Hamlet, tortured by the murky thoughts of murder and revenge,
that have darkened his face and hands, seeks comfort from his betrothed, Ophelia, only to
discover that she has been set up as a ploy by his uncle, King Claudius, and her father,
Polonius, who are seen eavesdropping behind the arras, upper right.
He exclaims in contempt:
"Get thee to a nunnery, why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" ( III.i.)In his tirade of denunciation he repeats the word "nunnery" three more times,.but he does not mean a convent.
It is a contemporary allusion to the "stews" or brothels that lined the river's edge in Bankside, not far from where the Globe stood. John Heminges, one of the veteran actors of the Globe Company used to collect the rents from the brothels and neighboring taverns and deliver them to the landlord who happened to be the Bishop of Winchester who kept a residence next door to the Southwark Cathedral.
The brothels were therefore called 'nunneries' and the prostitutes were called 'nuns'. (Legitimate female members of religious orders were never called nuns but 'sisters').
Hamlet's reference then, implies that Ophelia had prostituted herself by allowing herself to be thusly used. He tells her:
"I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry:The wrist he grasps has turned her arm to ice, which likewise crowns her hair, contrasting the passion red of her face and gown.
This violent rejection and abandonment precipitated her downfall and eventual suicide.
She is seen losing her balance, to go crashing down the stone steps to a fearful underworld lined with tombs.
Her father had been slain by Hamlet, and her brother will soon follow. She will soon join them in death as another victim of Hamlet's fatalities.