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Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene Author(s): Taraknath Sen Reviewed work(s): Source: The

Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene Author(s): Taraknath Sen Reviewed work(s):

Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 145-152 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association

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VOLUMEXXXV

XXXV

VOLUME

APRIL, APRIL,

1940

1940

NUMBER2

NUMBER

2

HAMLET'S TREATMENT OF OPHELIA IN THE

NUNNERY

SCENE

I

HAMLET'S treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery scene formed

the

subject of a thoughtful contribution by Miss Helen L. Gardner in the

1938. The subject is one

that has provoked much discussion. Dr Dover Wilson would motivate

Hamlet's sudden fury against Ophelia by positing an earlier entry for him in Act II, sc. ii, and thus making him overhear Polonius's scheme

about 'loosing his daughter to him'.

Hamlet would be aware of the presence of spies behind the arras in the

Nunnery scene and be deliberately talking at them; his fury against Ophelia personally would be the result of his knowledge that she was a

shows how such an interpretation goes

against the usual Shakespearean technique in the matter of overhearing. She thinks that it is quite in consonance with 'the whole rhythm of the

play' that Hamlet's fury against Ophelia should be unmotivated; for the whole play turns on the incalculability of Hamlet's behaviour and is consequently full of violent emotional contrasts, abrupt explosions of feeling and 'sudden absolute alterations of tension'. It is the object of this paper to show that Hamlet's treatment of

Ophelia in the Nunnery scene is quite understandable psychologically, without calling for such mechanical motivation as suggested by Dr Dover Wilson. Nor is it necessary to assume that Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia is unmotivated because the rhythm of the play demands it to be so. Let us see first in what state of mind Hamlet confronts Ophelia in the Nunnery scene.

II

To Hamlet's fine, sensitive nature there comes a tremendous shock-

the shock of a father's murder by the hands of his own brother and of the

adulterous marriage of a mother with the murderer himself. That

bears Hamlet down. As is the way with introspective natures, Hamlet's personal problem becomes for him also the problem of life. In his very

issue of the Modern Language Review dated July

According to this interpretation,

decoy.1 Miss Gardner very ably

shock

1 Dover Wilson, What Happens in 'Hamlet' (Cambridge, 1935), pp. 101-14, 125-36.

10

M. L. R. XXXV

146 Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene

o'erhasty marriage' of his

mother leads on to morbid generalizations: 'Frailty, thy name is woman! '1

and again:

first soliloquy, the contemplation of 'the

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on't! 0 fie! 'tis an unweededgarden

That

Possess it

grows to seed; things

merely.

rank and gross in nature

The contradictions of life prove too much for the young prince. He knows what a piece of work is a man, but he also gets to know that one may smile, and smile, and be a damned villain. He is so conscious of the beauties of creation, but he also gets to experience it as a pestilent con- gregation of vapours. He is unable to reconcile these incongruities; and this inability unmakes the man. And this tragedy of Hamlet is intensified by his loneliness. People in his situation are in real need of that spiritual sympathy that alleviates 'soul-torment'. In a somewhat analogous situation, Prospero is able to accept life with all its contradictions, which Hamlet cannot. It is a possibility worth considering how much of this is due to the fact that Prospero has a daughter like Miranda. Hamlet, however, is not equally

fortunate.

Even Horatio does not know 'how ill all's here

about his heart'.2 There is Ophelia, and naturally Hamlet would expect much from her. But even she (without knowing it: she is too simple to

know) fails him.

At a moment when Hamlet's need of understanding companionship is the greatest, when he has been filled with a spirit of bitterness against

the world, and-worse still-when his disgust at his mother's conduct

has already generalized itself into a doubt of womankind, Ophelia, at the behest of her father, repels his letters and denies his access to her (II, i,

He is alone.

Hence Hamlet's bitterness against Ophelia.

108-10). Her action seems to provide Hamlet with an unexpected con- firmation of his 'Frailty, thy name is woman!' But it is a painful confirmation, too, coming as it does from his own beloved. The resulting distraction on the part of Hamlet is easily imaginable. The way he visits Ophelia in her closet-'his doublet all unbraced' etc. (see Ophelia's

description in II, i, 77-100)-is no mere 'putting on' of 'an antic dis- position'. When he takes her by the wrist and falls to perusal of her face,

does he expect to find 'Frailty' writ large there? And then think of the way he goes out, with a sigh that seems 'to shatter all his bulk', looking

1 All

quotations

from Hamlet are from the Arden edition

(ed. Dowden, London, 1919).

Other Shakespearean references are to the Globe edition (London, 1924).

2

v, ii, 221.

TARAKNATH

SEN

147

at Ophelia over his shoulders to the last! The whole thing bespeaks the agonized lover-the lover who has had a sudden and profound shock.

