Why are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Dead?

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.]

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4 Comments

  1. Have you ever read “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the Tom Stoppard play (or seen the excellent movie adaptation, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Gary Oldman, and Tim Roth)? It explores “Hamlet” inside out, with R & G as the primary characters and the action of Hamlet going on in the background. Because of when and by whom it was written, it’s absurdist and existentialist in nature, but those characteristics go pretty well with Hamlet.

    I think a theme that you don’t explore, above, is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in behaving as pawns of the king, are betraying their friendship with Hamlet, whether they recognize that or not. (They’re so minor in Hamlet that ascribing motive is nearly impossible, but they do seek to ingratiate themselves with the new king and his queen, which Hamlet cannot help but see as betrayal, given his position on how his uncle came to power and his mother’s complicity therein.) He does not receive them as friends, though they had been friends at school and though they may delude themselves that they are there in friendship. Claudius summons them because Hamlet isn’t going along with the program, and he hopes their influence will change that. When it doesn’t, he entrusts them with bringing them to England to be killed. There is no indication from them that they seek to help him avoid that fate. I’ve always understood his escape and substitution of their lives for him as an act of survival more than an act of murder. It was kill or be killed, and because he had embraced pursuit of vengeance/justice as his mission, his course was clear.

    I don’t disagree with you that, in resorting to murder himself (whether of Laertes or Polonius, inadvertently of Ophelia or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern— plenty of guilt to go around) he condemns himself— I think that’s why he struggled so about embarking on vengeance in the first place. But I think their betrayal of his friendship is a necessary precursor to his action that has to be factored in.

    Reply

    1. I hadn’t thought of that – If R & G are letting themselves be used by the king, especially for political gain, then it’s definitely a betrayal of their friendship with Hamlet, which is obviously terrible.

      The angle I took here assumes that R & G don’t realize that they’re being used as pawns. In that case, their imprudence is bad, but not as bad as betraying Hamlet (I don’t think you can betray someone unknowingly. Betrayal is such a grave offense that there has to be some intent behind it). Regardless, I definitely think that Hamlet’s aware that they are being used. There’s something about the way that he talks to Horatio about them in Act V that rubs me the wrong way. It feels kind of…smug, like he’s so far gone in the mess, that it’s no longer about righteous vengeance.

      Reply

      1. ’m not persuaded that “righteous vengeance” exists. And I don’t think Hamlet is either. He weighs the cost to his soul of avenging his father, commits to it, and knows that it will be the undoing of him, physically and spiritually. He gives up all of his hopes and dreams relative to scholarship and Ophelia, knowing that he’s sealing his own fate.

        I agree that betrayal involves intent, and I think they are to whatever degree aware that they are betraying him when they agree to inform on him to the king and to keep the true nature of their visit from Hamlet. I’d concede that there is an inequality of power between them and Claudius, certainly, so there’s a degree to which they are compelled by the king (supporting your “they don’t know they’re pawns” release of their culpability), but there’s also a degree to which they hope to be rewarded, so I’d argue it’s not entirely compulsory. I’d go so far as to say they almost certainly underestimate the degree of their betrayal at first, but they cannot be confused about the degree of betrayal inherent in bringing their dear school chum to be executed.

  2. I’m not persuaded that “righteous vengeance” exists. And I don’t think Hamlet is either. He weighs the cost to his soul of avenging his father, commits to it, and knows that it will be the undoing of him, physically and spiritually. He gives up all of his hopes and dreams relative to scholarship and Ophelia, knowing that he’s sealing his own fate.

    I agree that betrayal involves intent, and I think they are to whatever degree aware that they are betraying him when they agree to inform on him to the king and to keep the true nature of their visit from Hamlet. I’d concede that there is an inequality of power between them and Claudius, certainly, so there’s a degree to which they are compelled by the king (supporting your “they don’t know they’re pawns” release of their culpability), but there’s also a degree to which they hope to be rewarded, so I’d argue it’s not entirely compulsory. I’d go so far as to say they almost certainly underestimate the degree of their betrayal at first, but they cannot be confused about the degree of betrayal inherent in bringing their dear school chum to be executed.

    Reply

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