Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

From Hamlet OnLine
Jump to: navigation, search

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are friends of Hamlet since childhood.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (generally called R & G, for brevity,) are long-time friends of Hamlet, since childhood, as Claudius informs us in Scene 7, when they first appear.

Claudius: ...
   I entreat you both,
   That being of so young days brought up with him,

They've also been Hamlet's schoolmates at the university in Wittenberg, as Hamlet informs us, also in Scene 7, when he speaks to them.

Hamlet: ...
   let me conjure you, by the
   rites of our fellowship,

That's confirmed in Scene 11, the Closet Scene, when Hamlet refers to them as:

Hamlet: ... my two schoolfellows,

The lines are enough to identify R & G as Hamlet's schoolfellows at the University. While they were Hamlet's childhood playmates, they were probably not his schoolmates in grammar school. Hamlet, the son of the King, was almost certainly tutored, and did not attend a grammar school with other students.

R & G have arrived at Elsinore Castle in response to a summons from Claudius and Gertrude, or more likely, vice versa. Gertrude is the one who knows them, since Hamlet's childhood. Claudius was not well acquainted with them, shown by him getting them confused.

It's clear in the dialogue that Gertrude is interested in R & G being good company for Hamlet, but Claudius is interested in what they can find out from Hamlet, to report back to Claudius. One can make an educated guess, since Gertrude is the one who knows them, the idea of sending for R & G was hers, to be company for Hamlet, and Claudius agreed for his own reason. Claudius wouldn't have thought of them, since there's no sign he was ever close enough to Hamlet to be aware of who his friends were.

Gertrude, observing Hamlet's depression, could have thought of summoning R & G at any time since King Hamlet's death, to be company for him, and the joint summons, from Claudius and Gertrude, could have been sent at any time since they were married, which has been at least a month. Thus, there is no reason to think R & G have appeared with impossible speed, as some have supposed in the history of Hamlet commentary.

Claudius's word "moreover," which begins the second line of Scene 7, subtly tells us he has already spoken to R & G in private. In the dialogue, he is following up what he said to them earlier. It's easy enough to identify what he said to them. For one, he would have told them the same thing he said to everyone: Hamlet was continuing to mourn his father past the point when Claudius declared the mourning period over. Claudius cast that as mad, and coming from the King, R & G accept that Hamlet is mad before they even talk to him. It's clear they think Hamlet is mad, when they first approach him, so, Claudius must have told them that.

Then, R & G's conversation with Hamlet tells us Claudius asked them to find out about Hamlet's ambition. For a Prince, ambition can mean only one thing, that he wants to be King. That's why, out of the blue, R & G raise the subject of ambition, with Hamlet. Claudius is worried that Hamlet is so ambitious for the crown, he might try to get it by killing Claudius. Claudius is worried Hamlet is like him in that way. Claudius would not express it to R & G in those terms. Claudius would have phrased it innocuously, telling R & G - again what he told everyone - that he had declared Hamlet his heir for the crown, but he wanted to be certain that suited Hamlet, so he would appreciate it if they'd try to find out if Hamlet had, oh, call it "ambition" to (someday) be King. So, when R & G speak to Hamlet of ambition, they think they are engaged in an innocent pursuit, just asking if it suits Hamlet to be Claudius's heir. It's really a trap set by Claudius against Hamlet, using R & G as his dupes.

R & G's mention of "ambition" to Hamlet is a more serious thing than a modern audience may easily appreciate. One of the accusations against the Earl of Essex, who was executed for treason against Queen Elizabeth I, in 1601, was that he was ambitious. Shakespeare's original audience would not have viewed it as an innocent inquiry, nor does Hamlet. That's why Hamlet "blows smoke" at R & G instead of answering seriously. He recognizes danger for him in the issue of his ambition.

(The doctrine of the divine right of kings was recognized in Shakespeare's day - especially by kings, and those who benefitted from a particular person being king. Thus, ambition against a king was seen as disobedience to God's will, and meant the person was under an evil influence. This point is relevant to Hamlet and the Ghost.)

In the context of Shakespeare's time, with the fate of the Earl of Essex in mind, if Hamlet admitted ambition to R & G, that alone would have been reason for Claudius to arrest and charge Hamlet (based on the testimony of two witnesses.) Although R & G were undoubtedly led by Claudius to believe they're making an innocent inquiry, Hamlet sees the trap Claudius set for him. The inquiry about ambition is part of what makes Hamlet think R & G are not there just to be his friends. It pegs them as agents of Claudius, in Hamlet's eyes. R & G have not thought through what they're doing; they are not bright characters.

