David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 2

— 3.2 —

Hamlet talked with the actors in a hall in the castle and gave them advice on how to perform their roles. First, he talked about speaking the lines he had specially written for the play, but quickly he talked about acting in general.

“Speak the speech, please, as I recited it to you, trippingly on the tongue,” he said. “If you speak it in a pompous oratorical style as so many actors do, I prefer that the town-crier speak my lines.

“Also, do not saw the air too much with your hand, like this,” he said, making an overly dramatic gesture. “Instead, do everything moderately. In the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.

“I am offended to my soul when I hear a robust wig-wearing fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, those audience members who buy the cheapest tickets and watch the play while standing up rather than while seated. For the most part, the groundlings are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for overacting the role of the blustery character Termagant; such performances out-Herod Herod — that ranting and raving tyrant of old-fashioned plays. Please, avoid such overacting.”

“Yes, your honor,” the first actor replied.

“Donot be too tame either, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Use your own judgment. Suit the action to the words, and suit the words to the action. Remember this especially: Do not overstep the moderation of nature. Anything overdone goes against the purpose of acting, whose end, both at the beginning and now, was and is, to hold, as it were, a mirror up to nature. Acting should be a mirror to virtue and to vice, and acting should show things as they really are at the time. Acting should be a mirror to our aging world. A realistic statue will show the wrinkles of an aged man, and a play should show the wrinkles of an aged world.

“If acting is overdone, or if it falls short, even if it makes the ignorant and undiscerning laugh, it cannot but make the judicious grieve. The censure of one judicious man must in your allowance overweigh a whole theater filled with ignorant and undiscerning audience members.

“There are actors whom I have seen and have heard others praise, and that highly, not to say blasphemously, who, neither having the accent of Christians — ordinary decent people — nor the gait of Christian, pagan, or any other man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought that some of Nature’s journeymen — not God — had made men and had not made them well. That is how abominably these bad actors imitated humanity.”

“Sir, I hope that we have corrected that failing moderately well,” the first actor said.

“Correct that fault entirely,” Hamlet replied. “And let those who play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them — no ad-libbing. Some clowns will laugh in order to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh, too. These bad clowns do this even though, when they ad-lib, some necessary issue in the play needs to be addressed. Such behavior is villainous, and it shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool who does such things.”

He then said to the actors, “Go and get yourselves ready to perform.”

The actors left the room as Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern entered it.

Hamlet asked Polonius, “How are you, my lord? Will the King watch this play?”

“Yes, and the Queen, too. They are ready to see it right away.”

“Tell the actors to get ready quickly.”

Polonius left to carry out his errand.

Hamlet asked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Will you two help to hasten the actors?”

“We will, my lord,” Rosencrantz said.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left the room.

Hamlet called, “Horatio!”

Horatio walked into the room and said, “Here, sweet lord. I am at your service.”

“Horatio, you are as well-adjusted a man as I have talked to and dealt with.”

“Oh, my dear lord!”

“No, do not think that I am flattering you,” Hamlet said, “for what advancement may I hope to receive from you, who have no revenue but your good spirits to feed and clothe you?

“Why should anyone flatter the poor? No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp the way that a fawning dog licks its master’s hand or face. Let people bend the ready hinges of their knees to rich and powerful people so that profit may follow fawning. Do you understand me?

“Ever since my dear soul has been able to make choices and to distinguish between and evaluate men, she has chosen to be friends with you. You have been a person who has suffered — experienced — everything, and yet you have suffered — been harmed by — nothing. You are a man who has taken Lady Fortune’s buffets and rewards with equal thanks. Blessed are those whose blood and judgment are so well commingled. Such people are not a pipe for Lady Fortune’s finger to sound what note she please. You are not at her mercy; she cannot make you exuberant or miserable; you keep a steady head no matter what because you are not the slave of our emotions. Such men I hold in my heart of hearts — I hold you in my heart of hearts. But I am rambling on about this.

“King Claudius will see a play tonight. One scene of it depicts almost exactly the circumstances that I have told you of my father’s death.

