Hamlet: Return to the Nunnery

Before we leave the “nunnery scene”–as the Hamlet/Ophelia conversation that occurs after the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Act Three, Scene One of Hamlet is often called–I want to dive into something of interest:

Pronouns.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking: “Bill, you said this would be interesting… pronouns? Really?”

Yes, gentle reader, I am totally serious. You should listen up; thou might learn something.

In Shakespeare’s day, the English language was in flux, “thou” was disappearing, consolidating into an all-encompassing “you.” Consolidated, thou asks, consolidated from what?

Leading up to this point, “thou” and “you” were used in different  situations, with different connotations: “you” was more formal; “thou” more familiar (at times, less respectful). That being said, let’s take a look at the use of pronouns in the “nunnery” sequence. As the soliloquy comes to an end, Hamlet says,

The fair Ophelia.—Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
OPHELIA
Good my lord,
How does your Honor for this many a day?
HAMLET
I humbly thank you, well.
OPHELIA
My lord, I have remembrances of yours
That I have longèd long to redeliver.
I pray you now receive them.
HAMLET
No, not I. I never gave you aught.
OPHELIA
My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord.
HAMLET
Ha, ha, are you honest?
OPHELIA
My lord?
HAMLET
Are you fair?
OPHELIA
What means your Lordship?
HAMLET
That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
OPHELIA
Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?
HAMLET
Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform 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.
OPHELIA
Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.
HAMLET
You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.
OPHELIA
I was the more deceived.
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 offenses 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 all; 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
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
Heavenly powers, restore him!
HAMLET
I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath 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 your 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.
  • III.i.89-149

When the dialogue begins, Hamlet speaks to her with the more familiar “thy,” and while I suppose it could be disrespectful, I see its use primarily for showing their past intimate relationship.

Ophelia responds, however, with the more formal, respectful, but possibly distant “your Honor.” As if taking his cue from her, Hamlet changes his pronoun to the less familiar, more formal–and more royal–“you” as well. This formality and distance continues until just after Hamlet tells her, “You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.” During this run–the longest unbroken pronoun section of the scene–the verbal attacks have a bite, but since they’re based on the more removed “you,” they don’t feel as cruel.

That all changes in the next speech, though, when Hamlet begins to launch into the “nunnery” imagery. Here, he switches back to “thee,” “thou,” and “thy.” This intimacy makes his cruelty (even if you don’t believe in the “whorehouse” meaning of “nunnery”)  more brutal. This dropping of the distancing “you” intensifies the assault…and begs the question: “Why?” Is the shift merely for rhetorical effect, or might he be lashing out in defense and pain, himself?

Interestingly, at the end of the speech, though, he returns to “you” as in “Where’s your father?” Is Hamlet relenting, softening his attack? Is this in response to her non-verbal response, in regret for what’s he’s said and how he’s said it? Is this for her benefit? Or for those who he believes are listening?

When he finishes his discussion of Polonius, however, he returns to nunnery-talk and the less respectful “thou” and “thee”s. Again, he intimately delivers pain to Ophelia. To this attack, she calls for “Heavenly powers (to) restore him.” Restored he is before he leaves: his final speech returns him to the equal pronoun footing with her–“you” and “your.”

Is this final pronoun royal? Distancing? Less painful for himself? How broken must he be to continually switch back and forth?

What does all this mean?

Lots of questions, with answers to be found, in my view only in rehearsal and performance.

Comment?