He has been disappointed where he had hoped most; he thinks he has been deceived where he had most trusted. That his own beloved should

belong to the rank, unweeded garden-to the pestilent congregation of vapours! It is in this state of mind that Hamlet encounters Ophelia in III, i. His bitterness against her there would not be a surprise after all this. And in the scene itself there are aggravating factors.

III

Coming now to the Nunnery scene itself, enter Hamlet meditating.

There are two movements of the soul in his soliloquy. The first is one of a

weariness of life-a

become for him 'an unweeded garden', the earth 'a sterile promontory',

man 'a quintessence of dust'. The greater part of his soliloquy is ac- cordingly an expression of a profound disgust with life, even with death. At this point his eyes fall on Ophelia. According to her father's in- structions (III, i, 44-9), she is poring over a book of devotions. The sight for a moment turns the current of Hamlet's soul. For once we have a glimpse of the old Hamlet-the sensitive fine-souled young man who knew love and was so intensely conscious of the beauty of life.1 Here, for once, before him is a bit of that beauty he loved so well. The fair Ophelia! His own beautiful beloved at her devotions! The old passion flames up anew at the sight-the hunger for love is felt once more, the hunger for

thing we have already noticed in him: the world has

spiritual sympathy, for understanding companionship:

Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia!

Be all my sins remember'd.2

Nymph, in thy orisons

Cf.that

Tosavehis theory Dr Dover Wilsonwould readthis speech as sardonic

speech

of his in

II,ii,

312-23: 'this

goodlyframe,

the earth, etc.'

2

(op. cit., p.

128).

Thewarmth

This

and wistfulnessof the

picions

lonelinesswith the show of an exercise. Dr Dover Wilsonfinds 'deliberateaffectation'

in the words nymph and orisons.Not that these wordsdo not lend themselvesto affecta-

nymph,

tion. But has not

is, perhaps, the

that

part of his theory that onefindsmostdifficultto

speech

(as

are

unmistakable, thus proving

by

her fatherin

instructed

accept.

that Hamlet has no sus-

Ophelia is

in, i, 45-6) merelycolouring her

prayers'.

137, Iv, i, Dowden's

whichDr

Shakespeare used them seriously more than once? See, for

v,

iv, 12,

Midsummer

Romeoand

Night's

Dream, II, i, 245, m, ii,

32.

Juliet, iv, iii, 3, Cymbeline, I, iii,

102),

After

Two

131; for orisons,

Gentlemen of Verona,

Henry V, n, ii, 53,

remark,

DoverWilson

Hamlethas beentouched by the

acceptedbeautified as

should

boggle

'Yet there is

quotes,

estrangement in the word "Nymph"' (ed.cit., p.

doesnot

helphim;

sight

of Ophelia with herbookof

113),

'innocent'(op.cit.,p.

forthe contextof that remarkis 'For a moment

having

thereis no reason why Dr DoverWilson

at nymph andorisons.

10-2

148 Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene

If only Ophelia

can rise to it!

with one unfortunate expression! In her confusion (natural to a simple

girl like her in her situation) she accosts Hamlet thus:

Here, then, is a situation fraught with possibilities.

But think of the tragedy-how

she spoils the situation

Good my lord,

How does your honourfor this many a day?'

the day before.2 I am not

Many a

sure if the tragic significance of this 'many a day' of Ophelia's has been sufficiently appreciated. It lends almost a touch of fatality to the situa- tion. That an unfortunate expression blurted out at a moment of con-

fusion3 should thus work havoc with a promising situation! The ex- pression hurts Hamlet in two ways. For one thing, it is a lie (to Hamlet, of course: Ophelia does not know what she says). One more unpleasant

reminder of his earlier generalization, 'Frailty, thy name is woman!', it makes Hamlet suspect that Ophelia is not genuine, that she is not honest (the suspicion finds wild expression shortly afterwards: 'Ha, ha!

For another, the expression gives the feeling of a

great distance between Hamlet and Ophelia; as if her lover did no longer

are you honest? ').

day! But she had met' Hamlet only

matter to Ophelia, so much so that she has forgotten his visit in course of a day. No wonder Hamlet revolts. All the warmth of that 'Soft you

now '

humbly

Impelled as it were by a malignant

is quenched in a moment, and Hamlet's reply is very cold: 'I

thank

you;

well, well, well.' 4

But Ophelia does not stop there.