“Please, when that scene is being acted, use your senses to closely examine my uncle. We will get that fox out of his kennel. If his hidden guilt does not reveal itself when the actors recite a speech that I have written, then it is a damned ghost from Hell that we have seen, and those things I have imagined are as foul as the workshop of the blacksmith god: Vulcan.

“Observe him very carefully, and I will rivet my own eyes on his face. Afterward, we will compare what we have seen and concluded. We will decide whether he is guilty or innocent of the murder of my father.”

“I will, my lord,” Horatio said. “If he gets away with anything while this play is playing, I will answer for it.”

Hamlet heard people approaching, so he said, “They are coming to the play; I must be empty-headed and play the fool now. Find yourself a place where you can observe my uncle’s face.”

King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and others entered the hall. Some members of the King’s Guard were carrying torches to provide light.

“How fares our kinsman Hamlet?” King Claudius asked.

By “fares,” King Claudius meant “does,” but “fare” can mean “food” and Hamlet deliberately misinterpreted “fares” as “dines.”

“Excellently, truly,” Hamlet replied. “My fare is the fare of the chameleon, which is thought to live on air. I eat the air, which is crammed with promises. You cannot feed capons — castrated cocks that are fattened to serve as food — with air and promises.”

Hamlet was saying that he was being fed with promises; Hamlet was not King of Denmark — all he had was King Claudius’ recommendation that Hamlet become King after Claudius died.

“This answer does not answer my question, Hamlet,” King Claudius said. “These words are not for me — they are not mine.”

“No, nor mine now,” Hamlet said.

He meant that since he had released the words into the air, they no longer belonged to him.

Hamlet asked Polonius, “My lord, you acted once in the university, didn’t you say?”

“That I did, my lord; and I was thought to be a good actor.”

“What role did you play?”

“I played the role of Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol; Brutus killed me.”

“It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf there.”

As usual, Hamlet was insulting Polonius. A “calf” was a fool.

Hamlet asked, “Are the actors ready?”

“Yes, my lord,” Rosencrantz said. “They are ready when you are.”

“Come here, my dear Hamlet, and sit by me,” Queen Gertrude said.

“No, good mother, here’s metal more attractive,” Hamlet said, referring to Ophelia.

He was referring to Ophelia as if she were a magnet that was attracting him.

Polonius said to King Claudius, “Did you hear that?”

Hamlet did not want to sit by his mother because he wanted a clear view of King Claudius’ face during the play. If he had sat by his mother, she would have been between him and the King.

Hamlet said to Ophelia, “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”

As usual, the “mad” Hamlet was rude to Ophelia. “Lie in your lap” could be understood as “have sex with you in the missionary position.”

Ophelia understood that meaning of Hamlet’s words, and she replied, “No, my lord.”

Hamlet said, “I mean, may I lie with my head upon your lap?”

Ophelia replied, “Yes, my lord.”

Hamlet asked her, “Did you think I meant country matters?”

The phrase “country matters” refers to sex. Sex is common among animals on a farm. When Hamlet said “country matters,” he stressed the first syllable of “country.”

“I thought nothing, my lord.”

“That’s a fair thought to lie between maidens’ legs,” Hamlet said.

“What is, my lord?”


“Nothing” is “no thing.” A penis is a thing, and a maiden has no thing between her legs. Nothing is also a zero, and a zero is an O, and an “O” is a symbol for what lies between a maiden’s legs.

Ophelia, who understood what Hamlet was saying, said to him, “You are merry, my lord.”

“Who, I?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Oh, God, I am your only joke-maker. What should a man do but be merry? Look at how cheerful my mother looks, and my father died not even two hours ago.”

“Your father died four months ago, my lord.”

“As long ago as that?” Hamlet said. “Let the Devil wear black, and I will have a suit of sables.”

According to Hamlet’s society, the Devil is black. Hamlet was joking again. Hamlet would give the Devil his black mourning clothes because Hamlet’s father had died four months ago, which Hamlet was pretending to be a long time and so Hamlet would no longer need black mourning clothes. Hamlet would replace the black mourning clothes with sable furs — but since “sable” as a heraldic term means “black,” he would still be wearing the color of mourning.

