Changing musical practices in the Shakespearean playhouse, 1620-42

Lucy Munro*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


One of the most famous musical moments in Shakespeare involves an instrument that need not actually be played. In the aftermath of the performance of the ‘Mousetrap’ in Hamlet, the exhilarated prince repeatedly calls for music: Ah ha! - Come, some music! Come, the recorders! For if the king like not the comedy, Why then - belike he likes it not, perdy. Come, some music! (3.2.265-8) Brought the recorders by the visiting actors, he uses one to provoke Rosencranz and Guildenstern, the erstwhile friends who are trying to probe his intentions and sanity: HAMLET. 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, you cannot play upon me. (3.2.318-36) Giving Guildenstern (accurate) instruction in how to use the recorder, Hamlet also exploits the idea that the instrument was easy to learn yet capable of complex expression, drawing an analogy between his companion’s inability to play the recorder and his clumsy attempts to ‘play’ Hamlet himself. As Christopher Wilson observes, ‘If Guildenstern does not know the basics how can he play a difficult piece?' The musical analogy, vividly evoked through the physical presence of the recorder, gives focus and expression to Hamlet’s growing irritation, allowing him briefly to pull intellectual and artistic rank on Guildenstern before the exchange is broken up by the entrance of Polonius.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationShakespeare, Music and Performance
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781316488768
ISBN (Print)9781107139336
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


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