did Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserve to die? Why or why not?

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Rebecca Owens eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I would argue that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not deserve to die. Yes, they chose to work for Claudius, and yes, they were escorting Hamlet to his own death, but one must consider that they are pawns in Claudius's game. Although they are Hamlet's friends, they are subjects to the king and really have little choice but to do as they are told. Nor do they even know the contents of the letter they carry.

Moreover, Hamlet has, in fact, led them to believe that he is dangerous and unstable. His murder of Polonius confirms his instability, and as subjects, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have to act in what they believe is the best interest of their country. They are completely unaware of Claudius's plan to have Hamlet executed and rather believe that he is going to England to "recover his wits."

So why would Shakespeare have Hamlet send his friends to their deaths when he could have just as easily written a better fate for them in the changeling letter? Good question. I submit that this act is to help set up Hamlet as a foil to Laertes or possibly Claudius—or both. When Claudius and Laertes plot Hamlet's "accidental" death, it is Claudius who convinces Laertes to murder him outside the church (much like the murder of King Hamlet, who died "with all [his] imperfections on [his] head" and was therefore sent to hell).

Yet when Leartes's time comes to poison Hamlet with the envenomed blade, he says it is almost against his conscience, that he feels guilt, even though Hamlet has done him a great wrong. On the other hand, when Hamlet writes the letter ordering the deaths of his friends, he does it without hesitation and seems almost proud of his craftiness when recounting the events to Horatio. He goes so far as to say that their deaths are not on his conscience, to which Horatio exclaims, "Why, what a king is this!" While some might argue that Horatio is pondering the propriety of Claudius, I assert that he is questioning the malicious act of Hamlet, who, knowingly and without remorse, sent two innocent pawns to their deaths, "no shriving time allowed." That's right, no praying or confession allowed. Hamlet sent his friends to hell on purpose, just as Claudius had done to his father and was plotting to do to him.

So, when juxtaposed with Laertes (a noble gentleman) and Claudius (a murderous, "remorseless, kindless villian"), Hamlet seems a bit more like the latter. I think Horatio sees this parallel and, for a brief moment, wonders what kind of ruthless king Hamlet might make. This rather makes one wonder what Fortinbras means when his says that Hamlet would have acted "most royally" had he been king. Perhaps Shakespeare might have intended some hidden dig at the mercenary nature of monarchs—outside of England, of course.

So, it would seem that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die not because they deserve it, but rather to make a point about the potential for evil even in the best of men.

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writergal06 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I believe that they did deserve their deaths. They were supposed to be Hamlet's friends, but were helping the King and Queen spy on Hamlet. Though they characters aren't developed that thoroughly, they seem quite willing to work against Hamlet in order to gain favor with the King and Queen. Even if they didn't know that they were taking Hamlet to his death, they were aware that they were betraying their close friend.

On the other the hand, one could also argue that they didn't deserve their deaths on the basis that they were following orders from the king. They do share their concerns about Hamlet's health, and so it could be argued that they were attempting to act in his best interest.

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frizzyperm | Student

I don't think they deserved execution! They were compelled to report to the king and queen on Hamlet's lunacy. They were sent for and told to keep an eye on him for Hamlet's own good. They believed Hamlet was going nuts and that he needed care and support. They did not reveal anything secretive or dangerous to the King and Queen. They did not 'make love to their employment' as Hamlet claimed. They did not know of the King's plan to murder Hamlet. They believed they were acting in Hamlet's best interests.

R+G were blind pawns that got swept up in a murderous power struggle. Hamlet interpreted the worst motives in their actions with no just cause.

HORATIO: So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't.(60)
HAMLET: Why, man, they did make love to this employment!
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
'tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points(65)
Of mighty opposites.
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