tymshft

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Suffer thee to a nunnery

Language changes over time, as you would know if you were to go back time one hundred years and watch gay folk throw faggots on a bonfire. Yes, the meanings of words have changed over the last century.

But sometimes a change may not necessarily be what it seems to be.

Back in October 2006, Chris Meadows discussed a familiar quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet tells his mother Ophelia:

Get thee to a nunnery.

Now perhaps your high school English teacher told you what the phrase really meant. And since you were in high school, you might even have laughed a little bit when your teacher told you that Shakespeare was REALLY talking about a brothel. Maybe gruffalo was your teacher:

Look at how he treats Ophelia, basically accusing her of being a whore (this is what ‘get thee to a nunnery’ really means.)

But Chris Meadows dug a little more deeply into this. (He must have gone to Reed College.) And one of the sources that Meadows consulted was Random House. Among other things, Random House asserts:

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.

Shakespeare Online also addresses the issue.

Despite the use of “nunnery” as “house of ill repute” in Shakespearean England, there can be no question that Hamlet is referring to the standard definition of the word – a house of meditation for women who have devoted themselves to God. Only by entering a nunnery can Ophelia ensure that she will not procreate and become a breeder of sinners.

Chris Meadows begins and concludes his post by quoting from G.K. Chesterton:

Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority.

Oh, and incidentally, the quote appears in “The Hole in the Wall,” not “The Bottomless Well” (as Meadows claims). Proving the point, I guess.

I’m on more solid ground with the appearance of the word “suffer” in the King James Version of the Bible (Matthew 19:14). While dictionaries did not exist in the 17th century, Webster’s 1828 Dictionary records the following alternate definition for the word “suffer”:

3. To allow; to permit; not to forbid or hinder. Will you suffer yourself to be insulted?
I suffer them to enter and possess.
Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him. Lex.19.

The following etymology is also offered.

L. suffero; sub, under, and fero, to bear; as we say, to undergo.

So it is appropriate to say that if Hamlet suffered Ophelia to go to a nunnery, Hamlet’s fragile psyche would not be shocked by what Ophelia did there.

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