Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

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Extended Character Analysis

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Danish courtiers whom Claudius tasks with spying on Hamlet. They reluctantly agree to do so, with the promised reward for their efforts being a “king’s favor.” Prior to the events of the play, they were good friends with Hamlet, of a similar age and disposition. However, Hamlet quickly discerns their involvement with Claudius and treats them both coldly.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to help Claudius spy, but whether or not they truly betray Hamlet is ambiguous. In Hamlet’s eyes, the mere act of agreeing to report back to Claudius makes them guilty. Their refusal to directly respond to his questions about who sent them also serves to make them seem dishonest. However, they do not reveal to Claudius that Hamlet is aware of his spying, showing that they do hold some degree of loyalty towards their old friend. Their conversation with Hamlet is also full of innuendos and teasing jokes, offering a glimpse into what was once a lively and genuine friendship. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem genuinely shocked by Hamlet’s treatment of them at the end of act III, scene II, in which he is dismissive and impolite. However, rather than recognize the sense of betrayal that Hamlet feels, they instead buy into the narrative of madness that Claudius has spun and thus assume that Hamlet has become dangerously unhinged. In response, they support Claudius’s plan to remove Hamlet from Denmark and agree to escort him to England. It is unclear whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were aware that Claudius’s letter contained orders to have Hamlet executed. However, Hamlet views their possession of the letter as an admission of guilt and mercilessly sends them to their deaths.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s involvement speaks to Hamlet’s increasing isolation within the play. Rosencrantz even tells Hamlet that his unwillingness to trust others is restricting him. However, this comes across as disingenuous in the face of Rosencrantz’s role as a spy. Claudius’s decision to use Hamlet’s former friends against him is wise, because it isolates Hamlet from potential allies and supporters. Whether one reads Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as hapless courtiers who mindlessly obey their king or as ambitious backstabbers who sell out their friend for gold, their betrayal takes a serious toll on Hamlet. Unable to trust them and unaware that pirates will provide a means for him to return to Denmark, he sends them to their deaths rather than risk exposing his own plans. Their deaths are announced with little fanfare, just two more unwitting minions caught up in the complex web of deception surrounding Elsinore. 

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Minor Characters