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In Hamlet [III, 1], Hamlet tells Ophelia (lines 1814,27,34):

Get thee to a nunnery! […] Go thy ways to a nunnery. […] Get thee to a nunnery. […] To a nunnery, go; and quickly too. […] To a nunnery, go. Exit.

I understand that "nunnery" means a religious convent of nuns, or it can be a slang word for brothel, but why does Hamlet say this to Ophelia several times?

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Readers who think that Hamlet is sincerely expressing his own thoughts and feelings in this scene tend to interpret his cruelty to Ophelia as arising out of his disgust with his mother Gertrude for marrying her husband’s murderer, which he has generalized to the whole of her sex (“Frailty, thy name is woman!”).

As editors rarely fail to note in gloss, ‘nunnery’ was Elizabethan slang for ‘brothel’, so Hamlet really tells Ophelia to go to a whorehouse, where, he believes, she belongs. Why does the virtuous Ophelia belong, in Hamlet’s judgement, in a whorehouse? A frequent answer has been that Hamlet so relegates her because of his disillusionment with women resulting from the revelation of his mother’s lustfulness; Gertrude belongs in a whorehouse, since she has been ‘whor’d’ by Claudius (V. ii. 64). Because Gertrude has become a whore, so will Ophelia—and so, in fact, will all women, in the estimation not only of Hamlet but also of those many men of various generations who have quoted—I would say prostituted—the line for the purpose of smugly concurring (and implying Shakespeare’s concurrence) with Hamlet’s estimation of woman’s whorish nature.

Kay Stanton (1994). ‘Hamlet’s Whores’. In Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning, eds. New Essays on Hamlet, p. 167. New York: AMS.

But in reading the “nunnery” scene, we have to remember the context, which is that Claudius and Polonius have told Ophelia to engage Hamlet in conversation so that they may eavesdrop, and so discover whether Hamlet is really mad.

KING. Sweet Gertrude, leave us too,
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as ’twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia.
Her father and myself, lawful espials,
Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge,
And gather by him, as he is behav’d,
If’t be th’affliction of his love or no
That thus he suffers for.

Our interpretation of Hamlet’s words in the scene is therefore going to depend on whether we think Hamlet guesses that he is being spied on, and there are a couple of hints that he does guess: his questions “Are you honest?” and “Where’s your father?” could be interpreted in this way. So if we think that Hamlet has guessed that he is spied upon, then everything he says has to be interpreted under the constraint of his need to dissemble for the benefit of the eavesdroppers.

So a possible interpretation of the scene is that Hamlet “must be cruel, only to be kind”: that is, he knows that violence is portending, and in order to persuade Ophelia to break her association with him and so get out of harm’s way (while not able to say so plainly due to the constraint of being spied on), he abuses her cruelly.

[Ophelia] is most deject and wretched, but without even a suspicion of being badly treated. Nor is she badly treated. The resentment of neglected love may inflame his dazzling satire, but under the circumstance, ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ was the best and only advice he could give her. A nunnery was her best and only refuge from the impending storm. Destruction for himself and all else around him; but, for her the cloisters’ timely shelter. There is no telling when the fierce wrath may seize him: when he may shake down the pillars of that guilty palace. But not if he can help it, on her fair head shall the ruin fall! Since the grave is opening for him let the Convent open for her. Not his, but never another’s! O wonderful poet! Could she not guess, had she not some shadowy perception of the jealous, selfish, masculine love, which despite their fell divorce, would wall her from the world, and mark her with the seal of God, to save her from the violation of man?

George Henry Miles (1907). A Review of Hamlet, pp. 101–102. New York: Longmans.

However, I have to say that I don’t find Miles’ interpretation at all plausible. There are two problems: first, if Hamlet’s intention is to get Ophelia to safety, then he completely bungles it; and second, if Hamlet guesses that he is being spied on by Polonius, then it is likely that he also thinks that Ophelia is complicit in her father’s plot.

Dover Wilson considered this last possibility in detail in his book What Happens in Hamlet, starting from the theory that Hamlet might have overheard Polonius plotting with Claudius in II.1:

POLONIUS. At such a time I’ll loose my daughter to him.
Be you and I behind an arras then,
Mark the encounter.

