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In this essay, I am going to write about the themes and techniques in the “Nunnery” scene in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. All of the points I am going to cover have been expressed through different mediums for example in film and televised dramatic plays where the concept of Hamlet’s anger or use of nunnery is perceived to be different through artistic licence and also I will talk about the themes raised during the scene like corruption, deception, passion and betrayal
Throughout all the adaptations of the “Nunnery” scene, deception is a pivotal theme carried and sustained. The universal concept of deception in the scene is presented by three points. Hamlet is being spied on, by Claudius and Polonius. The reason for this is that they both become extremely suspicious of Hamlets current behaviour. They are convinced his new “madness” is not genuine. The way they go about spying by using Ophelia as a device to retract information for their own personal benefit is a way deception is conveyed.
Ophelia is lying to him; this is also a way the theme of deception is successfully carried through the scene, the fact that Hamlet himself lied to Ophelia as defence mechanism to catch out Ophelia’s lies and to reinforce the point that he has a far superior intellect. Another devices or technique that you could say that Shakespeare uses to create and maintain the deception in this scene is that, whenever Ophelia answers Hamlet, she lacks detail and tries to avoid and abetting questions and pretend as if the questions were never asked.
An example of this is when Hamlet asks “Ha, ha, Are you honest? Ophelia replies “My lord “. Again Hamlet asks “Are you fair “. And he receives this answer from Ophelia “What mean you lordship”. This is a clear example of her stalling or ‘beating around the bush’ as it were, to find time to come up with an answer that would bait her out as a spy and a liar. In every single Adaptation and dramatization of the play, the sense of fear and confusion in Ophelia’s voice is extremely apparent. In my opinion this fear she has originates from two possible scenarios.
Firstly; she is exposed as a liar. Secondly; she fails to gain any conclusive information from Hamlet and this would lead to the probability her father and Claudius wouldn’t be too pleased with her seeing as they put far too much effort in to this operation and its likelihood of success. I can say this because Claudius and Polonius both went to the extent of eavesdropping on Ophelia so no detail was missed and also to eliminate the possibility that Ophelia would fabricate some elements of her conversation/confrontation with Hamlet to protect him.
Corruption and betrayal are two themes that tie in with each other rather well. Corruption is far clearer and more apparent as it is carried throughout the whole play. It is present by the fact Claudius makes it his mission to destroy Hamlet, so he can keep the throne he longed for quite some time seeing as he killed his own brother to obtain it. The only way he can find out what Hamlet is thinking is by using Ophelia as a makeshift operative to extract the information they need. They do this as Ophelia is only person other than his mother he can fully trust.
However betrayal is more complex. It is displayed in the so-called “Turning point” of the Nunnery scene, there are several possibilities for this depending on the type of adaptation the main ones are: when Hamlet asks “Where’s you Father” and also when a noise (A sound made by either Polonius or Claudius) is heard by Hamlet. In the Mel Gibson version of Hamlet there is no noise but a shadow seen by Hamlet, also in the contemporary Ethan Hawke Version when Hamlet approaches Ophelia for a hug he feels the wire planted on Ophelia to spy on him.
However in the Kozintsev version this “Turning point” arrives much earlier it is not as climatic and chronic as the other adaptations. This discovery made by Hamlet in all its forms opens up the dormant suspicions and reservations of Ophelia thought up by Hamlet. The reason why his suspicions were dormant was that Hamlet generally is a very melancholy young man who has been prevented from attending university, his father dead and he knows who killed him and he’s now married to his mother as we all know. Hamlet always wears both black or unexciting dull colours like brown, grey and a very dark crimson in his clothing.
The fact is, Ophelia is after all, his girlfriend and possibly a potential wife therefore she is a person of a great importance in his life. If Hamlet had let her in his life, he clearly would have never expect edto have been betrayed by her at all. Seeing as Hamlet is an extremely complex and possibly insane character so This causes his unstoppable rage which in itself is another theme in the Nunnery scene, which is carried till the end where he storms out while he shouts that he know he is subject to espionage and he is being lied to. “God ath given you a face and you go and make yourself another”. He isn’t happy about it (evidently) and he threateningly tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery. “To a nunnery go! ” Love and Passion in a sexual/relationship context, are two other themes that drive both Ophelia and Hamlet to do things, react or act a certain way in the Nunnery. The truth is that they are both in love but because of the complications in the environment in which they live and also the constant interference of their relationship by other people, such as Ophelia’s father Polonius. No my good lord, but I did as you command, I repel his letters and denied his access to me“. These are the instructions Polonius handed to Ophelia much before the Nunnery Scene in act 2 scene 1. Starting from “Turning point” Hamlet uses his love for Ophelia as a weapon against her several times. An example of this is when he says: “I loved you not“, “I did love you once” and “I say we have no mo marriages”.
Hamlet does this because he has previously shown his inner character to Ophelia by trusting her and to show that he actually angry he must use a weapon that Ophelia can see through or expect and also a weapon that he has used against her before especially his love for her as she never doubted. The theme of passion however is portrayed in Hamlet’s anger, his reaction shows his disappointment in Ophelia, by shaking her and gripping her tightly and in some adaptations e. g. the Branagh and Lawrence Olivier version Hamlet physical strikes her.
This is the one of the clearest indications of the intensity of the love they both shared and the loved they were denied. The set and the setting play a major part in intensifying the themes explained above throughout the Nunnery scene. The generic setting or basis of all the setting in the scene for all the adaptations is Elsinore Castle, the locations that are most commonly used are the court yard or a large hall. In the BBC version takes place in a very enclosed space, strangely this is one of the only version where visually it Hamlet shows absolutely no anger at all and show compassion rather to Ophelia and pities her.
However in the other entire version I have seen the setting helps creates a hostile and fragile environment, where hamlet is able do use the acoustic to project his voice and also ironically to aid Claudius and Polonius to eavesdrop. In most versions the Openness as space in which the scene takes place creates a sense of exposure and insecurity for both characters especially for Ophelia as she is trapped both physically by Hamlet and mentally/emotionally by her Claudius and Polonius because she has to complete her ‘mission’ assigned to her. Another Technique used in the Nunnery scene is the dialogue and the conflict within it.
These techniques are the main aspect of the theme of deception and betrayal; this is what carries these to themes through the scene and therefore the rest of the play. As mentioned the use of rhetorical questions and sarcasm especially in Hamlet’s tone. For example: “That is you be honest and fair your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty” this is a clear example of Hamlet’s sarcasm and rhetorical question. The trigger for all this form of communication is the sudden addressing of Hamlet in a formal way when they never talk in that way.
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The conflict in the dialogue also helps to know Ophelia is lying. “My honoured lord, you know right well you did …….. Take these again for the noble mind , rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind”. The combination of assonance and alliteration in Ophelia’s line fails to make her spontaneous and genuine it rather makes it sound rehearsed and fake. Also after Ophelia’s failed attempt to deceive hamlet in think he gave the remembrances. His response “Ha, ha are you honest? ” shows his far superior intellect.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Hamlet Nunnery Scene Analysis
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