; she wants to run to the arras and cry out for Polonius to help, to stop this, to tell her what to do. Meantime, she is saying things she learned in her Young Maiden’s Handbook with even more formality than before. And finally, she thrusts the tokens at him with There, my lord.

It is at this moment that the scene wrenches from poetry to antic muscular prose. Literally. Something huge has to happen to create this breach. Something cracks irrevocably here. And for me it cannot be triggered simply by her giving back some love tokens to him. This moment must arise from the deepest thematic currents of the play and draw its lifeblood there.
It is at this moment, I think, that Hamlet, who has been dumbfounded by what Ophelia is saying, realizes that Polonius is behind the arras. (It's been in the back of his mind: after all, he was sent for, asked to come here to meet with--who?) It is at this moment that Hamlet is struck with the realization that they have gotten to Ophelia utterly (It starts days ago when she refuses letters from him and won't agree to see him--and he breaks into her room unannounced and stares at her long and hard); it's confirmation that that’s why she’s been acting the way she’s been acting, that there’s dirt on her heart, that her hands are not clean. Great great grief for her wrestles with a nearly uncontrollable rage at them for getting to her, for using her, corrupting her.
What it is that sparks his realization must be something more significant to the play than Polonius’s making a sound and Hamlet hearing it or Polonius moving behind the arras and that catching Hamlet’s eye.
For me, the realization that they aren’t alone and that this is a set-up must come directly from Ophelia.
There, my lord is the last line of iambic poetry in the scene. And then come three iambic beats of silent action to complete the line.
There, my lord as she thrusts the tokens toward him.
  1. She inadvertently, almost imperceptibly, looks toward the arras for help, for assurance, before checking herself.
  2. Hamlet sees it, follows her look.
  3. He looks back at her as he realizes that he’s been set up and that she’s a pawn.
Ha, ha! gasped in shock, in disbelief, sadness, rage.
And the scene takes off with a frightening potential for violence. All that violent energy is already in him and now it surges through him pushing for release in violent action. He drives relentlessly, directly to Where is your father? albeit through the grief/rage of his realizing that she has agreed to be used by them. She tries to maintain civil protocol in the face of his growing rage.
(I’m not convinced by versions that have him discover Polonius is behind the arras only the instant before he asks her where is her father. It’s just too huge a realization for him to act on it so quickly. And his behavior toward her after his ha, ha! is too extreme to be touched off simply by her returning his letters or trinkets.)
Where is your father?
And helplessly, fearfully, Ophelia lies—for the first time in her life—and Hamlet goes nuts. (And by the way, she has not been instructed to return these things. Days ago Polonius tells her only to refuse further letters and visits. But now she has been told to keep him here and when he makes to leave, I think she panics and does the first thing that comes to mind.)
He can barely stand in one place. He’s pulled in all directions.
He wants to unsheathe his rapier and gut whoever's behind the arras (Why doesn’t he just race over to the arras and yank it aside?) He wants to run out of the corridor and storm into his mother’s room (Something in him is pulling to do just that as he spits out, You jig, you amble, you lisp, you paint your face etc.—to Ophelia!). He might grab Ophelia—or worse--as she is the one human being here in his presence on whom he can focus his rage at the whole world.
His several false exits indicate, I think, that there is so much potential dangerous anger in him that, even as he tries to get out of the room, he is ripped back to unload more of the rages that have built in him since even before the play began. And the more he unloads the more he might do violence and so he pulls himself away.
Very little of this has to do directly with Ophelia. But with her capitulation to her father and the king, some final stopper has been pulled out and she is the one there before him to get the brunt of it all.
And finally, he does do something violent—does he actually strike her? Does he throw her to the floor?—and the horror of realizing that he has crossed a major line is what propels him finally/actually to bolt from the room.

The potential for violence in this encounter must be amped up long before Ophelia says O, help him you sweet heavens! And notice that she never says, Help me, I fear for my safety. Throughout, her concern is for the agony Hamlet is experiencing. His rage is not rage at her, though at any moment it might provoke behavior that could hurt her.
After he bolts, her words are of fear and concern for him, not herself. Though she is of ladies most deject and wretched, it’s because she has seen the magnificence that is Hamlet blasted with ecstasy and quite quite down.
I recognize that it is hard in today’s world to accept that our sympathies must stay with Hamlet even at this moment, but I think that’s what’s happening and that’s how we are meant to experience it. If it is Hamlet’s tragedy, then ours and Ophelia’s greatest concern must be for his torment. Whatever pain anyone else is experiencing, even if it is directly caused by him, we must feel that his pain is tragically more profound, more significant. And I believe that if it is done honestly and within the context of a production that dramatizes the greater concerns of the play, the nunnery scene will further move the action inevitably toward The rest is silence and to Horatio’s tale
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,                             
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads.

Someone should do Hamlet out of concern for our country now rather than just for love of the role.


  1. I cannot believe "the moment before" is not more widely talked about referring to this scene. Thank you for opening my eyes to the Nunnery scene in the context of Hamlet's debate and epiphany directly preceding it!

    Hamlet has just reasoned that he has a clear choice to make. He understands that everything he is and will be hinge on this choice, to confront - or not confront - great wrongs even in the face of the world’s “indifference” (a force I am so happy you emphasize because its great potential to cripple youthful enthusiasm exists today more than ever).