Hamlet continued, “Oh, Heavens! My father died two months ago, and he has not been forgotten yet? Then there is hope that the memory of a great man may outlive his life by half a year, but, by the Virgin Mary, he must build churches to keep his memory alive, or else he shall be forgotten just like the hobby-horse, about which this lyric is sung: ‘For, oh, for, oh, the hobby-horse is forgotten.’”

Trumpets sounded, and the actors performed a dumbshow — they pantomimed part of the play that was to follow:

AnActor-King and an Actor-Queen who were very loving walked to the acting area. The Queen embraced the King, and he embraced her. She knelt and made a show of protestations of love to him. He helped her stand up, and he rested his head on her neck. He then lay down upon a bank of flowers and fell asleep. She, seeing him asleep, left him. Immediately came in a fellow who took off the King’s crown, kissed it, and then poured poison in the King’s ears. The fellow exited. The Queen returned and found the King dead. She grieved passionately. The Poisoner, with some two or three others, came in again and pretended to lament with her. The dead body was carried away. The Poisoner wooed the Queen with gifts: She seemed loath and unwilling for awhile, but in the end she accepted his love.

The actors then exited.

“What is the meaning of this dumbshow, my lord?” Ophelia asked Hamlet.

“By the Virgin Mary, this is sneaking mallecho; mallechomeans mischief,” Hamlet replied.

Malhechois Spanish for “mischief.”

“Probably this dumbshow depicts the plot of the play,” Ophelia said.

The Prologue — an actor who recited the prologue to the play, often telling the audience members its meaning — entered.

“We shall learn the plot of the play from this fellow,” Hamlet said. “The actors cannot keep a secret; they’ll tell everything.”

“Will he tell us the meaning of this dumbshow we just saw?” Ophelia asked.

“Yes, or any show that you’ll show him. If you are not ashamed to show him, he is not ashamed to tell you what it means.”

Ophelia, who understood that Hamlet was talking about showing private parts, said to him, “You are wicked. You are wicked. I’ll watch the play.”

The Prologue said these few words:

For us, and for our tragedy,

Here stooping to your clemency,

We beg your hearing patiently.

Usually, play prologues are longer and more informative.

Hamlet asked, “Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?”

The posy of a ring is the words written on the inside of a finger ring. Here is an example: “Love me, and leave me not.”

Ophelia said, “This prologue is brief, my lord.”

“It is as brief as a woman’s love,” Hamlet said.

Two actors walked into the acting area. One actor played the “King,” and the other actor played the “Queen.”

The Actor-King recited these lines:

Full thirty times has Phoebus’ cart — the Sun — gone round

Neptune’s salt wash — the Ocean — and Tellus’ orbed ground — the Earth,

And thirty dozen moons with borrowed light from the Sun

About the world have times twelve thirties been,

Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands

Unite mutually in most sacred bonds.

Hamlet thought, This is an old-fashioned play. It has many references to mythology. Neptune is the Roman god of the sea, Tellus is a Roman Earth goddess, and Hymen is the Roman god of marriage.

This play uses an elevated style of language. All the playwright is trying to say here is that this King and Queen have been married for thirty years. However, the playwright does not use elevated language well. Attempts to use elevated and fancy language sometimes result in bad writing.

The Actor-Queen recited these lines:

So many journeys may the Sun and Moon

Make us again count over before our love is done!

Let us live our married life for another thirty years!

But, woe is me, you are so sick lately,

So far from cheerfulness and from your former state,

That I distrust your health. Yet, though I distrust it,

Do not let that discomfort you, my lord,

For women’s fear and love holds quantity;

In neither aught, or in extremity.

Either there is none of either, or too much of both.

Now, what my love is, experience has made you know;

And as my love is measured, my fear is so.

I love you much, so I worry much about your health.

Where love is great, the littlest doubts become fear;

Where little fears grow great, great love grows there.

The more I love you, the more I fear for you.”

The Actor-King recited these lines:

Truly, I must leave you, love, and soon, too;

My vital organs their functions cease to do:

And you shall live in this fair world after I am dead,

Honored, beloved; and perhaps one as kind

For your new husband shall you —

The Actor-Queen interrupted by reciting these lines:

Oh, confound the rest!

Such love must necessarily be treason in my breast:

In a second marriage let me be accurst!

