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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

THE STORY

ACT III, SCENE II

Only Hamlet and Horatio are left on stage. Hamlet could not be more delighted; he sings songs and jokes with Horatio about joining a theater company. "I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound," he declares, and calls for the theater's musicians to play their recorders. His celebration is interrupted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who report to the buoyant prince that the king is "marvellous distempered [very upset]." "With drink?" Hamlet asks punningly. He is rebuked by Guildenstern for his "wild" jokes, and told that the queen has sent for him "in most great affliction of spirit." Hamlet, whose jokes have made it nearly impossible for the pair to deliver this message, answers with comic pomposity, "We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. Have you any further trade with us?" The aggrieved Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet, "You once did love me," and the prince, raising his hand in a mock oath, swears he still does. Why not tell a friend what makes you act this way? Rosencrantz pressures him. "I lack advancement," responds Hamlet, meaning both that he does not know how to act like a courtier, and that the way for him to raise his rank is blocked. How can that be, Rosencrantz goes on, when the king has named you his successor? Hamlet begins to cite the old proverb, "While the grass grows, the horse starves," but interrupts himself halfway through. You can argue that Hamlet is lying about his ambition to be king (in fact, he tells Guildenstern that lying is easy). Some readers, however, have argued that one of Hamlet's primary reasons for seeking to kill Claudius is to gain the crown for himself.

The players come in with their recorders or wooden flutes and Hamlet challenges Guildenstern to play one. "I cannot," Guildenstern says. "It is as easy as lying," says Hamlet, and demonstrates how the instrument is played. Hamlet knows that Guildenstern has been "playing" him (in other words, trying to manipulate him), and asks Guildenstern if he, Hamlet, is easier to play a tune on than a pipe. "Call me what instrument you will," says Hamlet, "though you fret me [a pun: "frets" are the finger-rests on stringed instruments], you cannot play upon me." For this, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no answer.


Is Hamlet right to be angry and feel betrayed by these two "friends"? Or should they be excused for putting their duty to their country ahead of friendship?

This awkward moment is cut short by Polonius coming in with another message: the queen wants to speak with Hamlet immediately. Hamlet shows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how easily a fool can be manipulated by making Polonius contradict himself. Then, dismissing them all, he delivers the briefest of his soliloquies, describing the "witching time of night" when he feels ready to "drink hot blood" and do things that would terrify daylight. Remembering that he must go to his mother, he reminds himself to be gentle with her:

Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
He feels, however, that she deserves worse:
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites.

NOTE:

This scene takes place at the exact center of the play. Each section of it shows a new aspect of Hamlet's personality- the critic, the trusting friend, the court jester, the jubilant boy, the mocking satirist, and finally the revenger, tense but quietly determined. No wonder Hamlet fascinates the world- he seems to be a whole tribe of characters all by himself. He is now apparently at a dazzling peak: Claudius has been "convicted," Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been put in their place, Polonius has been made a fool of, and the ghost has been vindicated. No one can question that Hamlet has accomplished something. But now moves are being taken against him, and he faces the difficult task of confronting his mother. The time is coming for the great test of his strength of will.  

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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