October 16, 1998
Allyson McCollum writes:
I happened upon the word "nunnery" when looking up another word in the dictionary. My dictionary says it is an archaic term for a convent. I was familiar with the word because of reading it in Shakespeare, but I had been told it actually meant a house of prostitution rather than having anything to do with nuns. Was this ever the meaning of the word or did someone steer me wrong years ago?
The meaning of the word nunnery in Hamlet is one of those things that everyone seems to remember thinking about in a high-school class, but no one can quite recall the details of. Let's get the obvious out of the way first: the word nunnery means 'a convent', and has since the thirteenth century.
The next question is, "Has the word nunnery ever referred to a brothel?" The answer is yes.
The hard part is the next question: "In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act III Scene i, when Hamlet tells Ophelia 'Get thee to a nunnery', is he talking about a convent, or a brothel?"
The evidence for nunnery in the sense 'brothel' during this period is not large. The existing citations--from Nashe, Fletcher, and others--generally show that the word was used in a highly contextual manner, when the whole frame assumed a series of puns and double entendres. The word is not used in neutral situations where one "knows" the meaning, which is not otherwise mentioned. So the assertion that the meaning 'brothel' would have been "obvious" or "crystal clear" to an audience at the time is at best dubious.
In Hamlet, the "nunnery" exchange happens just after the "To be or not to be" speech. In the space of thirty lines, Hamlet tells Ophelia five times to go to a nunnery, in slightly different forms. While it is a matter of interpretation, an honest reading strongly suggests that Hamlet is using the literal sense here. He speaks against having children ("Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners" [some critics feel that this should be punctuated as "Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners," with the "Why" an interjection, not an interrogative]), tells her to distrust men ("We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us"), tells her not to marry and disparages the institution of marriage ("I say we will have no moe [more] marriage").
It makes perfect sense, under the circumstances, for Hamlet to be telling Ophelia to go to a convent and remove herself from the fleshly world. To assume that Hamlet is really referring to a brothel would go completely against the character of everything he is saying.
It is possible that the 'brothel' sense could be meant to give an additional twist of underlying irony. But I think that 'convent' is the meaning intended in this passage. This belief is the generally accepted one among Shakespeare scholars.
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