None wed the second husband except those who killed the first.

Hamlet thought, Wormwood, wormwood. This is bitter medicine. According to the Actor-Queen, when a widow remarries, it is as if she had killed her first husband.

The Actor-Queen continued,

The motives that lead to a second marriage

Are mean considerations of worldly advantages, but none of love:

A second time I kill my first husband dead,

When a second husband kisses me in bed.

The Actor-King recited these lines:

I do believe you think those things that now you speak;

But what we decide to do are vows we often break —

People change their minds.

What we decide to do is but the slave to memory,

Of violent birth, but poor validity.

We can forget our vows;

We strongly mean to keep them at first but then we forget.

Vows now, like unripe fruit, stick on the tree;

But they fall, unshaken,

When they become mellow and lose their passion.

Most necessary it is that we forget

To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.

A vow to do something is a debt we owe to ourselves.

What we vow to do we vow in the heat of passion.

Once the passion is over, we forget the vow.

The violent excess of either grief or joy

Destroys the power to carry out the vow.

Where joy most revels, grief does most lament.

A person with the greatest capacity for joy also has the greatest capacity for grief.

But grief turns to joy, and joy turns to grief, with little cause.

This world is not for ever, nor is it strange

That even our loves should with our fortunes change.

For it is a question left us yet to prove,

Whether love decides our fortune, or fortune decides our love.

When the great man’s fortunes decline, you will see his best friend flee from him;

When a poor man’s fortune improves, he makes friends out of former enemies.

And therefore does friendship on fortune tend;

For a man who does not need anything shall never lack a friend,

But when a man who is in need seeks help from a hollow, insincere friend,

The needy man turns his hollow, insincere friend into his enemy.

But, to end orderly where I had begun,

Our desires and destinies do so contrary run

That our plans and designs always are overthrown;

Our thoughts are ours, their ends are none of our own:

So you think you will no second husband wed,

But your thoughts will die when your first husband is dead.”

The Actor-Queen recited these lines:

May Earth not give food to me, nor Heaven light!

May entertainment and sleep stay away from me both day and night!

May to desperation turn my trust and hope!

May a hermit’s life in prison be all I ask for and receive!

May everything that brings joy

Meet an opponent who can these things destroy.

May everything both here and hereafter — in this life and in the afterlife — bring me lasting strife,

If, once I am a widow, I ever again become a wife!

Hamlet thought, How could she break her promise now, after saying these words?

The Actor-King recited these lines:

You have sworn deeply. Sweet, leave me here awhile.

My spirits grow dull, and I would like to beguile

The tedious day with sleep.

He fell asleep.

The Actor-Queen recited these lines:

May sleep rock gently and soothe your brain,

And may ill fortune never come between us twain!

The Actor-Queen exited.

Hamlet ask his mother, “Madam, how do you like this play?”

Queen Gertrude replied, “The lady protests too much, I think. Too much protesting makes the content of her words suspected.”

“Oh, but I am sure that she’ll keep her word,” Hamlet lied.

King Claudius asked Hamlet, “Do you know the plot of the play? Is there any offence in it?”

By “offense,” King Claudius meant “anything offensive,” but Hamlet deliberately misinterpreted the word “offense” to mean “crime.”

“No, no, the actors are only jesting; they are poisoning in jest — it is all make believe. There is no offence in the world.”

“What is the title of this play??”

The Mousetrap,” Hamlet replied. “By the Virgin Mary, how did it get its name? Tropically.”

He thought, “Tropically” means “figuratively.” A trope is a figure of speech, and the play is figuratively a trap that I have set for King Claudius. Perhaps I should have used this word: “Trapically.”

Hamlet added, “This play depicts a real-life murder committed in Vienna. Gonzago is the Duke’s name; his wife’s name is Baptista. You shall see this soon enough. It is a knavish piece of work, but so what? As for your majesty and we who have free souls, this play is not about us. Let the guilty wince and kick like a horse whose saddle sore is stung; all of us are innocent.”

An actor playing the role of Lucianus entered.

Hamlet said, “This is Lucianus, the King’s nephew.”

Ophelia said to him, “You are as good as a chorus that explains everything, my lord.”