    Then, Ophelia. And I completely agree that Hamlet looks up and “It’s a stirring image: the entire world isn’t a corrupt pigsty. There still exist grace and purity and beauty. It just might save his soul.” But no.

    The most heartbreaking aspect of Ophelia’s corruption is that she is so completely unaware of it, herself. This just brings the idea of the world’s indifference to a head. Even your allies from childhood, romantic and otherwise, are subject to the ways of the world (et tu, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). And there are few more agonizing pains than seeing a loved one succumb to those ways without even gaining the consciousness to become aware of them first. Every lost ally zaps you of energy to achieve, and the closer they are, the harder it is to go on. Hamlet sees what is happening to Ophelia, and instead of trying to bring her along, he casts her out.

    Is he attempting to save her from the cruel ways of the world and shield her from her father’s manipulation? Or can he not bear to do what he needs to do, when there is such a terrible example of the world’s cruelty/indifference so close to him?

    Either way, he is sending her out of his life, painfully eliminating another obstacle on his road to what he must do. The real tragedy of this scene to me is how essential cutting a loved one out of his life is to Hamlet’s overcoming the world’s indifference.

  2. When you work on "a scene", you should never just do "a scene"; rather you should always be playing the whole play. How/where does this scene fit in the forward progress of the play toward its final curtain?

    That logic works within each scene, too: What realization or decision or climactic action does the scene get to? What are the characters doing just before the scene? How do these responses bring them into the scene? Then find the moments of discovery and action that will take the scene to its climax. And so on to the climax of the whole play.

    For the nunnery scene: The soliloquy isn't separate from the scene; it's the beginning of the scene.
    (There are editions of the play that arrange scenes differently and locate this soliloquy elsewhere.)

    Try this:
    1. Trace the entire arc of what happens to an individual character throughout the course of a play. Where do they start (be specific in your description)? Where do they end? (Describe in detail.) Then note the moments of change as they occur in each scene from the beginning of the play that lead to the end.

    2. Do the same with each relationship through the play.
    Take another look at the interaction between Hamlet and Ophelia the next time they see each other after the nunnery scene--the tragedians' play presentation. It's heart-breaking in light of what happens here in the nunnery scene. And it's leading directly to her death and to his leaping into her grave.

  3. Friend and Northwestern University colleague Dr. Linda Walsh Jenkins emailed me some thoughts about Hamlet and Ophelia. She consented to my posting them as a Comment here. See also her thoughts about Kate and Petruchio and The Merchant of Venice in the June 17 post.

    From Linda:

    Hamlet - Wednesday night I saw a good, solid production at TCU in the Trinity Shakespeare summer festival, which pairs excellent pros with the best of TCU's undergrad and grad performers. (Last year's Twelfth Night was possibly the best Shakespeare I've ever seen, period.) It was a straight-forward production that trusted with good reason if the players speak the speech well the story will work.
    However, I was thinking about the DGO notes about Ophelia. Here are some thoughts. I fully accept that in historical context the "girl gone mad" convention was enough for everyone and her role makes for some pretty (if not homoerotic) turns by an exceptional boy actor.
    For today's world (and that includes more than half a century for me!), it's a very annoying role. I'm okay with the "I must obey my father" stuff, but the mad scene never suits me. I just don't buy it that she would truly go that crazy. Suicide, yes - what's left for her? She can't exactly go out into the world and get an MBA or try out for American Idol. Depressed and suicidal, not mad.
    So - let's play more with the "antic disposition" theme. Whether Shakespeare "intended" it or not, he always creates marvelously polyvalent relationships and scenes. First, in the scene where she attempts to redeliver remembrances as Polonius is behind the curtain - it's possible to play this with both Hamlet and Ophelia sharing love with their eyes while "playing" the roles they must. It doesn't take away from the fact that this is Hamlet's tragedy but it enhances, deepens his story and his playing. And it makes her ever so much more interesting as well as fun for the actress. Plus, it makes her more worthy of Hamlet's love - it's a tragedy for Denmark that these two could not rule as King and Queen.
    The mad scene has similarly been done as if Ophelia is only "playing mad," like her beloved, in this court where norms have been toppled. Personally, I like that better for contemporary actresses and audiences. That she's distressed enough to kill herself I can buy, but she hasn't lost her mind. She consciously gets in little barbs about rosemary and rue (continuing the remembrance theme) but forces them all to just listen (as Hamlet forces his mother and stepfather to attend to The Mousetrap).
    The Hamlet I just saw played her straight and conventionally, which continues to bother rather than satisfy me. (And, of course, it's all about satisfying ME, right?).
    Also, in spite of an otherwise very intelligent and in the end moving production, two other things stuck out. First, the "to be" was not the "to BE" that you so wisely suggested. Second - the line I believe is the core meaning of the play, "readiness is all," was thrown away upstage in an awkward and inexcusable bit of direction. I almost stormed the stage, sword drawn - what ho, knave, say that again while you face us!

    From me in reply:

    I was in a production of Hamlet years ago in which the director told Marcellus that when he said the line "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" he must jump off the high ramparts onto the stage so as to distract the audience from hearing the line--otherwise they'd just laugh.