Like most high school students, I blundered my way through Hamlet, ever confused by Shakespeare’s poetic language and rhythm. So in my high school understanding of Hamlet, I always thought that the character Hamlet was a misogynist.
“Get thee to a nunnery,” Hamlet tells Ophelia. “What a jerk,” I thought. “Sure, Ophelia goes to a convent and then what? She lives a terribly boring existence, her life is stymied, and Ophelia never knows the joys of marriage. Hamlet is a jerk.”
But I read Hamlet again last night. And when I came upon that same passage, it struck me differently. Hamlet goes on to say, “We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.” And then,
“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, go: 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.”
Act 3, Scene 1
Okay, so it’s not totally flattering, but it brought I Corinthians 7 to mind. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (I Corinthians 7:8). In other words – it’s better to remain single than to marry a jerk.
In our world, we question anybody who chooses to remain chaste and single. We think it’s weird, abnormal, or strange. Monks and nuns are weird folks who lives on the periphery of society. But if you’ve ever spent time at a monastery or convent, you probably know better. They are places of incredible peace and strength. We have also lost our understanding that living as a single person is better than being married to a jerk.
And think about Ophelia’s position: a woman living in the sixteenth century didn’t have much of a life before her. Okay, she had a shot at marrying Hamlet and becoming the queen, but we know how all that turns out.
Really, Hamlet gives Ophelia great advice. In a convent Ophelia could have flourished in devotion; being a nun would have given her a vocation and direction. “Get thee to a nunnery” isn’t bad advice at all.
In fact, I have a stinking suspicion that Shakespeare, either consciously or subconsciously, had I Corinthians 7 in mind.