“I could provide commentary on what happens between you and your lover,” Hamlet replied. “I could be like the guy who narrates a puppet show if I saw your puppet and your lover’s puppet having intercourse.”

“You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” Ophelia said.

By “keen,” she meant “sharp.”

Hamlet replied, “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.”

“Edge” could mean “sharp edge of a knife,” but Hamlet used “edge” with its meaning of “sharp sexual desire.”

If Ophelia were to take off Hamlet’s edge, she would groan during the pain of breaking her hymen and later she would groan as she gave birth.

Ophelia commented, “Always better, and worse.”

She meant that Hamlet’s responses to her were wittier — and more offensive — than her comments to him.

Having in mind that brides promised in the marriage ceremony to take their husbands for better or for worse, Hamlet replied, “So you women mis-take your husbands.”

Women mis-take their husbands when they do not keep their vows, and when they substitute one husband for another.

He then said to the actor, “Begin, murderer; stop making your damnable faces, and begin. Come: The croaking raven does bellow for revenge.”

Hamlet was misquoting — perhaps deliberately — two lines from the play The True Tragedy of Richard III: “The screeching raven sits croaking for revenge / Whole herds of beasts come bellowing for revenge.”

The actor playing Lucianus said these lines:

Thoughts evil and black, hands apt, poison, and a time suitable;

Opportunity perfect, with no creature seeing;

You mixture rank and poisonous, made of weeds collected and combined at midnight,

Three times blasted with the bane of the goddess of witchcraft, Hecate,

Your natural magic and dire property

Do usurp and kill wholesome life immediately.

The actor playing Lucianus poured the poison into the ears of the Actor-King.

Hamlet said, “He is poisoning him in the garden for his estate. His name’s Gonzago. The story is popular, and it is written in good Italian. You shall see soon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.”

Ophelia said, “The King rises. He is standing up.”

“What, is he frightened by false fire!” Hamlet asked. “Is he frightened by the firing of a gun loaded with blanks? Is he frightened by a mere play?”

“How are you, my lord?” Queen Gertrude asked.

“Stop the play!” Polonius ordered.

“Get me some light so I can leave!” King Claudius ordered.

People shouted, “Lights, lights, lights!”

Members of the King’s Guard stepped forward with their torches.

Everyone except Hamlet and Horatio left the hall.

Hamlet was in a giddy mood. He had watched King Claudius closely during the play and had reached a decision about whether the King was guilty of the murder of Hamlet’s father.

Hamlet sang these verses to Horatio, who had also watched King Claudius closely during the play:

Why, let the wounded deer go weep,

The hart, unhurt, play;

For some must stay awake, while some must sleep:

So runs the world always.

Hamlet then said, “Would not the success of this play, sir, and a forest of feathers — if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk and run against me — with two Provincial roses, aka large rosettes, on my razed, slashed-in-accordance-with-fashion, shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry — a pack — of players, sir? A successful play and the appropriate costume should get me a share of the profits in a company of actors.”

Actors of the time wore many feathers as part of their costumes. Rosettes were worn on the shoes; they hid the ties of the shoes. Razed shoes were fashionable shoes that had been slashed and inlaid with different colored silks and that were then stitched and perhaps embroidered.

“Those things might get you half a share,” Horatio said.

“A whole share is what I would get,” Hamlet replied.

He then sang these extempore — just now made up — verses:

For you do know, this realm was deprived, oh, Damon dear,

Of Jove himself, the King of gods and men past;

And now reigns here

A very, very — pajock.

The song was about Hamlet’s father, whose murder had deprived Denmark of its rightful King. “Damon” was a traditional name in pastoral poetry for a shepherd. A “pajock” was an unusual word that meant “a base and contemptible fellow.”

Horatio said, “You might have rhymed.”

The rhyme would have been with “past”: ass.

“Oh, good Horatio,” Hamlet said. “I will bet a thousand pounds that the ghost spoke the truth. Did you notice King Claudius’ face?”

“Very well, my lord.”

“Did you see how he reacted to the talk about the poisoning?”

“I watched him very closely, my lord.”

“Ah, ha!” Hamlet, still giddy from the success of the trap, said.

He shouted, “Come, let’s have some music! Come, bring the flute-like recorders!”