This is only a few lines before Hamlet’s entrance so it would be easy to stage him overhearing it. Polonius’ use of “loose” here is significant: he means “set free” in the sense of a hunter with a hawk, but the word also has the sense “unchaste, wanton, dissolute, immoral” which suggests that Polonius is pandering his daughter to sexually entrap the prince. Wilson goes on to consider the “nunnery” scene in the light of this theory:

But now [Hamlet] is thoroughly awake, and sees it all. Here is the lobby and the decoy, playing a part, only too unblushingly; and there at the back is the arras […] Everything he says for the rest of the scene is intended for the ears of the eavesdroppers. As for the daughter who has been “loosed” to him, she will only get what she deserves. For play-acting has completed her downfall in his eyes. First the abrupt breaking-off of all intercourse between them, without any reason given, then the failure to meet his last appeal, then the overhearing of the plot in which she was to take a leading part, and last this willing and all too facile participation: is it surprising that to an imagination “as foul as Vulcan’s stithy” such things should appear in the worst possible light, or that he should treat her from henceforth as the creature he believes her to be? He puts her to one final test before the scene is over; but the dice are loaded against her. Thus, through a chain of misconceptions, due to nothing worse than narrowness of vision and over-readiness to comply with her father’s commands, Ophelia blackens her own character in her lover’s eyes.

J. Dover Wilson (1960). What Happens in Hamlet, pp. 130–131. Cambridge University Press.

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argues that

Some of Hamlet’s speeches reflect a dualistic view of the world and of humanity, echoing in particular some of the heretical beliefs of the Albigensians in southern France some centuries earlier [or the Manicheans before that]. The Albigensians thought that the evil deity created the human body as a trap for the souls created by the good god, and Hamlet repeatedly expresses disgust with the body, a “quintessence of dust” (II.ii.304–305). Because they regarded the body as a soul trap, the Albigensians believed that marriage and procreation should be avoided. “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Hamlet demands of Ophelia, adding that “it were better my mother had not borne me” (III.i.121–24). He sounds most like a heretic when he goes on to say “we will have no more marriage” (III.i.147). Though Hamlet continues with dualistic talk nearly to the end, there is some turning toward orthodox Christianity.

Albigensians also thought that fasting/starving oneself to death (suicide, which they called the "endura") was a very virtuous, noble act.

Catholic vs. Protestant theology in the play:

The setting of the play is medieval and Catholic. The original telling of the Hamlet story by Saxo Grammaticus places the events in medieval (hence Catholic) Denmark. David Beauregard has demonstrated in overwhelmingly convincing detail that the play assumes a Catholic milieu (Beauregard 2008, pp. 86–108). He is right to conclude that “contrary to some recent critical claims, Hamlet does not appear to be a very Protestant play” (p. 87). Yet the anachronistic fact that Hamlet and Horatio have been studying at the university in Wittenberg (which was not founded until 1502) offers a tantalizing and unmistakable allusion to Luther and the Reformation, indicating that Protestant theology must somehow impinge on the play.

Regarding "Get thee to a nunnery!":

It is in the next scene that Hamlet speaks most like an Albigensian. In his most famous soliloquy, he continues to contemplate suicide, though his fear of the dreams that might come “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil” (III.i.67) is orthodox. The “coil” refers to the turmoil and disturbance of our mortal life, which the melancholic and the Cathar [Albigensian, puritan] view as being the whole of it. In the following conversation with Ophelia before the play, Hamlet condemns procreation: “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (III.i.121–22). His play on the slang meaning of a nunnery as a brothel makes the situation even more hopeless, associating even celibacy with carnality (as did many Puritan preachers as well). Curiously, the Albigensians were sometimes reported by their Catholic critics (whether accurately or not is hard to tell) as rejecting marriage but practicing sodomy as a way of satisfying their carnal desires while avoiding producing children. The word “breeder” emphasizes the animality of sexual love, and this passage echoes the earlier reference to breeding maggots. It is, of course, perfectly traditional to say that when one begets children one brings into the world human beings who will certainly be sinners, but the implication that children are completely defined by their sinfulness is shockingly heretical in its denial of redemption and grace. Hamlet refers to Original Sin moments earlier, proclaiming that “virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it” (117–18). To deny the efficacy of virtue might be simply a Protestant rejection of works theology, but the tone here is one of complete hopelessness: there is nothing that can overcome the evil of a world created by an evil god. Only the death of the body can release the soul.

Hamlet continues his diatribe against procreation: “I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me …” (122–23). Even though he is fairly honest, it would be better had he never been born; it would be better if no one were born. Here he comes close to Lear’s demand that the storm should “Crack Nature’s moulds, all germains spill at once, / That makes ingrateful man” (III.ii.8–9), but where Lear is expressing misanthropy, Hamlet couches his rejection of procreation in Christian terms. What he says runs contrary to the divine injunction in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1.28). To avoid breeding more sinners, Hamlet decrees, people should practice celibacy (or the anti-procreative sexuality of the brothel), and marriage must be rejected: “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” (147–49). This renunciation of marriage is neither Protestant nor Catholic. The Protestants insisted that even ministers should be free to marry, and for Catholics marriage was one of the seven sacraments. For both, one of the essential purposes of marriage was begetting and raising children. In denouncing both procreation and marriage, Hamlet sounds very much like an Albigensian.

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