Explain the metaphor of the recorder scene. How does Hamlet compare Guildenstern to a recorder in Hamlet?

Hamlet compares himself, not Guildenstern, to a recorder. He tries to get Guildenstern to play a recorder, and when Guildenstern says he can't, Hamlet asks him why on earth he thinks he can play Hamlet as if he is a recorder. Through this metaphor, he is conveying his anger that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think he is such a fool that they can "play" him more easily than a simple instrument.

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Hamlet actually compares himself to a recorder, not Guildenstern. When the players enter with their recorders, Hamlet asks to borrow one, and then presents it to Guildenstern, asking him to play it. When Guildenstern refuses, Hamlet coaxes him, saying sarcastically and pointedly that it is "as easy as lying."

When Guildenstern repeats that he does not have the "skill" to play the recorder, Hamlet's point is made. He accuses Guildenstern of having thought the Prince, Hamlet, more "unworthy" than such a simple instrument as a recorder. He suggests that if Guildenstern knows he is too unskilled to be able to play a recorder, then it is incredibly insulting of him to believe that he could play Hamlet more easily.

Hamlet concludes his speech by telling Guildenstern that, no matter what "instrument" he may believe Hamlet to be, Guildenstern does not actually know all his "stops" (or the things that make him tick) and should not presume that he will be able to play Hamlet. Guildenstern should recognize his deficiencies when it comes to Hamlet if Guildenstern recognizes so easily the fact that he cannot presume to play the recorder, a very simple instrument with which he is not acquainted.

So, Hamlet is comparing himself negatively to a recorder: he is using the very simple instrument to make the point to Guildenstern that he should not assume the Prince to be more easily played than a recorder. If Guildenstern is able to recognize his limitations in one respect, then he should do so as regards Hamlet himself.

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This scene occurs shortly after Hamlet has staged the "Mousetrap" play that reenacts his father's murder. Seeing Claudius's reaction to it, Hamlet is convinced that the ghost's story is true. At this point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to him. They announce his mother wants to see him. Then Rosencrantz mentions that they once were friends and asks,

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

This is the wrong time to be asking Hamlet this question. The confirmation that Claudius murdered his father is fresh in his mind, he feels beset by enemies, and he is working towards a frenzy. The reminder that the two courtiers have been recruited by Claudius to spy on him acts as an irritant.

The performance over, the players are passing by carrying recorders. Hamlet plucks one and wants Guildenstern to play it. When he says he can't, Hamlet compares not Guildenstern, but himself to a recorder. He is angry and, though he addresses Guildenstern, he asks both men why they are treating him as if he is as easy to "play" as a recorder. Hamlet states,

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

Hamlet feels insulted and offended that these two courtiers are so obviously trying to use him as a tool and pump him for information that they can bring back to Claudius. He is warning them that he is not such a fool as they think and that they should treat him more carefully. Unfortunately for them, they can't truly hear what he has to say or the danger he represents to them.

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Hamlet clearly understands that he can't trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after their initial conversation in Act 2.  In that conversation he confronts them directly about whether they were sent for by the king and queen, and eventually they relent and tell the truth that they were, in fact, sent for.  Now that Hamlet knows where their loyalty lies, he will not allow them to use him to 'score points' with King Claudius.  In this scene he literally hands Guildenstern a recordeer -- a simple instrument to play. Guildenstern claims that he can't play it; he doesn't have the skill. Hamlet comes back at him and says

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; there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak.

In these lines he makes the comparison of himself to a recorder.  He tells Guildenstern that if he can't make music come from a simple instrument like a recorder, he certainly won't be able to make music (information) come from Hamlet.  He extends the metaphor with words like "play" -- you can play an instrument, but you can also "play" a person by getting them to do what you want them to do.  The "stops" are the holes that would be covered by fingers to create different notes.  To "pluck" the strings of a guitar would also create notes. To "sound" him from the lowest "note" also suggests musical notes.  Hamlet even taunts him by saying that there is an "excellent voice" (with lots of information) in him, but Guildenstern is not going to be able to make Hamlet speak.  He ends the conversation by saying

Call me what instrument you will (recorder or guitar), though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

Hamlet is making it very clear that is completely onto Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, and that he isn't going to give them anything!

 

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