Hamlet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's Surprise Reception

William Shakespeare

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's Surprise Reception

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 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.