He sang these verses:

For if the King likes not the comedy,

Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy.”

The word “perdy” was colloquial for “par dieu,”which is French for “By God.”

Hamlet shouted, “Come, bring some music!”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered the hall.

“My good lord, may I have a word with you?” Guildenstern asked.

“Sir, you may have as many words as would fill a whole history,” Hamlet replied.

“The King, sir —” Guildenstern began.

Hamlet interrupted: “Yes, sir, what about him?”

“— is in his private chamber now; he is very much not his usual self.”

“Is he drunk?” Hamlet asked.

“No, my lord,” Guildenstern said. “He is angry. He is filled with choler.”

“You should know to tell this to a doctor, not to me,” Hamlet said. “If I were to be his doctor, I would purge him, and his purgation might make him angrier.”

Hamlet’s society existed before the age of modern medicine. Doctors in Hamlet’s society believed that the human body had four humors, or vital fluids. Each humor made a contribution to the personality, and for a human being to be sane and healthy, the four humors had to be present in the right amounts. If a man had too much of a certain humor, it would harm his personality and health.

Blood was the sanguine humor. A sanguine man was optimistic.

Phlegm was the phlegmatic humor. A phlegmatic man was calm.

Yellow bile was the choleric humor. A choleric man was angry.

Black bile was the melancholic humor. A melancholic man was gloomy.

When a man was ill, doctors would try to get the four humors back into balance by purging him, often through bloodletting or through the use of laxatives.

When Hamlet talked about purging King Claudius, he meant using his sword to purge so much of the King’s blood that the King would die.

Another type of purgation was purging one’s sins through prayer and confession, but Hamlet wanted King Claudius to suffer for his sins, not be purged of them.

“My good lord,” Guildenstern replied, “talk sense to me and do not wildly run away from the topic of discussion.”

“I am tame, sir,” Hamlet said. “Tell me what you have to tell me.”

“The Queen, your mother, whose spirit is greatly afflicted, has sent me to you.”

“You are welcome.”

“My good lord,” Guildenstern said, “your courteous words are not of the right kind. You need to listen to me and to make serious answers. If you are willing to give me a serious answer, then I will do your mother’s errand and give you the message that she wanted me to give you. If you are not willing to give me a serious answer, then I will ask for your permission to leave and I will return to your mother, and you and I need not have any other conversation.”

“Sir, I cannot.”

“Cannot what, my lord?” Rosencrantz said.

“Make you a serious answer. My intelligence is diseased; however, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall get — or rather, as you say, my mother shall get. Therefore, let’s have no longer delay, but instead let’s get to the point. My mother, you say —”

“This is what she says,” Rosencrantz replied. “She says that your behavior has amazed and astonished her.”

“Oh, what a wonderful son, who can so astonish a mother!” Hamlet said. “But is there no sequel at the heels of this mother’s admiration? What else did she say? Tell me.”

“She wants to speak with you in her private chamber, before you go to bed,” Rosencrantz replied.

“We shall obey even if she were ten times our mother. Have you any further trade with us?” Hamlet said.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had once been Hamlet’s friends, but he did not now regard them as his friends. Hamlet realized that they were loyal to King Claudius, not to him. Therefore, Hamlet used the royal pluralto let them know that he no longer wished to continue this topic of conversation. He also contemptuously used the word “trade,” which meant “business.”

“My lord, you once were friends with me,” Rosencrantz said.

“And I still am,” Hamlet lied, “by these pickers and stealers.”

The “pickers and stealers” were his fingers. The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer has this vow that the catechumen makes: “To keep my hands from picking and stealing.” The word “picking” in this context means “pilfering.”

“My good lord, what is your cause of distemper?” Rosencrantz asked. “You do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you will not tell your griefs to your friends. Your mind would be healthier and freer if only you would tell your troubles to your friends.”

“Sir, I lack advancement,” Hamlet replied.

Earlier, after Hamlet had called Denmark his prison, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had suggested that Hamlet’s ambition — to be King — had made him feel that way. Hamlet had denied it.

“How can that be, when you have the voice of the King himself for your succession in Denmark?” Rosencrantz said. “King Claudius has stated publicly that he wants you to be King after he dies.”

