The Nunnery Scene


Why is Ophelia left onstage during Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in the ‘nunnery scene’ (3.1)? This, at any rate, is the implication in the Quarto and Folio versions of the play, which specify an exit for the King and Polonius immediately before the soliloquy – either in the dialogue alone (Q1, Q2) or in both dialogue and stage direction (F) – but give none for Ophelia. Nor is there any indication of a (re-) entrance for Ophelia at the close of Hamlet’s soliloquy, when he first sees her (‘Soft you now/The fair Ophelia’, 1742-3). All early versions seem consistent in making her a presence during this part of the scene, however unobtrusive that presence may be supposed to be.

Perhaps the issue is not especially significant: but it has repercussions on whether the speech is classifiable as a soliloquy at all, and on the choices performers and directors make about whether and how to incorporate Ophelia’s presence (1). Do they leave her in the scene’s background, out of sight of Hamlet but still at the margins of audience awareness? Do they actively involve her – silently but responsively – as some have done when Hamlet speaks of suicide? Or do they have Hamlet direct the entire speech to her, as has (very occasionally) been attempted? In the majority of cases, both stage productions and screen versions have elected simply to manoeuvre her out of the picture altogether, so as not to detract from the speech’s celebrated sense of privacy and interiority (2).


But how far might Ophelia’s inclusion here be a product of calculated dramatic effect, rather just than of staging conventions which did not distinguish rigidly between on- and off- stage space? The possibility that it might carry some symbolic import seems particularly worth exploring, as that option would allow Ophelia to remain in full view (albeit presumably in the background) for the duration of the speech without having to involve her as a participant until Hamlet addresses her. The directions given to her by Polonius in the lead-up to Hamlet’s entrance specify that she should read on a book and adopt a ‘devotional’ manner, and Hamlet himself will see her at her ‘orisons’, so the iconic aspect of her presence will clearly connote piety and spiritual work (however much this may have been compromised by its use in a deception). To this her femininity is also strongly allied, since in the scene’s preliminaries the Queen has spoken of her ‘good beauties’ as the hoped-for cause of Hamlet’s madness (1689).

This coupling of femininity and piety is one which Hamlet will try to force apart in the ensuing ‘nunnery’ exchange; but that does not mean that a deception or a paradox is what is evoked by Ophelia’s presence during the speech itself. Rather, its symbolic connotations can be read at a more overt level, whereby the purely beautiful and solitary female figure stands in for the human soul itself. A convention of representation continuing from the late mediaeval period into the Renaissance gendered the soul as feminine, and often personified it as such (e.g., Anima in Langland’s Piers Plowman). This convention was put to sustained allegorical use in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene with the figure of Lady Alma from Book 2, Canto 9: a ‘virgin bright…In robe of lilly white…arayd’, whose ‘castle’ is the whole human body. Ophelia’s own name may evoke the soul in line with this convention if, as one editor has suggested, it echoes that of Apheleia from the masque in Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, who is described there as ‘a nymph as pure and simple as the soul’ (3). It does not seem insignificant, then, that in the ‘rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy which immediately precedes this scene, Hamlet himself, when speaking of the Player’s soul, conspicuously genders it as female (‘from her working’, etc., 1594).


If such a symbolic convention is being made use of in the nunnery scene, then, it presents the audience with a tableau in which the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy has a deictic relation to the condition, or fate, of the soul: the content of the speech is focussed by the onstage presence of Ophelia. But is its context therefore general, or particular to Hamlet himself? I have argued on another page that the ‘rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy was principally structured to foreground a problem with the functioning of Hamlet’s soul, and on that reading this subsequent scene would take up this problematic and develop its implications. At the same time Hamlet’s soliloquy is, as often observed, expressed in very general terms, never once referring to its speaker directly and couching its debate in universalising statements about existence rather than anything specifically referencing the soul. What this does, I would suggest, is create two distinct planes on which the soliloquy can be read by an audience. The first, which is anterior, presents Hamlet’s own debate about whether living is better than not living; the second, which follows upon the first and is keyed by the presence of Ophelia, takes the terms of that debate and re-presents them according to their existential consequences for his soul. While Hamlet controls meaning on the first plane, he does not control it on the second, and therefore remains unaware of what those consequences are.

