In the middle of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, a comparatively brief exchange between two characters displays the tone of the entire play quite vividly. Act III, scene 2, lines 380-402 chronicle a dialogue involving Hamlet and his schoolmate Guildenstern over their ability or inability to play a musical instrument. The thematic content of the conversation especially offers tremendous insight into Hamlet’s mercurial personality.
The verbal confrontation begins when Hamlet offers Guildenstern a recorder which he procured from one of the theatrical players a few lines before (III. ii. 374, 380-381). No matter how often Hamlet badgers his friend play the pipe, Guildenstern refuses, insisting that he cannot (III. ii. 380-386). Hamlet then goads Guildenstern further by explaining how theoretically easy playing the pipe should be; he even teases that it comes as naturally as dishonesty (III. 11. 387-390). When Guildenstern again rejects Hamlet’s pestering on the grounds that he is not coordinated enough to play, Hamlet rebukes him: “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” (III. ii. 400). His point made, Hamlet disengages from their argument and devotes his attention to Polonius instead.
The significance of Hamlet’s verbal attack against Guildenstern is twofold. The most obvious layer of the speech is political. In his eloquent metaphor, Hamlet makes it abundantly clear that he knows why Guildenstern and Rosencrantz have returned to Elsinore. He has surmised that they have come not to help him overcome his apparent melancholy, but to monitor his behavior and report anything suspicious to the King (III. ii. 395-396). Since the Danish court is a dangerous web of intrigue, espionage, and scandal, it does not seems to surprise Hamlet in the slightest that his two schoolmates have become henchmen for King Claudius, Hamlet’s nemesis. His dialogue with Guildenstern illustrates his resolution not to be manipulated according to Claudius’ whims like everyone else at the Court appears to be.
However, just as much of the story’s drama extends past the political level and into the psychological, Hamlet’s words serve a more specific purpose when directed at his friend. First, he acts obnoxiously childish, pestering Guildenstern to play the recorder although they both know Guildenstern cannot comply. This action annoys his already stressed schoolmate, causing him to grow more agitated the more the two talk. Hamlet’s next endeavor, explaining how to play the recorder, is thus easily construed as condescension; he is talking down to Guildenstern to aggravate him further. When Guildenstern falls for his trap and admits his own incompetence, Hamlet is perfectly poised to chastise him. With the assertion, “Call me what instrument you will, though you can / fret me, you cannot play upon me,” Hamlet ruthlessly uses Guildenstern’s own confession against him (III. ii. 401-402).
By calling attention to Guildenstern’s lack of talent, exposing his ulterior motives, and twisting his own words against him, Hamlet proves that he is not merely a melancholy, moody youth. He can be every bit as clever and conniving as his murderous uncle to whom Guildenstern answers. Effectively, Hamlet has intimidated Guildenstern into acknowledging his political and psychological superiority and reduced his hapless schoolmate to nothing more than Claudius’ witless goon.