According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this text contains the first quotation in which ‘nunnery’ is used as slang for ‘brothel’ – the ironic opposite of a virginal community of nuns. In his book, Christs Teares over Jerusalem (1593), Thomas Nash or Nashe (1597–1601) refers to prostitutes who ‘give free priviledge’ to gentlemen in ‘theyr Nunnery’ (pp. 79r–v).

Christs Teares over Jerusalem (1593)

The reference appears in a tract in which Nash takes on the voice of a pious religious reformer. Writing in a ‘clean different vaine’ from his earlier witty pamphlets, he now presents an apocalyptic vision suggesting that, just as Christ said Jerusalem would fall, London will also suffer if its people continue their sinful ways. Nash was later imprisoned for this harsh description of London as a ‘seeded garden of ‘sinne’ – a line which echoes Hamlet’s disillusioned description of the world as ‘an unweeded garden / That grows to seed’ (1.2.135–36).

Imagery of prostitution in Hamlet

In Act 3, Hamlet repeatedly tells the innocent Ophelia to ‘Get thee to a nunn’ry’ (3.1.120; 128–29; 136-37; 139). Critics have debated whether this simply implies that she should enter a convent to escape corruption, or whether it also hints ambiguously that she should go to a brothel – because the world will inevitably corrupt her with its impure ways.

Misogynistic imagery of sexual corruption and prostitution is pervasive in Hamlet. Gertrude, according to Hamlet, has been ‘whor’d by Claudius (5.2.64); tainted by her ‘incestious’ relations with her former husband’s brother (1.2.157). This language then extends to other women, but also to some of the men in the play. Hamlet claims that Ophelia has been prostituted by her father Polonius, who he calls a ‘fishmonger’ or pimp (2.2.174). Hamlet compares himself repeatedly to a ‘whore’ or ‘drab’ (2.2.585–86) and Claudius first admits his own guilt by comparing it to a ‘harlot’s cheek’ (3.1.50). Even fortune is said to be a ‘strumpet’ (2.2.236).