So again, although a modern audience may make little of it - since we no longer execute aristocrats for being ambitious - R & G's mention of ambition, in relation to a monarch, would have resonated with Shakespeare's audience, for whom the Essex Rebellion was a major current event. The original audience would have understood Hamlet's evasion of the issue.

(And no, in his replies to R & G, Hamlet is not "pretending to be mad," he is cleverly evading an issue that could get him arrested and executed, and evading a setup by which Claudius hoped to trap him, using R & G as unwitting tools. The notion, as it has been applied to the "ambition" passage and elsewhere, of Hamlet "pretending to be mad," is only a crutch used by incompetent commentators, to somehow get through what they don't understand, and it is a notion which has severely crippled rational exposition of the play. There is no time in the play when Hamlet pretends to be mad. Never. Not even one single time, for only one single line. It does not happen. That is the fact, although you have probably been insistently propagandized to the contrary.)

Still on the "ambition" passage, one aspect that clues Hamlet, is that R & G ought to be supportive of any ambition he has to be King. It could be quite nice for them, to be the long-time friends of the King. It's odd they should speak against it. That goes directly against their own obvious interests. For them to speak against their own most obvious interest is part of what makes it unmistakable for Hamlet that R & G have been employed by Claudius.

R & G are typically viewed as identical, or interchangeable, but they are clearly not, if one attends to the exact dialogue as Shakespeare wrote it. When asked why they are there, Rosencrantz outright lies to Hamlet, but later, Guildenstern tells Hamlet the truth. The difference between a character who outright lies, and one who tells the truth, even if it takes him a while, is stark. Nobody would view such persons as being the same. Also, it's Guildenstern who makes the "privates" joke. While not a particularly clever joke, it establishes Guildenstern as the more fun-loving of the two. Later in the play, G talks more to Hamlet, while R talks more to Claudius. Most tellingly, it's G whom Hamlet draws aside for the "recorder lesson." Hamlet doesn't view them the same, obviously, and therefore, neither should we. Shakespeare may have done characters who are similar, in some ways, but he didn't do cookie cutter characters. R & G do have individuality.

Politically and socially, R & G's only prominence is due to them being in service to the King. They're both gentlemen, and are properly called "sir."

Indications are, R & G may be based on characters in an earlier form of Hamlet in England, since corresponding characters do appear, in much simpler form, in the story of Amleth by Saxo.

  • Costume - They should be overdressed for their actual social status. They should wear hats, with an emblem or ornament displayed on the front (to go along with the "button on the cap" lines as they appear in the First Folio: Scene 7 line 237 and Scene 7 line 238, on Fortune's cap We are not the very button.)


The names are two which can be found historically in Denmark, and in association with Denmark. Various sources are known from which Shakespeare could have learned the names.

The modern name Rosencrantz is based on the spelling "Rosincrance" found in the First Folio. It means "rose crown." The character's name was printed as "Rossencrast" in the First Quarto of Hamlet, and as "Rosencraus" in the Second Quarto.

The Second Quarto form, Rosencraus, is particularly interesting, since it can be understood as "red and cross," which is a verbal description of the Danish flag. (That observation argues against the Second Quarto form being a misprint or misunderstanding in that publication.) The Danish flag is red with a (white) cross on it. "Rose-n-craus" is the ideal name for a person of Denmark, a person under the Danish flag.

Shakespeare, himself, may have changed the name to the Folio form of "Rosincrance" for a reason in connection with the dialogue. My view is that he did. Essentially, he may have wanted the "crown" idea that the "-crantz" part of "Rosencrantz" brings in: the cleric at the graveyard uses the word "crants," in the phrase "virgin crants," which - based on Rosencrantz - can be heard as "virgin crown." That's an attention-getting phrase in the era of Queen Elizabeth I.

The name Guildenstern is based directly on the First Folio "Guildensterne." It means "golden star." The name was spelled "Gilderstone" in the First Quarto, and "Guyldensterne" in the Second Quarto.

The First Quarto form of the name, "Gilderstone," can be understood as "gold rock," i.e. fool's gold. Since fool's gold is a deceptive imitation, not the real thing, the name "Gilderstone" is excellent for a character who is a "fake" friend to Hamlet. However, apparently Shakespeare, himself, preferred the "star" idea that goes with the spellings Guyldensterne/Guildenstern that were printed later. This is not to imply Guildenstern as the star of the play, since he is not, of course. But "star" is a repeated idea in the play, to the point it can be taken as a motif. One can only speculate, but perhaps the author might have preferred the "star" idea, since it links to the play, overall, so he, himself, might have changed it. One cannot know for a fact, but in the variation Gilderstone/Guildenstern we could be seeing Shakespeare considering different possibilities for the name, to connect to the play.


Significant lines spoken by R & G: too many to extract. They have numerous important lines.

