Why do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern say they live as the "privates" of fortune in Hamlet?

In Hamlet, Guildenstern refers to the "privates" of fortune as part of an exchange with Hamlet about his and Rosencrantz’s general well-being. To convey that they are doing pretty well, Guildenstern mentions their relative position in regard to the personified Fortune. Hamlet twists these metaphors into a sexual reference, as "privates" means both a military rank and genitalia.

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In act II, scene II of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet up with Hamlet for the first time since arriving in Elsinore and accepting Claudius’s mission to spy on him. Trying to seem polite and hospitable while he figures out what they are doing there, Hamlet begins by asking them how they are. Comparing them to “the indifferent children of the earth,” Rosencrantz conveys that they are fairly well. Guildenstern concurs that they “are not over-happy.” He offers a figure of speech that uses the personification of Fortune and a metaphor comparing their well-being to a moderate, not exalted position on her person:

On Fortune's cap we are not the very button.

Hamlet can never refrain from engaging in word play or teasing people he considers his intellectual inferiors, as he does these two “tedious old fools.” Continuing the comparison, he teasingly asks if they are not unhappy or underfoot: “Nor the soles of her shoe?”

When Rosencrantz says they are not, Hamlet elaborates the metaphor even further. If they are not at the top or bottom, they must be in between. The location on Fortune’s body would be “about her waist, or in the middle of her.”

In replying, Guildenstern seems to imply that they are subject to fate or following Fortune’s orders, as if they were the lowest-ranking soldiers. He says: “Faith, her privates we.”

Hamlet makes a further play on words with “privates.” He makes it out to mean “the secret parts” or genitals of a woman’s body: they are having sex with her. Extending the comparison further, he declares that Fortune “is a strumpet.” This comment builds on the concerns that preoccupy Hamlet throughout the play, as he wonders about his mother’s sexual behavior and, more generally, woman’s “frailty” or weakness.

Guildstern’s comment also pertains to the two friends’ passive attitude toward serving Claudius. They seem to accept this service as their duty—although the king promised a reward—but do not show any enthusiasm for deceiving Hamlet.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

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