The Nunnery Scene

Act 3 Scene 1 – Key Scene

In this part of Act 3 Scene 1, Ophelia goes to return the gifts Hamlet gave to her in the past. He confuses her with mixed messages. One moment he says 'I did love you once', the next 'I loved you not'. He goes on to insult Ophelia and tells her to go to a nunnery. He tells her that this will be the best place for her and, by being a nun, Ophelia won't have children and produce wicked men like his uncle. All through the scene Claudius and Polonius, Ophelia’s father, are hiding and watching what happens.

You can take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using these steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest but yet I could accuse myself of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences 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?

    Why would you have children who will grow up to be sinners? I’m generally honest but even I am guilty of the kind of crimes that would mean it was better if my mother had never had me.


    A convent where nuns live serving God. To serve in a nunnery Ophelia would also have to take a vow of celibacy.

    At home, my lord.

    Why do you think Hamlet asks Ophelia where her father is? Polonius is watching them during this scene. Do you think Ophelia knows this when she tells Hamlet he is at home?

    Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in's own house. Farewell.

    Lock him in his own house so that he can’t be a fool anywhere else. Good-bye.

    (Aside) O help him, you sweet heavens!
    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.

    A sum of money paid by the bride’s family to the man she marries.

    A false and slanderous statement or comment.

    On the surface Hamlet appears to want to hurt Ophelia by making cruel remarks about her and suggesting that women make men cruel. What might Hamlet’s reasons be for this, other than 'madness'?

    (Aside) Heavenly powers restore him.
    I have heard too of your paintings 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 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!

    I’ve heard all about women and make-up. God gives you your one, natural face and you paint yourself another one on top of that. You move and speak in a flirtatious way and if someone calls you a tease you plead ignorance. I can’t take it anymore, you've made me mad. From now on we will have no marriages. Whoever is already married, except one person I know, will stay married. Everyone else will have to remain single. Go to a nunnery!

    Exit HAMLET.
    O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
    The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword,
    Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state,
    The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
    Th'observed of all observers, quite, quite down.

    And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
    That sucked the honey of his musicked vows,
    Now see what noble and most sovereign reason
    Like sweet bells jangled out of time and harsh -
    That unmatched form and stature of blown youth
    Blasted with ecstasy. O woe is me
    To have seen what I have seen, see what I see.

    Hamlet used to have a noble mind and now he’s lost it! He used to be a gentleman, a soldier and a scholar, the jewel of the crown and destined to become king. He was the one everyone admired and now he’s reached the lowest point!

    Ophelia uses verse in her speech, once Hamlet has left, and ends with a rhyming couplet while their previous conversation was all in prose. Why do you think she makes this change? Does it suggest anything about Ophelia’s attitude to Hamlet or their relationship?

    (Text edited for rehearsals by Simon Godwin)
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud, then watch the actors trying it in different ways. Which way feels right? What in the language makes you think that? Are there any words or lines that really stand out? After this, there is a clip of the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of Hamlet at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for this scene feel right to you?