One of the most attention-grabbing debates still being waged over Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is the issue of whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia have slept together. The most famous quote on the matter – Hamlet’s angry, repeated “Get thee to a nunnery” – would seem to accuse Ophelia of having rejected his advances… if it weren’t for the fact that “nunnery” is also Elizabethan slang for “brothel.” The did they / didn’t they debate is unusual in that it implies a lot more backstory than most Shakespearean mysteries, and only a few key moments in the play address the issue directly.
In Act II, Scene III, Laertes warns Ophelia that although Hamlet’s confessions of love may be sincere, the fact that he has kingly responsibilities jeopardizes their chances of having a serious relationship. He then specifically instructs her not to “open” her “chaste treasure” to the guy, and since warnings are usually, you know, preemptory, we get the impression that she hasn’t done the deed just yet; after all, if Laertes has no qualms about confronting his kid sister regarding her sex life – in the 1600’s – there’s a good chance he wouldn’t exactly hold back if he thought something was actually going on.
Then again, they fact that he broaches the topic in the first place suggests that her relationship is catching people’s attention. Even her dim-witted father, Polonius, describes her “audience” with the prince as being “free and bounteous,” which is never how you want your dad to describe you with regard to your boyfriend.
To complicate things, Ophelia comes back at Laertes with a warning not to preach what he doesn’t practice “as some ungracious pastors do.” Perhaps she takes this little jab simply so that he can share in her extreme discomfort, but if the name of the game really is polite insinuation, her response strongly suggests that Laertes is just as guilty as she is (and his immediately changing the subject would seem to support the theory). If this is the case, their skirting around the sex issue makes sense, since neither one has the moral leverage necessary to outright accuse the other.
Interestingly, the audience doesn’t get to see Hamlet and Ophelia interact directly until Act III, Scene I – and by then, Hamlet’s putting so much energy into being offensive, antagonizing, and self-contradictory that it’s impossible to take anything he rants about at face value. That being said, he does speak honestly in his monologues as asides. For example, at the end of his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet notices Ophelia entering the room and remarks to himself, “Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered.”
1) Why does he call her a nymph? Because nymphs are beautiful, or because they run around naked and form the root of the word “nymphomania”? 2) What are these “sins” he mentions – and why is Ophelia privy to them? Since an orison is a prayer and prayer can indicate both piety and guilt, he’s either calling her saintly (and hoping that she prays for him) or suggesting she’s got some serious forgivin’ to ask for. Unfortunately, this double meaning is typical of Hamlet quotes and brings us right back to our original “nunnery” dilemma.
Next comes Ophelia and Hamlet’s first (onstage) conversation. Ophelia gives back his love notes as per her family’s instructions, but rather than simply tell him she’s no longer interested or that it isn’t a good idea, she says, “Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” So far, Hamlet’s done nothing unkind to her that we know of (just give it a scene or two), and since breaking up with Hamlet is Polonius’s idea, it doesn’t make sense for Ophelia to embellish with accusations like “you’re a jerk” just because she’s caught up in the theater of it all.
Therefore, since she adds the statement of what is apparently her own accord – and since Hamlet’s response isn’t even close to “Excuse me??” – the implication is that Hamlet has betrayed her in some secret way that 1) both of them acknowledge, 2) neither one talks about, and 3) William Shakespeare doesn’t explicitly write into the play. Not only is this an important moment for the seduction theorists, but it also hints tantalizingly at a storyworld that exists outside Hamlet as a play.
After her dad forces her to break up with her boyfriend – who then accidentally murders him, Ophelia finally discovers an outlet for her considerable agitation: going nuts and sing-songing whatever pops into her head. This includes things like, “They say the owl was the baker’s daughter” and “la.” However, it also includes things about primarily a) her dad’s death, and b) unfaithful scumbags.
She announces that “Young men will do’t if they come to’t, / By cock, they are to blame” and then launches into a conversation between a fallen woman and her lover. The woman begins: “before you tumbled me, / You promised me to wed” (translation: before we had sex, you said we’d tie the knot!), to which her lover responds, “so would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, / An thou hadst not come to bed” (translation: I would have too, if you hadn’t been so trampy). The songs continue much in the same vein until Ophelia’s death. While it’s impossible to know how much combined sense there is in her ramblings, everything she says about her father’s death seems quite lucid, making us more inclined to believe that her jilted lover songs are actually based in fact.
After Ophelia drowns, the queen has the final word on her virtue by comparing Ophelia to a “mermaid,” the ultimate symbol of female unattainability. (Think about it for a second…) Whether this is Queen Gertrude’s final defense of Ophelia’s chastity or a flowery attempt to sugarcoat her death (much like, say, claiming that Ophelia fell into the stream accidentally) remains open to debate.