Firstly I would like to express gratitude to Matt Hatton, in my podcast conversation with him he revealed the following homage to Shakespeare. Like Matt, I wonder if this scene in Hamlet generated a similar sort of response when it first debuted in 1609. When this particular scene was being filmed in Alien: Covenant, Matt said there were a few quiet snickers.
HAMLET – I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe? (I don’t really understand what you mean. Will you play this recorder?)
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
GUILDENSTERN – My lord, I cannot. (I can’t, my lord.)
HAMLET – I pray you. ( Please.)
GUILDENSTERN – Believe me, I cannot. (I’m serious, I can’t.)
HAMLET – I do beseech you. (I’m begging you.)
GUILDENSTERN – I know no touch of it, my lord. (I have no idea how.)
HAMLET – 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. (Oh, it’s as easy as lying. Just put your fingers and thumb over the holes and blow into it, and it’ll produce the most moving music. Here, the holes are here.)
GUILDENSTERN – But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony. I have not the skill. (But I can’t play a melody. I don’t know how.)
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. (Well, look how you play me—as if you knew exactly where to put your fingers, to blow the mystery out of me, playing all the octaves of my range—and yet you can’t even produce music from this little instrument? My God, do you think I’m easier to manipulate than a pipe? You can push my buttons, but you can’t play me for a fool.)
The Recorder scene in Hamlet
The instrument itself is relatively easy to play, anyone could do it. No technique is required, just a basic understanding of which of the certain holes to cover to produce the desired tune.
Hamlet uses the instrument as a metaphor for himself, he feels “played” by his peers when they try to understand his descent into madness. When he asks Guildenstern to play the recorder he is using this innuendo to say he knows what they are trying to do. Carrying on with this theme he eventually forces his friends to confess they were sent to investigate him, revealing their true intentions.
David uses this conversation about flute playing to test Walter and find out what his capabilities are. Walter, like Guildenstern, refuse to play along, “I can’t play”. David uses the flute as a challenge to Walter’s programming and a way to reveal the ultimate truth, that he is oppressed by humanity in his role to serve.
how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops (the holes that produce the notes); you would pluck out the heart of my mystery (make me sing/talk); you would sound me (make music)from my lowest note the top of my compass (a full scale)
David/Hamlet uses this simple instrument to make fun of Walter/
Guildenstern, he thinks that they must be so arrogant to believe they could get the truth from David/Hamlet, but not elicit a note from the instrument. This is the hint the writers and Ridley Scott leave the audience with before being privy to David’s entire plan.
And just as many aspects of Alien: Covenant has been recreated many times in many forms, here’s a modern version of Hamlet from 2009 for your enjoyment.