22.11.2019 in Literature

The Role of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is the main character in William Shakespeare’s perhaps best-known tragedy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both the friends of Hamlet, with whom the Prince meets at the University of Wittenberg. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s power of will is weak, which is why the two are so easily deceived. With regard to this, the two stand opposed to Horatio, another University friend of Hamlet. Overall, the question of what role Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play in the outcome of the story, especially, what would have happened if the two were not in the play, is important and contributes to a better understanding of the play itself.

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The system of characters in Hamlet is intricate. Clearly, Hamlet is the main character. Such characters as Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, and Horatio perform the supporting roles in the play. Hamlet possesses the traits of a hero of an Ancient Greek tragedy. In particular, he is a scholar, a warrior, and a man of noble birth. Ophelia characterized Hamlet in the following way:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!

The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,

Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,

The glass of fashion and the mold of form… 

Furthermore, Hamlet has an abiding faith in God. His capacities as a thinker are unique. Hamlet is constantly hesitating, which proves to be the Prince’s greatest and most tragic flaw. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned by Claudius to find out why the Prince has started to behave so strangely. Claudius is vile and treacherous, plots against Hamlet, and, as a part of this plan, he wants to know about the causes of Hamlet’s odd behavior, which represents the central ethical conflict of the play.


The plot of the play revolves around Hamlet’s personality, which is, in its way, ahead of its time. As the plot of the piece unfolds, the readers have a chance to find out that Hamlet matriculated at Wittenberg, where he had met Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. The University of Wittenberg enjoyed high reputation and popularity in the Elizabethan Britain. Many Shakespeare’s contemporaries studied there, Giordano Bruno being, perhaps, one of the brightest examples in this respect, which reflects the spirit of the University itself. One can view Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as fictionalized versions of once real people. For example, a person named Holger Rosencrantz studied at Wittenberg in the years 1592-95 and later was attached to the Danish embassy in London. A person named Frederick Rosencrantz, born to another Holger Rosencrantz and Karen Gyldenstjerne, entered the Wittenberg University on the fifth day of December in the year 1586. Furthermore, “Gabriel Giildenstern Danus natus in equestri familia” was registered on May 15, 1573. Thus, there is a huge possibility that William Shakespeare could have heard about at least some of those persons in court or even could have met some of them in person. 

As far as the question of what would have happened if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were not in the play is concerned, it is important to point out the following aspects. Speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they reunite in Elsinore, Hamlet tends to reply with what some researchers might refer to as the “philosophical musings”. In this respect, one can view the following dialog as one of the brightest examples of somewhat comic dialogs in the play:

GUILDENSTERN. Happy in that we are not over-happy.

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

HAMLET. Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?

GUILDENSTERN. Faith, her privates we.

HAMLET. In the secret parts of Fortune? O, most true! She is a strumpet.

One can admit that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern change the predominantly gloomy tone of the piece to a merrier one. The above-noted principle is characteristic of Shakespeare as a playwright. “In this respect, perhaps, one of the brightest examples of a similarity of that kind is another tragedy by Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, and one of its major characters, Mercutio.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in turn, are content to hide the real reasons for their presence in Elsinore. Evidently, the two fail in doing so. Suspecting something, Hamlet starts to talk to them in obscure sentences. At this point, taking a detour is necessary. There is a heated discussion on whether or not Prince Hamlet can be regarded as genuinely insane. Apparently, he is not. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be counted among the characters whose function, among the others, is to help to show that Hamlet is sane. Hamlet’s interlocutions with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abounds with quips, banters, understatements, evasions, and innuendos. Hamlet is compatible with that manner of holding a conversation and capable of deciphering all the byplays and covert senses. Furthermore, Hamlet provokes his interlocutors in an attempt either to mislead them or to give them a chance to make a confession. The above-noted premise is evidenced by Hamlet’s assertion that “Denmark’s a prison”. The importance of this particular statement goes unnoticed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What the Prince means by his statement is that he sees the world as a prison, something that prevents people from becoming happy and pursuing a life of peace and quiet. That particular statement made by Hamlet is based on an assumption that “all worldly comforts are transitory”. However, Rosencrantz is inclined to think that Hamlet is a man of great ambitions. Hence, Denmark feels just too small for him. Hamlet’s response to that kind of criticism is best reflected in a line that follows: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”. What Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to do is to switch the speech genres and change the tone of their conversations with Prince Hamlet from sophomorically resilient to a more philosophical one. Evidently, the two fail miserably.  