1 Italics mine.

2 In In, i Ophelia runs in to report to her father Hamlet's strange visit to her in her

after

king: This

In the next scene (n, ii) Polonius is before the King and the Queen,

Then (in the same

'the Murder of Gon-

scene) takes

already

Dr Dover Wilson suggests that Ophelia implies that Hamlet has neglected her (op. cit.,

to her an artfulness of which, one should think,

4

closet. It is evident from her

Hamlet has left. The scene closes with Polonius's remark: 'Come,

must be known, etc.'

announcing that he has discovered 'the

scene)

zago'

place the very next day: referring

'to-morrow

order This night to play before

speech and manners that she has come in immediately

go we

to the

very cause of Hamlet's with them to

next scene

lunacy'.

have

i: the

arranges

The

(m,

Nunnery

'they

have

the

played

players

come in and Hamlet

night'

(1. 575).

to the players, Rosencrantz says that

him (Hamlet)' (11.20-21).

3

p. 129). This, however, would be attributing

she was

incapable.

The sudden revulsion may be compared to what happens in n, ii, 230-36.

The sight

'My

of old friends stirs the

friends!

good how do ye both?'

excellent

How dost

thou,

Their replies, however,

R.

G.

cap cold: 'Nor the soles of her shoe?'

As the indifferent children of the earth.

Happy in that we are not over-happy.

On fortune's

we are not the very button.

Rosencrantz

heart of Hamlet and he has a

and Guildenstern come in.

warm welcome for them:

Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads,

Guildenstern?-

are too subtle:

grows It no doubt adds to Hamlet's bitterness against mankind that his efforts after

ship, after sympathy, in his moment of agony, should thus meet with repeated

It will be seen in passing that on the view taken here the

tragic poignancy that

is lost

by Dr Dover Wilson's interpretation.

Hamlet at once

companion- rebuffs.

Nunnery scene acquires a

TARAKNATH

SEN

149

fate, she proceeds to make the situation worse by offering to return his

presents.

Hamlet grows colder:

No, not I;

I never gave you aught.

For

and adds unfortunate remarks:

once

Ophelia

is importunate;

for once,

too,

she

grows

loquacious

their

perfumelost,

Take these again; for to the noble mind

Rich gifts wax

There, my lord.l

poor when givers prove unkind.

This proves too much for Hamlet: he can no longer contain himself, and his simmering bitterness bubbles forth into 'wild and whirling words'

honest?' From here

(to

onwards the scene is a crescendo of bitterness. And Hamlet's bitterness

is all the greater for Ophelia's confusion. Her very simplicity and meek- ness prove her undoing. If only she had been a Portia or a Rosalind!

not

Poor

has

been hiding a lie within. Thus, unknowingly to herself, she entirely fails

her lover in his hour of the greatest need for spiritual sympathy. No wonder Hamlet's words to her are so wildly bitter. Coleridge attributed

and

If only she had protested

part of the 'unweeded garden'!

her brief,

quote

Horatio

in

I,

v,

133):

'Ha,

ha!

are you

and

make

thus

assured

girl!

feel

Hamlet

she is only

all the

that

more

she

was

bewildered,

as

if

she

confused

replies

Hamlet

Hamlet's harshness to a perception that Ophelia was playing the decoy, so that 'his after-speeches are not so much directed to her as to the

listeners and spies'.2 He could, however, have given a better explanation of it by citing his own lines from Christabel:

to

be wroth with one we love,

Doth work like madnessin the brain.

Hamlet

himself

says as much:

'Go to, I'll no more on't; it hath made me

mad.'

It may be noted in passing that Hamlet's particular bitterness against Ophelia and his general bitterness against life and the world reinforce

each

so

world

into

other in the

easily

to

is this

the

that

scene.

That Ophelia should be so frail as to succumb

congregation

turn

a flower

of

vapours'!

like

Ophelia

Again,

what

so rapidly

a

'pestilent

it

should

1 The speech is undoubtedly

rate,

there is reason to

too

'perfumed'

for

Ophelia.

just

quoted

What is

There is no evidence for it,

are not

exactly

in

but one would like to believe

any

'Their

'the perfume and suppliance of a minute';

that she has been tutored in such phrases by her father. At

her own. I, iii, 9 as

while the rhyme in the second and third lines

to note here is

effect of aggravating

that the lines

perfume lost' recalls Laertes's reference to Hamlet's

aphorism

committed to

memory.

only

Essays and Lectureson

suppose

love for Ophelia

important

shows them to be an

that the 'perfumed' character of the speech has

Hamlet's suspicions of Ophelia's insincerity.

the unfortunate

2 Coleridge,

Shakespeare(Everyman's Library, 1926, p. 151).

150 Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene

a weed!

that even the sun, kissing carrion, should only breed maggots!)

it should be noted, Hamlet's bitter words in this scene are directed not

only against Ophelia but also against the world in general: 'We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us' or 'I say, we will have no more marriages.' He does not except even himself: 'I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my mother had not borne me.' Hence, the world being such, 'to a nunnery, go'.1 There is some hope for Ophelia there yet. If she cannot save herself from further contamination there, at least she can save herself from spreading further contamination:

she would not be 'a breeder of sinners'!

