Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Act 3 Scene 2 – Key Scene

After the players have performed 'The Murder of Gonzago' for the king and queen, Claudius storms off in fury. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been asked to tell Hamlet that the king isn’t happy and to bring him to his mother. Before Hamlet goes to see Gertrude, he confronts his two old friends. He knows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been employed by Claudius and his mother to investigate him and he tells them that he’s not easily manipulated.

You can take a look at an extract from this scene and watch it in performance here. Using these steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look

    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.

    Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty if you deny your grievances to your friend.

    My Lord, what's the matter with you? You’re not helping yourself if you don't tell your friends what is bothering you.

    Sir, I lack advancement.

    What do you think Hamlet means when he says he lacks ‘advancement’? What do you think he expected to happen when his father died?

    How can that be -
    Enter PLAYERS with recorders.
    O, the recorders! Let me see one. Will you play upon this pipe?
    My lord, I cannot.
    I pray you.
    Believe me, I cannot.
    I do beseech you.

    To beg eagerly.

    I know no touch of it, my lord.

    Both Hamlet and his friends are lying to each other in this scene. Look out for all the ways Hamlet tries to tell them he knows they are spying on him. What do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do to try and make Hamlet confide in them?

    It is 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.

    It’s as easy as lying, just put your fingers and thumb over the holes, blow into it and it will produce beautiful music. Look, here are the holes.

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

    I don’t know how to create a nice piece of music, I don’t have the skill for it.

    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 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 fret me you cannot play upon me.

    Well you certainly think you know how to play me! You know where to put your fingers, you blow out the mystery from me, you play all the notes from the highest to the lowest I can make and yet you can’t play excellent music from this little recorder. My God, do you think I’m easier to manipulate than a recorder? You can call me any instrument you like and prod me, but you cannot play me.

    (Text edited for rehearsals by Simon Godwin)
  • Listen

    Read the scene aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out?

  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene in the 2016 production. How do the characters come across in this version?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of Hamlet at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for this scene feel right to you?