In Shakespeare's Hamlet, how does Hamlet's harsh treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern indicate a change in his attitude?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act 5, Scene 2, Hamlet tells his friend Horatio about his discovery that Claudius was sending him to his death in England and how he averted it by forging a letter which condemned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death instead. Hamlet's discovery of Claudius' final treachery has given him the resolution he had formerly been lacking to murder Claudius without further procrastination. He tells Horatio:

Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon--
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage--is't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

Horatio prudently reminds him:

It must be shortly known to him from England
What is the issue of the business there.

And Hamlet responds:

It will be short: the interim is mine;
And a man's life's no more than to say 'One.'

A lot has happened since Hamlet forged the letter aboard the ship bound for England. By this time Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must both be dead, and a ship from England must be on its way to Denmark bearing a messenger who will report that their execution has been carried out as it was believed that Claudius had requested. As a matter of fact, an Ambassador arrives that very day, but in the "interim" Hamlet spoke of, Claudius has been killed, along with Laertes, Gertrude, and Hamlet himself. The Ambassador says:

The sight is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late:
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,
To tell him his commandment is fulfill'd,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Where should we have our thanks?

Hamlet's treatment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may seem harsh, but his own life was in extreme peril. Hamlet could certainly not allow the two men to deliver the letter from Claudius, and he must have thought that they had to be silenced immediately upon their arrival in England; otherwise they would report that he was mad, that he had murdered Polonius, and that Claudius was afraid Hamlet intended to murder him. Their strongest accusation against Hamlet, whom they would naturally suspect of forging the letter, would be that he had murdered Polonius. At the very least, the English authorities would detain Hamlet while they sent to Denmark for clarification of the Danish king's wishes. Therefore Hamlet replaced Claudius' letter with what he describes to Horatio as:

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'es 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.

Hamlet does not regret causing the beheading of his former friends.

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
Of mighty opposites.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent for by Claudius in order to spy upon Hamlet. He saw through their friendliness immediately and got them to admit they had been sent for. He no longer feels any affection for them. He believes they got exactly what they deserved.