What happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet?

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet's friends who agree to work for King Claudius but become the unfortunate victims of his wicked plot to kill the prince. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in Denmark, they listen as Claudius elaborates on his concerns for Hamlet's mental stability, and the young men comply with his instructions to discover the cause of their friend's madness. After speaking with his father's ghost, Hamlet does not trust King Claudius and is wary of everyone he speaks to, other than Horatio. Hamlet is suspicious of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and immediately recognizes that they are working for King Claudius, which is why he refuses to reveal his genuine thoughts and continues to behave mad.

After Hamlet kills Polonius in Gertrude's chamber and hides his body, King Claudius instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to travel with Hamlet to England and deliver an important letter to the king. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely unaware that Claudius's letter contains instructions for the King of England to kill Prince Hamlet. During their journey, Hamlet manages to read the letter and discovers Claudius's wicked plot. Hamlet then alters the letter, instructing the King of England to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern upon their arrival. In a strange twist of fate, their ship is attacked by pirates, who end up taking Hamlet back to Denmark while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue their journey to England. In the final scene of the play, English ambassadors arrive and announce that the king has followed Claudius's instructions by killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Overall, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are depicted as incompetent, unfaithful friends, who end up dying once they arrive in England.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet’s friends that King Claudius enlists to observe Hamlet’s behavior. The King sees that Hamlet has been acting oddly, so he turns to these two men whom he believes he can trust to discover the cause of Hamlet’s behavior. He tells them that Hamlet

hath much talk’d of you;
And sure I am two men there are not living
To whom he more adheres.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern quickly agree to help the king and “lay our service freely at your feet, / To be commanded.”

Hamlet, however, is smarter than the king anticipated. When his friends visit, Hamlet questions their motives and does not believe their answers. He refuses to tell them where he hid Polonius’s body, nor does he trust them when they later accompany him to England, as Claudius has commanded for fear of Hamlet’s reprisal.

Claudius gives a letter to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to carry to England. Unbeknownst to them, the letter instructs that Hamlet is to be killed upon his arrival in England. Upon discovering the contents of the letter, Hamlet replaces it with one calling for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed. There is no thought of friendship anymore; Hamlet knows his friends have betrayed him by becoming spies for Claudius.

Ultimately, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed when pirates overtake the ship. Hamlet feels they brought their own destruction. He remarks,

they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are childhood friends of Hamlet. From this perspective, we would expect them to be loyal friends to Hamlet who is going through a difficult time, but instead they are called by Claudius, Hamlet’s wicked uncle, to spy on him. We see this in act two scene two.

Hamlet immediately sees this point, and he distances himself from them. When Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius—who is hiding behind a curtain—Claudius grows more worried, and he tasks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with escorting Hamlet to England. The pretense is that Hamlet could use some time away. Claudius's real purpose is to have Hamlet killed there.

Hamlet knows that something is off and finds the letter speaking of his death and rewrites the letter so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed instead. We actually do not know whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in on the plot of murder.

When Hamlet finds out that they are dead, he says that he does not feel remorse.

They are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are murdered due to an ingenious plot masterminded by Hamlet. King Claudius instructed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s childhood friends, to escort him to England with official orders that Hamlet would be executed there. However, Hamlet discovered the king’s commission while on the ship to England and thus learned what was to be his ultimate fate. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern slept, Hamlet rewrote the letter to say that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not Hamlet, should be executed. It was extremely fortuitous that Hamlet happened to have on his person his late father’s signet, which he used to reseal King Claudius’s letter and make it appear as if it had not been opened. Hamlet returns to Denmark, never making it to England, and explains to his good friend Horatio how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern met their end.

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Hamlet explains to Horatio how he forged a letter to the English king in place of the one Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were delivering from King Claudius. As Hamlet tells Horatio, his forgery contained

An earnest conjuration from the King,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should still her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many such like as's of great charge,
That on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.

So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unknowingly carrying what is known as a "bellerophonic letter." The term comes from Greek mythology. The hero Bellerophon, who was noted for taming the winged horse Pegasus, was asked to deliver a letter which unbeknownst to him contained a request that he be executed. One can imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's surprise when they are taken immediately to the beheading block instead of being greeted with honors as emissaries from the King of Denmark. The two men would not know that the letter was a forgery because they would not see the letter and probably would not know the difference between Claudius' and Hamlet's handwriting anyway. Nevertheless, Hamlet requested

That on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.

This was to prevent the two unfortunate men from telling anyone, including a priest, anything about Hamlet's recent apparently mad behavior, including his murder of Polonius, or Claudius' fears for his own safety. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern probably do not know they are escorting Hamlet to his execution, nor do they know that the letter they are delivering is a forgery. They would probably both die believing that Claudius was having them beheaded for some offense of which they are unaware. If they had more time, they might confer with each other and guess that Hamlet had planted a forged letter in their packet--but Hamlet isn't giving them any time to think or to confer.

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