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.
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.
Table of Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of PinkMonkey.com