“Call me what instrument you will….”

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When my students were reading and acting out Hamlet III.ii, I interrupted them so that we could look again at this dialogue. The Players have just passed through, playing recorders (that is, woodwind instruments); Hamlet asks for one and resumes his conversation with Guildenstern:

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

GUILDENSTERN
My lord, I cannot.

HAMLET
I pray you.

GUILDENSTERN
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 it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call  me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This is one of the hundreds of reasons why people should read Hamlet. His trick reveals truth; by seeming to change the subject, by fooling Guildenstern into admitting that he cannot play the recorder, he shows the vanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ploys. (The two have colluded with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in observing Hamlet’s every move; after each conversation with Hamlet,  they report back to the King and Queen. Hamlet has figured this out.)

But Hamlet’s words go far beyond the immediate place and time. How many people pretend to know what lies inside others–where their stops are, how to sound them; how much of today’s technology is aimed at that very end! Everywhere we go–whether on Facebook or on hard ground–someone sums us up, puts us in a category, predicts what we will do next. Even though the attention isn’t as fixedly on most of us as it is on Hamlet here, we receive “mass personalized” scrutiny, which, while effective at predicting purchasing patterns, voting tendencies (and other such things), fails, fortunately, to determine who we are.

It is not just through social media and marketing that this occurs. There’s a fad of sorting out “good” and “bad” people and sweeping away all vestiges of the “bad.” I see this in certain aspects of the #MeToo movement (for example, many publishers are now halting publication, and sellers distribution, of books by authors who allegedly harassed women, as though the claims of harassment invalidated the authors and their works). I see it in the careless use of the words “fascist” and “monster” to describe people with whom one disagrees. (Yet the modern analogy is flawed, for reasons I will discuss shortly.)

In outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet shows them that they cannot diminish him. “Why, look you now,” he says, “how unworthy a thing you make of me!” To treat a person as playable and knowable is to deny that person’s dignity; even a little instrument cannot just be played at will, and Hamlet much less so.

Hamlet has mastered the very game he derides; he plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as they cannot play him. He calls playing the recorder “as easy as lying” and explains: “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.” This is indeed what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trying clumsily to do: to govern (or rather, cover) certain ventages (their true purposes) and play out their deceit. Hamlet does not cover his stops; rather, it seems, he governs them, showing truth when and how he wishes. (There is ongoing controversy over Hamlet’s sanity and self-control; I see him as brilliantly in control here, though not everywhere.)

So there is a problem with Hamlet: he continually resists others diminution, yet in mocking them he diminishes them himself. Many readers, including me, enjoy the way he makes fun of Polonius, whom he has written off as a doddering fool. I wonder whether Hamlet has tricked me too; yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem false as can be, but might there not be slightly more to Polonius, for instance, than Hamlet would allow? He has nothing close to Hamlet’s wit, but are humans measured by their wit?

It’s a misreading of Hamlet, then, to treat it as a discourse on human dignity. There is something else at stake here, a grappling with truth and doubt. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost, has heard directly from him about the “foul and unnatural murder,” yet even he worries that his imaginations may have been “as foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” If the ghost’s revelations are true, then Hamlet must avenge his father’s death; if they are not, he must somehow put this thought aside. To find the truth, he has the Players play a play; “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The “play” here is not just the actors’ performance, but a series of plays upon plays; he sees the others playing with him, and he outplays them at their games. The one with the truest view–Hamlet–will win, but he can win only by losing.

Literature (at its best) cannot be translated into messages about life, but it can open up language and thought. Hamlet does not say that it’s wrong to diminish others.  But through its poetry it gives us a troubled, unsummable, brilliant soul.

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I took the two photos this week.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Christopher Ward

     /  March 29, 2018

    This essay has inspired me to keep my Facebook account open. If Hamlet finds more control in not covering the stops, then so will I. Thanks for sharing this insightful commentary, and I love your pictures!

    Reply

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