(What a world, we may add after an earlier remark of Hamlet,

Hence,

IV

One or two other points may be noted in conclusion. The first is about Hamlet's description of Polonius as a fishmonger in ii, ii, 173-4. Taking loose and fishmonger as Elizabethan cant terms relating to bawdry, Dr Dover Wilson interprets this as a sly allusion to Polonius's talk about loosing his daughter to Hamlet and thus finds in it a confirmation of his theory that Hamlet has overheard Polonius's scheme. But, surely, that was not the only sense in which the words were used by the Elizabethans.

The normal sense of fishmongeryields excellent meaning here.2 Polonius is.a fishmonger: he is there to fish out Hamlet's secrets and sell them to the King.

writes that 'this was the meaning

intended' (op. cit. p. 104). It could not have been, of course, intended by

Polonius himself, speaking before the King and the Queen. Nor need it have been intended by the dramatist for his audience. In the text the

expression may well bear a straightforward meaning. The metaphor is

that of loosing a hound. were.

A similar allusion to an overheard plot is discovered by Dr Dover Wilson

in the following remarks of Hamlet:

Of Polonius's loose Dr Dover Wilson

Polonius would be hunting up Hamlet, as it

Hamlet.

you

For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion,- a daughter?

.friend, look to 't.

Have

Polonius. I have, my lord.

Hamlet.

Let her not walk i' the sun:

1 Another expression which Dr Dover Wilson would claim as a confirmation of his

was in common Elizabethan use a cant term for a house of

theory, since, he says, nunnery

ill-fame (op. cit., p. 134). But

as Hamlet is here?

examples to 1464 and 1594 respectively.

would such a doubleententecome easy to a speaker as agitated

given by O.E.D. of the normal sense of the word date back

2 The two earliest

TARAKNATH

SEN

151

But it is quite possible to understand these lines without assuming that Hamlet is aware of Polonius's plot. For one thing, Polonius would

naturally remind Hamlet of Ophelia.

letters and denies his access to her, it does not take long for a man of Hamlet's intelligence to realize who is behind that move. So here is one for Polonius: 'You are right! Your daughter should keep to her closet. She must not walk abroad. For the world is an evil place. Even the sun only breeds maggots in carrion. And she, like others, is only a bit of corrupt flesh!' Thus Hamlet seems to find a peculiarly ironical justifi- cation for Polonius's interdict on their courtship in his present disgust with life, in his view of the universe as 'a pestilent congregation of vapours'. Taken this way, the lines acquire a profounder significance and become more characteristic of Hamlet than they would on Dr Dover

Wilson's interpretation.

Moreover, that query, 'Have you a daughter?' is not really so abrupt

It is induced by its im-

mediate context: the words 'breed' and 'kissing' naturally lead on to

thoughts of Ophelia. Similarly, it is quite possible to understand the query, 'Where's your father?' in the Nunnery scene, without assuming that Hamlet is aware of his being overheard or even that there is a slight movement in the

arras at this point. It is a counterpart to that question in ii, ii: 'Have you a daughter?'; as Miss Gardner puts it in her paper, 'Polonius and Ophelia are linked in Hamlet's mind'. Hamlet has already come to know Polonius as a foolish busybody who has tried to fish out his secret and stood between him and Ophelia. Moreover, Ophelia has just in- sisted on returning his gifts, and in a 'perfumed' speech too; and Hamlet sees in it once more the hand of Polonius. Hence 'let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool no where but in 's own house'. Here, too, the query is not really so abrupt as it seems. It is induced by its context: 'We are arrant knaves, all: believe none of us. Go thy

to a nunnery. Where's your father?' 'Arrant knaves': mark.

For, when Ophelia repels his

as to call for Dr Dover Wilson's assumption.

ways

And to Hamlet Polonius is one such. Does not Hamlet call him 'a foolish prating knave' afterwards (III, iv, 215)? One other remark of Hamlet in the Nunnery scene calls for some comment: 'I say, we will have no more marriages: those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are.' Those who would have it that Hamlet is conscious of his being overheard, would of course say that the phrase, 'all but one', is meant for the ears of the King. But is it not rather meant for the speaker himself? If Hamlet

152 Hamlet's Treatment of Ophelia in the Nunnery Scene

was aware of the King's presence behind the arras, would he have knowingly put him on his guard by uttering such an ominous phrase?1 And, in each case, the dramatic effectiveness of the remark lies pre- cisely in this, that it hits the mark without being intended to.

CALCUTTA.

TARAKNATH SEN.

1 Dr Dover Wilson, of course, has his explanation of the

deduced

point: an explanation as the discontented

from his elaborate though disputable theory about Hamlet 'posing

heir thirsting for revenge'. This, however,

is outside the purview of

this paper.