From Hamlet’s perspective, the soliloquy’s rationale derives from the attempt to overcome the ‘cowardice’ he associated with himself in the last scene. For although the device of the play will settle the question of whether or not he need fear damnation, the possibility of death itself still remains, if only hypothetically, to discourage him from attempting revenge (4). Hamlet now addresses this threat by supposing that death is the inevitable outcome of revenge, thus making the decision one of whether or not to accept death (1710-14): ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. Accordingly, to refrain from acting is to live and so continue ‘to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, whereas to attempt revenge is ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them’ in death. By portraying his choice in this way it can be seen that the debate is already weighted in favour of accepting the latter course, which appears by far the ‘nobler’ one (1711). It therefore remains to come to terms with death (1714-18), which upon consideration is no more than ‘to sleep’; for both sleep and death are states in which all external stimuli to the soul cease, the one difference being that with death this condition is permanent. Since with the soul’s freedom from the body comes freedom from ‘The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to’, this state of repose it will enjoy in death is clearly preferable to mortal life. However, once it is realized that in repose the soul can still experience dreams (1719), the situation reverses itself completely, for dreams, like the ‘slings and arrows’ of fortune, are chance events over which we have no control. Thus not only is death no escape for the soul but it now appears worse than mortal life, since the evils that can afflict it after death are unknown, whereas those associated with our mortal existence are at least known to us (1720-36). The result of this reversal for Hamlet is that inaction is preferred over an action which, because it would bring release into the unknown, must now be avoided (1737-42).

The soliloquy’s terms of reference, however, do not terminate here. For by rejecting one action, that of revenge, Hamlet inevitably makes necessary the acceptance of another: the ‘antic disposition’. Since his argument has concluded by expressing a preference for the known evils of life over the unknown evils of death, the former will include that pathological terror he has conceived of the spectre of ‘incest’ at Elsinore, toward which he is compelled to use the ‘antic disposition’. And this action, I have argued, is profoundly threatening in another way, in terms of its effect on Hamlet’s soul. With this in mind we can look again at the wording of the soliloquy and see that while presenting a deliberation over the one action of revenge, it has simultaneously, and with a precise reduplication of terms, been presenting a deliberation over this other action. In this latter context ‘To be or not to be’ is now a choice between whether or not to have immortal being, where to continue ‘to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ is to follow a particular course (inaction) which will prolong the soul’s existence. The only alternative to this would be accomplished by the antic disposition which will culminate in the soul’s annihilation; and this course can again be articulated as a decision ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them.’ In the evaluation of immortality, therefore, it is once again what happens after death that is decisive (1714-18); for once it is realised that the soul may suffer unknown disturbances in the afterlife, any course which brings about the death of that soul is logically made preferable. Hence, by persisting with an action that will destroy the soul during mortal existence any such ‘enterprises of great pitch and moment’ as revenge must inevitably continue to ‘lose the name of action.’ All this secondary meaning remains unavailable to Hamlet, who believes only that he is weighing up the value of mortal life; but it is made apparent to the audience via the symbolic function of Ophelia, and by the peculiar non-specificity of the speech’s language, which allows it to take as referents two distinct actions, with two distinct outcomes (this feature of the speech’s dramatic-poetic language can be illustrated in more detail here).


The consequences of Hamlet’s preferring life to death implied above are now demonstrated in the encounter with Ophelia. To resume where Hamlet himself has left off; he has abandoned revenge because he sees death as a more dreadful prospect than life. He is then confronted with that which life has to offer him when Ophelia approaches and returns to him some ‘remembrances’ which he had formerly courted her with, a gesture which to Hamlet will inevitably appear an attempt to reclaim his attentions. The first part of their dialogue (1748-85) shows Hamlet endeavouring to dissuade this attempt, for it is the inevitable outcome of his soul’s present condition that the feelings he once had for her can no longer be aroused. At this stage in their conversation it is clear that Hamlet has no thoughts linking Ophelia sexually with her father: his attention is focused for the time being entirely on those promises he had once made her, in which he had all but proposed marriage. Now that Ophelia recalls these to mind he first denies all knowledge of them, and then produces a number of arguments which are intended to deter Ophelia’s interest in him; firstly, by remarking on the danger in which she is putting her ‘honesty’; then by attempting to invalidate the love he once professed; and finally by portraying himself, in common with his entire sex, as profoundly flawed and not to be trusted. His arguments here echo the cautions of Laertes and Polonius in 1.3., only Hamlet’s implications are even wider, for in order to avoid the dangers of desire Ophelia must abjure marriage and enter a nunnery.

