This is going to sound ridiculous, but this post is the direct result of a dream that I had several months ago. Back in the spring – in my real, awake-life – I was able to see Philly’s Wilma Theater’s wonderful production of Hamlet. Shortly after that, I dreamt that I was back in high school – one of those typical “omg I’m back in high school how did that happen?” dreams. (I’m not the only one that has those, right?). Anyway, I was in my AP English class, and we were assigned to write an essay answering the title question: why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern dead? So I’m writing that dream-essay now. (It’s six months late – omg, did I fail??)
For those of you who, like me, haven’t studied Hamlet since high school, or at all, here’s a brief play-by-play:
Spoiler alert: everybody dies. It’s a real downer (“tragedy,” if you will). Prior to Act I, Hamlet’s dad, the King of Denmark, had been murdered by his brother Claudius and his wife, Queen Gertrude (who are sleeping together, by the way, because there’s always adultery in these things). The play opens with the late king’s ghost telling Hamlet to avenge his murder. That’s the gist of the plot: classic vengeance, and its many misadventures. Hamlet also has a bit of a mental breakdown that’s packed with quotable one-liners, probably brought on by all the family drama. Claudius tries to distract Hamlet from the vengeance and simultaneous breakdown by bringing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two of the prince’s old school friends – to the castle. It doesn’t work. One thing leads to another, and Hamlet accidentally kills Claudius’ assistant, his girlfriend Ophelia goes crazy and kills herself, Hamlet talks to a skull, gets into a sword fight, Claudius accidentally kills Gertrude, Hamlet kills Claudius, Hamlet gets killed, Denmark gets taken over by Norway (?!), and a guy runs in to announce that – guess what – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead too.
But read the real thing sometime. It’s great.
All the murder feels a little overdone. Hamlet was a tragedy before it started, and though the bad guys get their due, it reeks of injustice. Couldn’t Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been spared, even just to lower the body count a little bit? Their demise happens off stage, so it’s not like it serves to add an action scene or anything. And it’s literally an afterthought – Hamlet’s already dead, Denmark’s already fallen – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern didn’t die to keep the plot moving or elicit a response. But this is Shakespeare we’re dealing with here – he doesn’t go around killing off characters frivolously.
Very essentially, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead because Hamlet killed them. In Act IV, Claudius tries to send Hamlet off to England with them, along with a letter to the king of England ordering Hamlet to be killed (ah, politics). Hamlet gets his hands on the letter, and rewrites it so that it orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed instead. This feels very unnecessary. All along, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were merely pawns of the brutal King Claudius, and we have no reason to believe that they knew about the order to kill Hamlet. Having them killed did nothing to advance or protect Hamlet’s vengeance-plan. Also, they were all friends. So killing them was not only excessive, but an act of betrayal. This plot is not unlike the one that Claudius and Gertrude hatched upon the rightful king – the fratricide that Hamlet is going to crazy to avenge. Now, Hamlet himself is committing the same kind of violence that caused his madness in the first place. Even our protagonist, the anti-hero we’ve been rooting for, whose aggression had been well-founded and understandable, is too “the quintessence of dust.” Shakespeare, you clever bastard.
By creating this uncomfortable resemblance between Hamlet and Claudius, Shakespeare reinforces one of the play’s most important themes. Several of Hamlet’s quotable-monologues highlight the tension between man’s god-like reason and foul, harmful, second-nature. For a while, it feels like Hamlet is saying these things as an observer: he’s been hurt by people he trusted, and now he knows a painful reality that seems to go unnoticed by everyone else, who have yet to experience it for themselves. But by betraying and unnecessarily killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet goes from observer to perpetrator. Simply understanding that man is “the quintessence of dust” does not exempt Hamlet from becoming that dust himself. What better way to demonstrate man’s inherent darkness than to send your title character into it, and to let it overcome him? Shakespeare, you’ve done it again.
By the way, if this theory is right, then Hamlet is probably the saddest, most tragic story that I’ve encountered so far. Not only does everyone die, and not only does everyone die defeated, but everyone dies as bad, murderous people. There are things worse than death, and dying without virtue is definitely one of them.
[Image: Delacroix. “Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” and “Hamlet and the King Alone,” 19th century.]