Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first enter Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act 2. Claudius has tasked them, as Hamlet’s childhood friends, with finding out why he is acting so strangely. Claudius initially manipulates them into reporting back to him by pretending he is worried about Hamlet. Playing the sympathetic father figure, one who is worried about his son/nephew’s well being, is enough to get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on their friend.
It is clear from Act 1 that Horatio is Hamlet’s closest friend. Surely Claudius would not have been able to manipulate him in the way he toys with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The random appearance of friends he has not seen for a long time tips Hamlet off about their purpose. Hamlet acts strangely for them, and they have nothing to report back to Claudius. They try again, and Hamlet calls them “sponges” and warns them he will not be played like an instrument. They don’t seem to understand that by doing the king’s bidding, they are betraying their childhood friendship. In Act 4, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are told to find out where Hamlet has hidden Polonius’s body. Again, Hamlet toys with them, and they fail to secure the answer themselves.
Finally, Claudius’s manipulation takes its cruelest form as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern escort Hamlet to England by boat. They have an official letter from Claudius to deliver with Hamlet, and they seem to believe that Hamlet is being taken to England for his own benefit. Knowing more than they do, Hamlet opens the letter and changes Claudius’s order of execution so that his childhood friends are executed upon their arrival instead of him.
The reader is prepared for Hamlet’s revenge against Claudius at the end of the play. Perhaps, though, the reader is less prepared for Hamlet’s callous arrangement for the execution of his childhood friends. By the end of the play, after suffering his father’s loss, his mother’s hasty remarriage and the death of his love, Ophelia, it seems Hamlet has little tolerance for friends who have failed in their loyalty to him. While they did not know exactly what Claudius was planning, they did not hesitate to do his work for him out of a blind duty to the king, one that outweighed their previous friendship with Hamlet.