Hamlet finds out that the plot against his father had taken place. He persists in believing that someone is plotting against him and that his deceitful uncle sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are uncertain whether they should tell Hamlet the truth or not as they reckon that it might have been rather embarrassing to confess that they were summoned and sent for to confirm their friend’s madness. Threatened by Claudius’ vanity and malice, upset because of his friends’ telling lies and thus, their betrayal, Hamlet turns the plots of his enemies against them. 

Hamlet is capable of deducing the real motives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s presence in Denmark. He makes all the necessary arrangements needed to attempt to catch the conscience of Claudius and Gertrude. Hamlet elaborates the counter-plots with an utmost of enthusiasm and propensity. Claudius and his courtiers come up with a plan of having Hamlet executed in England. Hamlet shows no mercy and his uncle’s plot leads to a tragic end of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. One can presume with utter surety that Hamlet might have felt guilty about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s tragic end.

As soon as Hamlet is certain that his friends betrayed him, he sends them to their death so that he could avoid one and take his revenge. Shakespeare introduces the term “disposition” to make all the connections easier for the readers to comprehend. Hamlet claims that the world provokes nothing but the feeling of disgust within him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have bought that. By deceiving his friends, Hamlet pursues the goal of showing his archenemy that he poses no threat as he is sure that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will do their duty and report to Claudius. Largely, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern serve to illustrate the complexity of nature of the protagonist of the play.

Sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death provokes the sense of guilt within Hamlet. Committing an act of violence as such causes Hamlet a great deal of emotional turmoil. Hamlet’s nature is incompatible with any form of violence. For this reason, Hamlet persists in hesitating when deciding upon whether or not he should take his revenge. At some point, Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s deaths put an end to Hamlet’s hesitations. Thus, it is possible to assume that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern function as a catalyst. Particularly, the two help the Prince to make a decision. More importantly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern help to unfold the plot at a more steady yet lively pace.

What one deals with in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the idea of surveillance. Surveillance is believed to have been a commonplace in the Elizabethan England, a socio-cultural and political phenomenon that has started to lose its force. By the end of the fifteenth century, the general paranoia of being watched had turned into disgust. What Hamlet’s contemporaries have encountered and what the playwright has reflected in his work is the omnipresent decay, moral corruption, and “revulsion against intelligencers”. Strangely enough, the reign of Queen Elizabeth I had become one of the most remarkable epochs in the history of British arts and literature, in particular. Overall, it is believed that Hamlet’s references to the Crown’s intelligence tactics, mechanisms of surveillance, and intrigues have been clear to the author’s contemporaries. Therefore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in a way, serve to prove that the playwright’s work is responsive to the challenges of the day and that it is topical and relevant, yet not delimited by reality.

In the middle of the 1960s, the world has seen the stage version of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The piece is an artistic analysis and reflection on the function of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the original work by William Shakespeare. Both the play and the performance won the critics and the audiences’ acclaim. The work of art is considered one of the most vivid illustrations of the theater of absurd trend in drama and performing arts. Furthermore, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead gives an insight into how drama and performing arts have changed across the centuries. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s work position themselves as two persons with their complex nature, virtues, and vices. There is a principal difference between the original work by William Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of it that consists mostly in different conceptions of the world and morale. What both works have in common is the implied message, namely, that violence can never be tolerated.

Even though almost all characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet should be analyzed through the lens of the work’s protagonist, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play an important role in the piece. Both characters represent the class of the courtiers in the first place. In addition to that, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern perform some artistically important functions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern help Shakespeare to create both the comic and dramatic situations while advancing the plot. The effect is achieved mainly at the points where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are associating with Hamlet. Apart from that, the characters being analyzed help the author to develop some of his work’s central themes, specifically themes of duty and the state, loyalty, honor, friendship, and dignity. Hamlet stands opposed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a sense that the protagonist is a more intellectually and mentally agile. The two, in their turn, can be viewed as persons who are more stable and mature emotionally and thus flexible. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern help to reveal the complexity of Hamlet’s nature as the protagonist of the play. With regard to this, intellectual agility, emotional stability, maturity, loyalty, and flexibility are the features peculiar to Horatio, the one who turns out to be Hamlet’s only and true friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s conversations with Hamlet fluctuate between sophomorically resilient and philosophical mindsets, the two being not good at the latter, in particular. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make the play itself more relatable to the playwright’s contemporaries and relevant to the Elizabethan age at the same time. All things considered, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a significant role in the outcome of the story in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were not in the play, the piece would have lost almost all of its comic flavor and many of its humorous moments, quips, banters, understatements, evasions, and innuendos.

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