“Yes, but sir, ‘While the grass grows’ — the proverb is somewhat musty,” Hamlet replied.

Hamlet meant that the proverb — while the grass grows, the horse starves — was so well known that he need not state all of it.

The actors, carrying recorders — musical instruments resembling flutes — entered the hall.

“Oh, the recorders!” Hamlet said.

He requested of an actor, “Let me see one.”

He then said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Step over here so that I can have a few private words with you.”

They went a little distance from the actors, and Hamlet asked them, “Why do you go about to recover — to gain — the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil?”

Hamlet was accusing them of trying to lead him into a trap. In doing so, he used hunting terminology. A hunter would recover the wind — that it, go upwind so that the animals being hunted would catch his scent and then move away from him toward the hunters who were waiting downwind and so could not be scented. The animals would walk into a toil — a trap — set by the hunters.

“Oh, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my friendship for you is too unmannerly,” Guildenstern said.

He meant that his friendship and concern for Hamlet were responsible if he had seemed to have bad manners.

“I do not well understand that,” Hamlet replied.

What he did not well understand was how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could now say that they were his friends.

Hamlet asked Guildenstern, “Will you play upon this pipe — this recorder?”

“My lord, I cannot.”


“Believe me, I cannot.”

“I beg you to.”

“I do not know how to play it, my lord.”

“It is as easy as lying,” Hamlet said. “Cover these holes in the pipe with your fingers and thumb, and then give it breath with your mouth, and it will put forth most eloquent music. Look here, these are the holes.”

“But I cannot use them to make anything resembling harmony,” Guildenstern said. “I have not the skill.”

“Why, see here,” Hamlet said. “See how unworthily you are treating me! You want to play upon me; you seem to know my stops; you want to push my buttons and learn my secrets; you want to sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass or range.”

“Sound me” was a pun that meant both “play me and make me give forth sounds” and “probe or fathom me to find out what is hidden in my depths.”

Hamlet continued, “Much music — excellent voice — is in this little instrument called the recorder, yet you cannot make it speak. Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, although you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.”

Again Hamlet was punning. “To fret” means “to irritate,” and frets are the ridges on some stringed instruments that are used to produce notes.

Hamlet wanted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to know that he would not allow their tricks to be successful with him.

Polonius entered the hall, and Hamlet said to him, “God bless you, sir!”

“My lord, the Queen wants to speak with you, and that immediately,” Polonius said.

Hamlet replied, “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?”

It was night, and they were inside the hall of the castle, but Polonius believed that Hamlet was insane and he did not want to upset him.

Polonius replied, “By the Mass, the cloud is like a camel, indeed.”

“I think that it is like a weasel,” Hamlet said.

“It has a back like a weasel,” Polonius said.

The back of a camel and the back of a weasel are not similar.

“Or like a whale?” Hamlet asked.

“Very like a whale,” Polonius replied.

“Then I will come to my mother by and by — soon.”

He thought, They play along with my fooling — my acting like a madman — to the top of my bent.

The “top of a bent” is a term from archery. It means “the greatest extent that a bow can be bent.”

Hamlet repeated, “I will come by and by.”

“I will tell her that,” Polonius said.

“‘By and by’ is easily said,” Hamlet said.

Polonius left the hall.

Hamlet said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Leave me, friends.”

They departed, leaving Hamlet alone.

Hamlet said to himself, “Now is the very witching time — the time when witches appear — of night, when churchyards yawn and Hell itself breathes out contagion upon this world. Now I could catch the contagion and drink hot blood and be tempted to commit murder and do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.

“Be careful, Hamlet!

“Now I will go to my mother. Oh, heart, do not lose your natural feeling of love for your mother. Do not ever let the soul of Nero enter this firm bosom. Nero, Emperor of Rome, committed matricide — he had his own mother put to death.

“Let me be cruel, but not unnatural. I will speak daggers to my mother, but I will not use any daggers. My tongue and soul in this will be hypocrites; let my soul pretend to be more savage than it is, and let my tongue pronounce the words that will make me seem more savage than I am.

“I will rebuke her mightily with words, but I will not put into deeds what I say in words.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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