Monday, March 30, 2009

Hamlet: "Play upon me"

Enter one with a recorder

Hamlet: O, the recorder. Let me see. (To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whom he takes aside) To withdraw with you. Why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you could drive me into a toil?

Guildenstern: O my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly.

Hamlet: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

Guildenstern: My lord, I cannot.

Hamlet: I pray you.

Gildenstern: Believe me, I cannot.

Hamlet: I do beseech you.

Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.

Hamlet: 'Tis as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

Guildenstern: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony. I have not the skill.

Hamlet: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery,. you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music; excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make speak. 'Sblood, do you think that I am easier to be played upon than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

Here, in act 3 scene 2 Shakespeare commands the extended metaphor into battle against the treachery of a king and the mutiny of friends and in the speaking, effectively destroys the listener with sheer conviction. Hamlet begins simply enough, playing the role of madman for his erstwhile chums. In the wake of his treasonous play indicting his uncle, the king in the murder of Hamlet's father, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched by the queen to see out the prince. The engage him seriously with a demand that he visit his mother in her bedchamber. Instead of embracing the matter or even acknowledging the events which have just transpired, Hamlet engages in coy banter. Indeed, this passage leading up to the recorder metaphor is rather light with speech from the prince - R or G will say a piece which is then turned on its ear by a pithy non-sequater:

Guild.: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.

Hamlet: Sir, a whole history.

Guild.: The King, sir-

Hamlet: Ay, sir, what of him?

Guild.: Is in his retirement marvelous distempered.

Hamlet: With drink, sir?

Guild.: No, my lord, rather with choler.

R&G are not ignorant of Hamlet's jibes, they answer sincerely in order to appear observant of in rank and status. They know full well of his madness for they have, after all, been summoned to Ellsinore at the behest of the queen and have witnessed the shades of this madness earlier in the play. They are handling the prince with kid gloves as they attempt to maneuver him towards their will. They are not surprised by Hamlet's calling for a pipe as this seem precisely the sort of inappropriate, mad behavior they have come to expect. What they are not prepared for is the coming onslaught of metaphor which will utterly dismantle the contrivance of their disloyalty to Hamlet.

This passage is not often spoken about in criticisms I have read on the play. It is a brief passage and is structurally important only insofar as it bridges two of the most important scenes - the play within a play in which Claudius is 'outed' as the killer of Hamlet's father and scene in Gertrude's bedchamber where mother and son verbally duel and Polonius is killed. But I believe that this small, bridging scene is important and noteworthy because the attendant metaphor further sharpens the contrast between the 'mad' Hamlet and the genius who in only pretending to be mad in order to solve the mystery of his father's murder. His brutal lecturing of R&G on their 'playing' of him is also a way in which Hamlet's own ego can register itself. He wants people to see that although he wears the mask of insanity he is actually a cunning and thoughtful manipulator of those around him. He never threatens to give the game away, R&G will continue to think him mad, but there is now a sense, as Polonius says in 2.2 that "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Indeed, Polonius' aside in the earlier scene is eerily prophetic of the later scene in Gertrudes' bedchamber in when Hamlet stabs and kills him. The old man being the only figure in the drama to recognize Hamlet's genius-in-madness is dispatched by the madman himself. Polonius motives for continuing his investigation may be questioned - is he genuinely concerned with courtly harmony? Is he seeking advancement within the court? Does he fear for daughter's chastity in the hands of a mad prince? There is some thought that perhaps Polonius is rather a detective spurred on by his own curiosity. He numerous asides and aphoristic diatribes would seem to indicate that the old man's sense of implicit order has been trumped by the dynamism of the mad prince and that only he, the wizened advisor can get to the bottom of the matter. To this end we note how often he enters into long winded discourse to the annoyance of the king and queen! His unselfconscious waxing on matters philosophic speak volumes to the man's demonstrative ego.

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