Themes and Motifs

Those most directly relevant to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:


BOOKMARK for me - redo this. This is not my latest view of the Motifs.

(redo) It's significant that they are near Hamlet's age, they die trying to do their duty for Claudius, they are Hamlet's former friends, they are not honest with him, Hamlet makes a point of manners with them, money motivates them, they have a secret from Hamlet, at first, which they cannot keep, also they later bear Claudius's secret order to England, and Claudius tries to use them to trap Hamlet on the ambition issue.

(One might add the motifs of dreams and confinement, since those concepts are prominently raised in R & G's initial dialogue with Hamlet. However, it's Hamlet who raises the subject of dreams, and who speaks of Denmark being a prison, with which they disagree.)

On Stage

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear in: Scene 7, Scene 8, Scene 9, Scene 10, Scene 12, Scene 13, and Scene 14.

The Fate of R & G

Had Claudius's scheme to have Hamlet executed in England worked, what was going to happen to R & G when they got back to Denmark? It's a point to ponder. What did Claudius think R & G would see in England?

Claudius phrased his order to the King of England so that Hamlet was to be executed immediately, without even taking time to sharpen the axe, as Hamlet states it to Horatio. R & G would be there, too, and they would see that. (We know for a fact, R & G thought the mission was to collect the tribute, else they would not have kept going without Hamlet.) What would R & G think?

They would think the English had decided, instead of paying the tribute, they were going to war again. As their first act of the renewed war, they had killed Hamlet.

Upon learning they were free to go, R & G would have hurried back to the ship as fast as they could scamper. They would have told the captain to make all sail for Denmark. Upon their return, they would have run to Claudius with the awful news that Denmark was at war with England again.

Claudius would have made sure to debrief them in private. What they told Claudius would not surprise him. Oh, he'd pretend to be surprised, of course. Claudius knew they would be there, with Hamlet, and see that. Claudius would question them on exactly what they saw.

They would tell Claudius, no sooner had the King of England read Claudius's letter, that he ordered Hamlet executed. Hm. Read the letter... kill Hamlet. That is too close for comfort, for Claudius. R & G aren't bright enough to figure it out, but somebody else might, if R & G went around saying that.

Claudius would express his dissatisfaction with what R & G told him. He would tell them, oh, it wasn't that he didn't believe them, but it was such a horrible turn of events, he had the responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation, to be certain. Claudius would order the guards to lock up R & G, and hold them incommunicado, not even letting them talk to the person who brought their food, while he conducted his inquiry.

Then, R & G would not be telling anybody what they saw: read Claudius's letter... kill Hamlet. They would not be saying that to anybody, from deep in a dungeon cell.

Claudius would then "put on a big show" of an investigation, calling anybody he pleased, asking all sorts of questions, for days on end. Nobody could object that he wanted a thorough investigation. Indeed, people would demand it.

After some time, when he had put on enough of a show of investigation, Claudius would announce his conclusion. He would say he had discovered, both from the public testimony and from certain confidential sources he couldn't name, that the story R & G told him was a lie. The truth was that R & G had conspired with some corrupt English officials to steal the tribute money, and then, when Hamlet found out about their criminal intent and tried to stop them, they murdered him.

Claudius would then display the King's order he had already prepared, ordering the immediate execution of the traitorous, murderous, thieving criminals, R & G. They'd barely have time to say "huh?" on their way to the block to be executed.

Everybody would believe it. Corrupt government officers, stealing money - who would not believe it? The next day, everybody in town would be saying, "I told you so," and claiming they could have told Claudius on the first day that's what it would turn out to be.

Then, R & G are never again telling anybody what they saw: read Claudius's order... kill Hamlet. It goes to the grave with them.

Claudius comes up smelling like roses. He gets praise for being bold enough to find the truth, and act on it, even though it was his own people who were responsible. Claudius gets praised for upholding the law, and standing tough for clean, honest government.

Claudius knew he was going to do that when he ordered R & G to pack for the trip to England, to go with Hamlet. That's why Claudius sent R & G along. They were his patsies to take the blame. When they got back, Claudius was going to pin the blame for Hamlet's death on them. Claudius certainly wasn't going to take the blame, himself.

Look at the first part of the Prayer Scene, Scene 10, with this in mind. See how R & G pledge their loyalty to Claudius in the highest terms, even "holy and religious" terms, and all the time, while Claudius looks at them and smiles, he knows he's going to blame them for Hamlet's death, and have them executed when they return.

It is a fantastic irony in the play, that Hamlet's forged order to England only accomplishes what Claudius was intending to do to R & G when they got back to Denmark.

© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan

All rights reserved. See the Copyright page for further information.