It is at this point, now that Hamlet has spoken of the sinfulness of men in general, that he is suddenly put in mind of Ophelia’s father, and the dreaded stigma with which he associates them both. He does not know, of course, that Polonius is behind the arras or that he is in any way being overheard or spied upon. Nonetheless, Ophelia’s reply to his question ‘Where’s your father?’ (1786) could not be more unfortunate, for ‘At home’ carries precisely the connotations that Hamlet’s worse fears require (the more so if her reply is accompanied by a hint of shame given Polonius’ actual presence nearby). As a result Hamlet is once more thrown into a characteristic state of terror, for his soul’s capacity for response, dwindling as it is, may yet be stung into a reactive state when confronted by the kind of stimulus that Ophelia now provides. Indeed, from this encounter she appears more terrifying than ever to Hamlet, becoming in his eyes the very image of deception – a beautiful young woman who, already despoiled by her father, seeks marriage with an unsuspecting man.


Hamlet’s response is to have recourse once more to the antic disposition, all the while reiterating his appeal to ‘get thee to a nunnery’ – only this time accompanying it with an emphatic ‘Farewell’ by which he rejects her outright. Beginning with a grotesque of Polonius himself (1787-8), he then moves onto Ophelia (1790-1802), transforming her into a hideous caricature of maidenhood for whom marriage will never be free of ‘calumny’ unless it be made with ‘a fool’ who will know nothing of the monstrosity of his cuckolding. The caricature becomes broadened into a parody of her whole sex, for whom deception of this kind has acquired the status of an art, reducing the sacred institution of marriage to little more than a travesty (1798-1803). Finally, Hamlet concludes his diatribe with the threat ‘Those that are married already – all but one – shall live’ (1803-4), showing that he has reversed his earlier decision to abandon an attempt on the King’s life and has changed his mind back to a course of revenge. For as a result of this encounter with Ophelia, it now seems to Hamlet that life in the form of marriage to such a person is a state even more hateful than that of the unknown evil of death, and this realisation is enough for Hamlet to prefer death (as it might follow from revenge) to life.

However, we can see from the order of events that this change of mind is nothing less than a disaster for Hamlet; since by the time he has decided to take his chances with death he has resumed the action which will destroy his soul and end any prospect of a life after death. The implication of this is further made clear by Hamlet’s spurning of Ophelia as he bids her ‘farewell’ while he is performing this action, for in this we see him symbolically casting away his soul prior to accepting death. In this way Hamlet inadvertently chooses ‘not to be’ in the fullest sense, compounding his body’s death with that of his soul’s, and contriving to bring about his utter personal extinction.


(1). See the note to 3.1.55SD in Hamlet, Arden 3rd edn, where the editors comment that ‘the most famous of all soliloquies is not, strictly speaking, a soliloquy at all’. Three characters remain on stage as Hamlet enters, but Claudius and Polonius are hidden to facilitate their strategy of ‘seeing unseen’. No comparable indication of what to do is given to Ophelia herself, however.
(2). For these alternatives in staging, see Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet (Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1992), 465-6.
(3). See the notes on Dramatis Personae, Ophelia, in Arden Hamlet, 2nd edn.
(4). For a reading of the soliloquy’s opening lines as a choice between life or death predicated on the act of revenge, see for example D.G. James, ‘Moral and Metaphysical Uncertainty in Hamlet’ (1951), in Shakespeare: Hamlet, A Casebook, John Jump (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 78-9.

All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).